There is a key principle in the organization change methodology, Appreciative Inquiry that posits powerfully, what we focus on grows. So when your organization offers communication skills training, what does the trainer focus on, or what is the trainer asked to focus on? As a big generalization, it's most likely the focus is on the need to fix poor communications across the organization. Or, the lack of communications, or negative communications, or stressful communications that permeate the culture, thereby impacting relationships inside and outside the organization. When that kind of climate infiltrates the organization, productivity is impacted, customer retention and innovation decrease, and creativity and vitality start on a downward spiral.
Existing Paradigm “if it ain't broke don't fix it”
Unfortunately, it's often not until situations get to that low level, when the pain really starts to hurt, that there's a cry for “we need communication skills training.” That pain signals an urgency to “fix what's wrong with a training solution.” Such a response is the classic view of traditional management: “if it ain't broke, don't fix it.” It takes a “burning platform” to initiate any change. I contrast that with my dear grandmother's favorite saying: “a stitch in time saves nine.”
Let me share a few stories to illustrate how communications and more broadly organizational culture is impacted by understanding this Appreciate Inquiry principle of what you focus on grows.
CEO Steps From the Dark into the Light
The CEO of a multimillion dollar, international company was in the office building elevator one day to go down to lunch from his executive suite on level 77. Several floors down three employees stepped into the same elevator all very engaged in a conversation. They paid no attention to him – the CEO – standing in the dark at the back of the elevator. As the elevator door closed with its three new occupants, he quickly became aware, their conversation was a series of complaints and grievances about the company of which he was CEO and founder.
This company had become a global company through a number of recent mergers, and the three employees in the elevator were complaining about impossible workloads, their unavailable bosses, slow systems, volumes of work and unhappy customers. They were focusing on their grievances and airing them in a public place without paying attention to who else might be in the elevator with them, and possibly listening.
When the elevator reached the the ground floor, the CEO stepped out from the dark into the light, expressing concern about their conversation. It was extremely upsetting to him to hear his employees speak this way. He wanted to hear more about their experiences. He asked them to reach out to his assistant and get on his calendar that afternoon.
Growth Mindset or Fixed Mindset
Before I continue, two questions:
- From your own world view, how do you think this story might continue? From your own experience, if this had been you in the elevator and your CEO was standing at the back, how might this story continue in your organization?
- If you were the CEO and you heard your people speak about the organization in this negative way in public, what actions might you have taken?
Here’s what happened. They enter his office a few hours later. He welcomes them to his office and serves tea. He personally serves them tea.
- He prides himself on being a gracious host and a fair person.
- He says how grateful he is to hear their reality – how they're making sense of the current situation
- He listens to their experiences, and acknowledges they are very different from what he hears is going on
- He seeks to understand their perspectives
- He admits shock and agrees he partly owns the problem
- He requests their and everyone’s ownership in finding new ways to address the concerns they raise
- He says he needs them and every member of the organization to co-create the future of the organization that he believes is possible and if everyone works together and communicates openly and honestly, it will happen
Communication Skills Training to Re-focus the Corporate Culture
He acted immediately. The CEO took full responsibility. It was time to re-focus and align the corporate culture. He called in the HR Manager, requesting that communication skills training focusing on professional behaviors be sourced and made mandatory for every member of the organization at every level, from C Suite executives to mail room clerks.
I was fortunate to be hired as the change consultant by the CEO and the HR Manager to design a day long communication skills training focusing on professional behaviors and lead a team of facilitators to deliver the workshops in every department across the entire organization both nationally and internationally.
What was different about this communication skills training from conventional training is that it was designed with the principles of Appreciative Inquiry. This training was a highly interactive, experiential, strategically-focused workshop where the participants interviewed each other about the most positive communication experiences they had experienced in their lives – in this organization or elsewhere (a benchmarking exercise). They identified what good communications and professional behaviors look like, sound like, feel like, smell like. The workshop design focused at first on discovering the best of what exists in the organization already, when communications are at their best, because in the quieter corners of the organization there exists exceptionality and evidence of most effective and helpful communications. By focusing on what works, the employees were able to co-create a new narrative around communications for high performance that came from their own world. They did not fall into the narrative of trying to dissect the causes of poor communications and who's to blame.
It certainly wasn't training where the trainer stands at the front of the room presenting to a deck of slides, talking abstractly and theoretically about communications, contrasting bad and good communications, showing checklists of does and don'ts, and facilitating role plays. There wasn't an “expert” at the front of the room telling them what they should do, who neglected to honor all the positive attributes that existed ready.
