Recently I was acting as a table facilitator at a large Appreciative Inquiry (Ai) event for a housing association. The table I was assigned to was right at the front, near the stage, where an iPod and travel speakers were doing their best to add a bit of uplifting background music – although you could hardly hear them from more than about 10 feet away, so vast was the room.
As people began to drift into the room for the start of the event, the first participant allocated to ‘my’ table came and sat down. When I greeted her and sat next to her, she told me how much she hated background music and how she wished they would switch it off. Interestingly, the seat she had chosen at the previously empty table was the one closest to the sound system – in fact, right next to it.
As it turned out, this lady was starting as she meant to go on. As the day got under way, she lost little time in telling me and the rest of her team around the table how she had seen any number of initiatives like this before, and how she’d lost count of the number of times that management had promised all manner of wonderful things and never carried through on their promises.
The team around the table were obviously used to this, joshing her about how negative she was being: "Oh, you’re really looking forwards to this next bit, aren’t you Sue? We call her ‘our little ray of sunshine’ in the office" they explained to me. For her part, ‘Sue’ (as we’ll call her to preserve her anonymity) took this in good part and appeared to be well-liked by her colleagues.
A younger woman sat next to her initially acted as her companion in half-serious complaining and negativity, projecting (if anything) even more of a cynical edge. But an interesting thing happened as the Ai event moved from the ‘Dream’ stage (where participants imagine what could be if the organisation were to reach its ideal state) to the ‘Design’ stage (where they start to firm up more concrete proposals for how things should be within the organisation).
The younger ‘ray of sunshine’ came up with several good ideas for how her organisation could do things differently, arguing for them forcefully and bringing the table round to support her proposals. When the time came for each table to present their ideas, she jumped up to act as the spokesperson, firing off her ‘provocative propositions’ as if throwing down a gauntlet to the leaders of the organisation. By the end of the Ai process she was interested, engaged and passionately committed to holding the management to account.
So what can we learn from this? Let’s consider the people in an organisation who seem the most ‘negative’, the ones most likely to shoot down any new ideas before they get off the ground, and the ones who seem to actively resist change. Were they always that way? It seems unlikely – they wouldn’t have got through their job interview.
What if they have become that way because they care more about what they are doing than the average person? What if the reason they expect any new initiatives to fail and any management promises to be reneged on is because that, by and large, has been their experience?
The way to start bringing round these people is simple – keep your promises. It will take a while, but eventually the majority will start to engage. If you put yourself in their shoes, and reflect on how from their point of view expecting the worst is a rational response to their experiences at work, you can probably get an idea of how long it might take.
When you consider that once taken on board, beliefs tend to become self-fulfilling prophecies because we unconsciously amplify evidence that supports our beliefs and downplay or ignore evidence that challenges them, it’s no surprise that changing organisational culture is like turning a tanker round. Don’t get discouraged because you don’t get a positive response straight away.
Research by the Gallup Organisation suggests that (as at 2003) about 19% of people in the UK workforce were ‘engaged’ (caring and committed), 60% are showing up to work and going along with things, and a whopping 20% are actively undermining (research quoted at http://lifework.arizona.edu/ea/supv/great_brit.php).
How big would the benefits be if even a proportion of these ‘negative’ people could be persuaded to put their energy into furthering common goals, rather than resisting or complaining about them?
Of course for some people it may be too late. The label of ‘negative person’ or ‘bitcher, moaner and whiner’ can also become self-fulfilling, whether it’s bestowed affectionately by colleagues or judgementally by a boss. If the person chooses to accept the label as part of their identity, it can become a straightjacket, leading them – like the woman who chose the closest seat to the background music she hated – to unconsciously put themselves into situations that will confirm their negativity.
Once someone is in such a mental blind alley, their only way out is to recognise that cynicism isn’t working for them. This is only going to happen if the expectations of their more positive colleagues are borne out over a sustained period of time – as can only happen if their management keep on keeping the promises they make.
Next time: why the cynic may be the most valuable team member when you’re trying to bring about change.