It’s time to extinguish negative company cultures

21 May 2018 By Chris Dyer

Reframing problems through ‘appreciative inquiry’ can help any business be more positive, says Chris Dyer

Reacting to serial crises is exhausting and mentally debilitating. You’re always in attack mode, waiting for the next catastrophe. No wonder businesses that operate this way haemorrhage employees. It’s a morale killer.

Putting out fires is, of course, a necessary evil in any enterprise. But focusing on damage control prevents leaders from doing proactive work to meet and exceed company goals, and the accompanying negative mindset permeates an organisation. Once that takes hold, it is very difficult to change, particularly when new blazes keep igniting.

Don’t get caught in this vicious cycle. One strategy can both reduce the incidence of operational flare-ups and prevent a negative spiral. To drown out the bad influences on your company’s valuable culture, put your team on a positivity kick.

It may sound touchy-feely, but how you frame questions and answers can affect outcomes. Consider a day when ‘everything’ seems to go wrong. When you repeat that mantra, more things blow up. A method called appreciative inquiry can help your company escape that trap. It involves viewing problems as opportunities and using a decision-making matrix to lend stability to volatile situations. Instead of flailing for quick fixes to the day’s burning problems, resist the urge to react immediately. Call together a trusted team to strategise, using the ‘4-D’ process associated with appreciative inquiry. Here’s how it works:

  1. Discover. Start by putting your issue in context. Among the contributing factors to discord, something will be working out as planned. To get a clear picture of what’s wrong, first ask your team ‘what’s going right?’
  2. Dream. Forget about what’s on fire. Project the best possible outcome for the scenario, in a perfect world. Brainstorm with your team – the sky’s the limit.
  3. Design. You know what is working well and what your optimal result would be. Lay out how to achieve a happy medium – actions that will satisfy your end goal while addressing the problem at hand.
  4. Deliver. It’s time to act. Instead of improvising, you have a clear method for moving forward. You’ll work to achieve an existing company goal while cancelling out an unwanted consequence. In appreciative inquiry terms, this is called reaching your ‘destiny’.

To begin a new, more constructive cycle, follow up with another round of 4-D questioning. Learn what you did right in addressing the most recent bonfire. Learn from what went wrong in the first place and use it to dream up new and better procedures. Now you’re looking ahead with confidence and enthusiasm, instead of dread.

Keep that positive spin going in your company meetings and employee chats by: 

  • Saying yes more often than no. Even if you can’t grant a request for an employee raise or a change in deadlines, agree to as much as you can. Promise to reconsider a raise after an employee meets a goal, or offer to accept a portion of work a little later than the most crucial part.
  • Improving future projects by asking for input before you begin. Post-project feedback is common but tends to dwell on obstacles. By naming potential roadblocks in advance, you’ll head off full-blown fires and feel good about anticipating the best way to get things done.

Finally, take note of how you talk about difficulties. Discussing how best to succeed instead of lamenting failures is far more constructive to performance and morale. Once focused on the future, your team will work together to help you move past whatever might happen today.

Chris Dyer is the author of The Power of Company Culture

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