Taking Ownership for Implementation
After the employees had discovered best communication experiences through paired interviews, they formed small groups to share all their different stories of communications at their best, thereby identifying collective strengths, best practices and helpful resources. Next, with all this new found data, they used their imaginations to envision their organization in the near future when all their collective strengths, capabilities and assets would be put into practice. They were animated and excited about what they knew to be real and possible. In the final part of the workshop, the participants self-selected into working groups to plan how to implement this vision they had co-created. They came up with specific projects and identified strategies, and goals, resources, timeframes, and resources that would result in improved communications throughout the company. Communication skills training in this participative workshop format is sustained as the working groups continue to meet post workshop to bring the projects to fruition.
What happened in that day long process and was repeated across the entire organization went beyond communication skills training. Designing training with the Appreciative Inquiry approach, you can expect all of the following outcomes in addition to finding solutions for the “presenting problem”:
- Highly engaged participants inspired by their own and their colleagues personal, and professional and organizational stories
- Deepened appreciation of the collective strengths across the organization, with specific examples of golden innovations that already exist, perhaps in quiet unknown corners, or in other departments
- Shared understanding about what more is possible and what success could and should look like in their department or organization
- Seeds of ideas that can develop to become more widely integrated across the organization and with clients and vendors
- A variety of initiatives and projects the participants come up with themselves during the workshop because they want them to happen and will safeguard them because they are invested
- New knowledge networks and relationships
- A work product that spreads the story possibly in multimedia format – video, digital, print – to communicate to those who were not physically present – to customers, vendors in newsletters or on the website
- The potential for a truly transformational change
- By osmosis, training in interviewing skills, listening skills, assertiveness skills, leadership, visioning, strategic planning are all experienced in one “communications skills training” workshop.
- Based on all of the above, a sustained contagion effect that positively reinforces a culture where people can say, “we did it ourselves.”
In a nutshell, this collaborative way of communication skills training enables employees to find resources within themselves to bring to the situation. Furthermore, when they feel supported by others, including coworkers and bosses, it leads to creating a nurturing and inviting environment where they feel safe at work resulting in greater quantity and quality of service. Teamwork is enhanced, communication is improved, as people truly listen to one another and respect each other. They experience moments of care from others. As a result, the focus shifts to more open conversation, where shared values get brought into the open and developing individual and organizational strengths becomes a focus which ultimately moves the organization towards resilience and a more empowered workplace.
One of my areas of specialization to is build custom training programs framed with the Appreciative Inquiry worldview. My book, Appreciative inquiry for Collaborative Solutions, (2010) John Wiley has 21 such workshops.
What you Focus on Grows
I digress briefly to further illustrate this Appreciative Inquiry principle, what you focus on grows with some examples not only at work, but more broadly in life, at home and at play.
Are you aware of what you enjoy focusing on? What are the pleasures and treasures you experience when you invest your full energy – your emotions, your thoughts and actions on activities and with people that matter to you that bring you happiness AND meaning. When you experience these meaningful and totally absorbing activities, you’re in the zone. You’re so engrossed or absorbed that you lose track of time. You are in the flow state that is a luscious state of feeling at one with the activity.
Musicians, writers, photographers, painters, poets and dancers know this experience, as do scientists, inventors, entrepreneurs, athletes, students, and lovers. In fact, we all know it. It’s the great gift of being fully present and in the moment with the activity. It implies you have a degree of competence or a aptitude for the activity and at the same time there’s a degree of challenge that keeps you engaged. Because it it were too easy, you’d be bored and move on to focus on something different. If it were too hard, you'd be stressed out and you'd feel de-energized.
How would it be if we could get into that zone more consciously? Imagine being able to communicate with greater consciousness because you know to focus on what you want Vs what you don't want. What if you could create that sense of heightened and engaged performance in the workplace a high percentage of the time?
Celebrate What's Right
A side story to further illustrate what you focus on grows: Dewitt Jones, a photographer and motivational speaker, formerly with the National Geographic Magazine, created a beautiful video, Celebrate with What’s Right with the World. I use it in my Appreciative Inquiry trainings. The entire video speaks to this topic of what you focus on grows among other fabulous messages. I’d like to highlight two specific stories in Dewitt’s video.
On one particular photo shoot, he bookmarks a scene he wants to come back to to photograph. It’s a wide open field as far as the eye can see of yellow dandelions. They are so densely packed it looks like a yellow blanket. When he finally returns to it a few days later, all the yellow flowers have gone. It now looks like a drab green field of weeds. Dewitt chooses not to focus on the loss of the yellow flowers. He focuses on the new image nature has provided him. His focus turns to transparent “puff balls” that are laid out before him. His vision of the photo he had in mind was gone. Did he get annoyed with the scene, himself or nature? No, he didn’t focus on what went wrong, or what lost or what had gone. He focused on what he now had. Glorious puff balls that when the sun rays shone through them they offered him beautiful images to photograph that he had previously could not not have imagined. He focussed on what was to be celebrated in this new situation, not on what he had lost.
