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Strengths-Based Management for Transforming the Workplace Published: Wednesday, January 23, 2013 8:30 am By: Ramón L. Rivera, President & CEO

What do those managers who bring out the best in others do that makes them so successful at engaging people? These managers do a lot less problem-solving than traditional ones.  They rely on the people doing the work to solve problems.  Instead of focusing on problems, they focus on solutions and new possibilities.  They are continually looking for instances where things are going right; where quality is increasing, where customers are being satisfied, where internal processes are being managed seamlessly and where wealth is being created.  They get clear about where things are working well and when they find it, they seek to understand the "root causes" of such victories to amplify them and transfer the lessons learned to other parts of the organization.

 Those managers work at increasing what is already working well.  Instead of trying to compensate for weakness, they build on strength.  Instead of criticizing and punishing people for their failures, they praise and reward people for their successes.  Instead of worrying about what to do with the processes or people that aren't working well, taking what is working well (and the bulk of the workforce) for granted, they wonder about what to do with the processes and people that are working well. By managing people through appreciative processes, they use less energy to have a much greater, positive impact on people's motivation and organizational performance.

 In traditional organizations many managers see themselves as "problem-solvers".  Real authority to act on problems rests in the hands of the few, while the many are there to gather information, make suggestions and execute the "solutions" arrived at by the few.  The best problem-solvers are promoted up the hierarchy and in many organizations "management" is synonymous with "problem-solving". There are a number of deficiencies with the "manager as problem-solver" model that is contributing to the demise of command and control forms of organizing.

Traditional approaches to change management utilize a problem-solving approach to change, focusing on defining problems, setting targets, planning strategies and overcoming roadblocks.  While such processes are obviously useful and important, they have a number of unappealing consequences: People spend most of their time focusing on what is not working well. Data collection consists of having people discuss, and often display to others, their failings. They can only do this for so long without becoming demoralized and resigned to a problem filled workplace. 

This is only experienced as useful when there is hope that doing so will lead to improvement. After a number of experiences where little was done to improve the situation, people become naturally less enthusiastic with "sharing" their problems and concerns.  It becomes more difficult to get accurate information. Addressing problems, setting targets and working to accomplish them creates a culture of problem-centered improvement.  The only time people search for improvements is when a problem is defined.  This makes development of a culture of continuous improvement very difficult.

By appealing to this traditional approach organizations make sub-optimal use of their biggest operating expense, their payroll. The separation of problem-solvers from solution implementers creates resistance to implementation from those who have had no say in the "solutions". Another is that the "problem solvers" tend to be a few steps removed from the actual problems they are solving. Finally the separation of those who report problems and then execute solutions from those who actually solve the problems considerably slows down processes of adaptation and innovation.

Those are some of the many reasons that new, "empowered" organizations are being created.  These organizations flatten the hierarchy precisely so that solving problems and making decisions are close to where the problems are.  In theory, everyone is a problem-solver and local adaptations to local problems occur rapidly.  In practice, however, these new organizational designs are still often managed with traditional leadership styles so the results are far below what they are when people are using the skills of appreciative management.

On the other hand, the appreciative manager chooses to pay attention to things he/she values, cares about, is happy with and wants more of.  This means, first of all, being clear about what you want more of.  Sometimes that is easy and sometimes it isn't.  People often begin by knowing what they want less of, especially from other people. "I want her to stop gossiping", "I want him to stop making errors", I want them to stop complaining".  OK, but what do you want more of? Appreciative processes are used to amplify things, to create social reality by increasing the amount or frequency of something you want more of.

 Appreciative managers take a different perspective to driving change. They use appreciative change processes. Instead of trying to fix what's broken, appreciative process improves systems by amplifying what is working.  Appreciative change processes engage the people who need to be part of improving the organization in identifying the best of what they do, celebrating and learning from it, working with people's intrinsic motivation to be competent, do their best and be successful.

For it to be a truly appreciative mind-set, you need to be calling to something that touches people's imagination, their aspirations and spirit. Opportunities to excel, make a difference, grow and develop, achieve our potential, be the best, live in community, make a better world, fulfill our dreams, gain new hope, surpass expectations, be a winner, enable the children, ennoble our spirit, be a part of a dynamic and caring team, be in real partnership with others, make a valued contribution; these are the kinds of things that an appreciative manager pays attention to.

Learning to develop an appreciative mind-set and see the opportunities for using appreciative processes requires letting go of a life-time of looking for problems, seeing what's missing and paying attention to the gap.  We are all heirs to a deficit mind-set; it is part of current western culture.  To make this change requires time, effort and coaching.  And it requires a collective effort to redefine the leadership culture of the organization toward a more appreciative stance - a culture where you build on strength, celebrate success and leverage what you already do well to create a culture that supports learning and performing at the highest levels.


Copyright 2013, QBS Inc.

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