Another memorable scene took place in a tiny Irish village – Dewitt was on assignment to photograph an elderly woman who was a legendary weaver. He was in awe of her craft and her generosity in allowing him to wander around and take as many photos as he wanted on whatever subjects took his fancy. He tells the story that he thought he’d be smart and asked her what she thought about when she was weaving. She looked at him, and, in a very humble way replied: “I don’t think of anything. When I weave, I weave.” Such a beautiful example of being graciously in the moment, in the zone and focusing on what she was best at doing.
The Craving to be Appreciated
Talking about a field of yellow flowers, I am reminded of traveling in Tuscany in Italy and being awestruck by fields of Sunflowers. If you’ve ever gazed across a field of sunflowers, you know how breathtaking it is. You feel like jumping for joy. Their big, bright yellow heads all face the same direction to form a bright yellow blanket of sunny faces. That’s what’s so special about sunflowers, They actually turn their heads to face the sun. They follow the sun from dawn to dusk. They grow in the direction of light and warmth, just as we humans. As sunflowers turn to the sun for light and energy, so too, do we humans grow and light up with great energy in a field of abundant, sunny appreciation and positivity. We literally light up when basked with appreciation. I am reminded of the quote by American Psychologist William James:
The deepest principle in human nature is the craving to be appreciated.
So if we focus on what serves us well and is energizing to us, we flourish. With more positivity in our lives, we are likely to create a life that enables us to flourish rather than languish.
Communication Skills Training
Recently,I had the privilege to work with a very large, global corporation, who wanted to bring greater diversity and inclusion into their workplace culture. To make that a reality, we did some fabulous work to identify what topic would focus the conversations and gather the best stories of diversity and inclusion that were already being lived out in the organization. Through an appreciative inquiry process, we worked out the best topic to focus on was “Freedom to step outside of our comfort zones.” Why? Because what they had already found out from the conversations they’d had during the research, data gathering phase is that when people in the organization were free to be themselves, they felt included and their diversity was accepted and celebrated. So by shining the light and focusing on the best stories of diversity and inclusion enabled acts of diversity and inclusion, which then facilitated greater acts of diversity and inclusion and it began to grow more diversity and inclusion, because, as I mentioned earlier – this Appreciative Inquiry Principle of what you focus on grows states that the topics or subjects we choose to put our attention to, or study, are fateful in the sense that they not only determine what we learn, but they actually create it.
Through our Appreciative Inquiry and positivity lens , we consciously seek out that which we want more of, not less—hence what we focus on are the solutions and outcomes we wish to create. There are many examples of this principle in all walks of life, from raising children, to evaluating employee performance, to attending to health and wellness.
Do we place our attention and energy on the behaviors and outcomes we want in our children, co-workers, and diet and exercise regimes in order to create that which we desire, or do we place our attention on the things we want less of?
When we place sincere effort on the attributes we want to see, and can let go of those that no longer serve or support, we have greater chance of success in achieving our desired outcomes.
Greater Harmony in Relationships
Heres’ another example: If you wanted to reduce conflict in a team, and you invested effort into inquiring about their conflicts, the causes, the situations and how often they arose, the conversation would be all about the conflicts. The team members would be replaying scenes of conflict in their minds. Would you be helping them to move beyond the analysis of their conflict towards envisioning the possibility of building relationships with greater harmony when conflict was absent? Unlikely.
If the focus of the inquiry were to shift to times when the members truly listened to each other, when they were respectful and supportive of each other, when they were present to each other with compassion, their minds would replay very different scenes. They would be reconnecting with times when they were there for each other with interest and care.
So, when you inquire into deficient situations, you learn more about the causes the deficit – in this case causes of “conflict,” and it doesn’t help anyone learn anything about what it’s like when conflict is absent. When you study someone’s conflict, what opportunity do you have to learn about their “respectful, compassionate relationships?”
Similarly, if you studied “fear,” what would you learn about “connection”?
How deeply programmed are we to focus on the problem side of life Vs the developmental side of life? In our workplaces, how do we see our employees and our leaders? It is all embedded in the beliefs we have which are reinforced through our language. The language we use shapes our narrative and therefore our reality.
Let me leave you with a question to ponder: what are you growing in your organization – where is your focus?
I hope I have inspired you with some ideas and strategies about how you can increase greater participation and ownership in your investment in training in your workplace through paying attention to where you focus your attention. The more your focus on what you want to create in the world and what you value, the more you will create it. When we seek to look for the best in ourselves and others, we are likely to find it. Appreciative Inquiry searches for the best in people, their organizations, and the world around them.