Leading Change: The Power of Authentic Dialog

February 8, 2010 / General /

By Robert E. Quinn

I am passionate about helping people acquire the capacity to initiate organizational change.  In teaching executives how to it, I often say, “Now here is a golden sentence.”   A golden sentence is a simple statement, often counter-intuitive, that is packed with value.  One of the interesting things about my golden sentences is that when I first introduce them, the executives just look at me with a blank stare.  They see no obvious value.

One such sentence is this: Making the private public initiates the cultural change process.

This strange sentence is actually based on a larger statement made by Peter Block:  “Allowing the personal to become public is the act of responsibility that initiates cultural change and reforms organizations. Our need for privacy and our fear of the personal are primary reasons why organizational change is more rhetoric than reality. Real change comes from our willingness to own our vulnerability, confess our failures, and acknowledge that many of our stories do not have a happy ending.” [1]

What is profoundly important about this statement is that it means that a leader can change the organization by changing self.  Since everyone can choose to control themselves, since everyone can choose to become more authentic, this statement suggests that we all have a capacity to do what we do not believe we can do.

Most people believe that an organization is changed by rational argument and the application of leverage.  Since organization members resist change, someone must force the change process.  Most people know they do not have enough power to force the process.  They therefore see themselves as victims of organizational inertia.  Macro determines micro.  Even senior executives make these assumptions, and they feel powerless.

This disempowering body of assumptions is widely held.  They are regularly confirmed by normal experience.  When I introduce the above notion it is resisted because it is both incomprehensible and threatening.  Here I would like to explain how it works.  First I will make a brief visit to the scientific literature.  Then I will provide an illustration.


From research I find support for the relationship between authenticity and change.  In the leadership literature we learn that there are different aspects to the self-concepts of followers. Using one strategy over another determines which aspect of the self-concept comes forward.  When the leader is authentic, it is more likely that followers will be shifted from “fearing what they are not capable of doing, to focusing more explicitly on what they already have strengths to accomplish.”  With such an approach, followers are able to create a “more positive possible self.” [2] (I think there is another golden sentence in there, see if you can find one.)

I would extend this a bit.  As authentic dialog emerges, the more positive possible self emerges, not in isolation, but in multiple cases.  When a cluster of positive possible selves emerge, the culture begins to change.  Trust goes up.  The trust loops back on the individuals and authenticity further increases.  A positive cycle emerges. Here is an illustration of how it works.

An Illustration

I was with a group of about eighty executives from different companies.  I reviewed some notions about personal change.

I focused on some findings in the literature on psychological turning points.  The data suggest that in a negative situation a person may eventually learn to master a problem, discover what is really important in their life, gain confidence, learn they can withstand stress, or gain a greater self-understanding.  The subjects often report becoming more confident, gaining higher self-esteem, establishing stronger relationships, getting recognition or achieving better health.[2]  (For a more complete treatment of turning points see the October 15, 2009 entry on this blog.)

As I helped the group explore the notion of turning points, I began to ask questions that required them to look inside.  I recited a short case about a failed entrepreneur and asked questions.  But to answer the questions people had to reveal some of their own deepest feelings.  Because of this, the room grew very quiet.  After a lengthy silence, one man raised his hand.

He spoke of growing up poor, and pointed out that he now is prospering in corporate America.  Yet his fear of poverty never goes away.  Recently a neighbor lost her job and her house.  He watched closely as she went through this trauma.  He was surprised.  Although she was first devastated, she began to move forward.  She redefined herself.  She created new opportunities.  Her growth was impressive.  At this point he paused.  Finally he stated, “You know, watching her has changed me.  My fear of poverty is going away.”

He uttered the last sentence with a sense of awe.  I expressed appreciation and then I shared the “feelings” that were stimulated in me as I listened.  I was careful to make the private public just as he had done.  I then asked the class another probing question.  The dialog began to grow very rich, almost sacred.  People were speaking their deepest truths.  The trust in the room continued to evolve and that made it possible for the people to speak even more openly, to continue to make the private public.   The emerging culture was not only same for the emergence and expression of the best possible self; it was also a culture of optimal learning and discovery.

Here we might pause and think a little more deeply about what happened.

The process began with me building a safer and safer environment while asking more and more challenging questions, questions that called for authenticity.  The man who shared his story stimulated positive emotions.  I was feeling awe, empathy and trust.  I was awed by his courage to be authentic.  I felt empathy because his fear was my fear.  This stranger and I were alike, we could share with one another, we could trust.

As I responded with authenticity, other things began to happen.  My questions, his response and our growing relationship were contagious.  The rest of the people were elevated.   Most felt the same positive emotions I felt and were inspired as I was.   As they shared very concrete, precious and rare accounts, the accounts became collectively owned jewels.  The experiences were now known by all of us.

As I continued to make conceptual points I could tie them to the shared accounts.  This means we began to transcend the normal boundaries between the abstract and the concrete.  We also transcended normal boundaries between self and other.  As normal transactional assumptions fell away, trust climbed further and we were seeing each other as people worthy of honor.  In such a culture we were able to feel, think and do new things.  We were able to change.

Bottom Line

What is the point?  Normally culture constrains individual behavior.  Macro determines micro.  But micro can determine macro.  When people are able to speak with authenticity, their words become unusually powerful and the culture begins to change.  One job of a transformational leader is to learn to bring forth authentic dialog.  This begins as the leader clarifies purpose, increases integrity and becomes more authentic.  Such a person can then weave a web of mutually supporting relationships.  Such a network becomes a network of one purpose and one mind.  It is a network that can transform the very culture that governs the network.

A fundamental ingredient of transformational influence and transformational change is authentic dialog.  To be a positive change agent is to learn to help people make the private, public.  Organizational change is a function of self change.  As we become more authentic versions of ourselves, we become the seeds of the transformational process.

When we come to understand these things, the golden sentence becomes both practical and precious.  The truth is that we all have the capacity to change the system in which we reside.


[1] Block, Peter, “Foreword.”  In Roger Harrison (ed.), A Consultant’s Journey: A Dance of Work and Spirit.  San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 1997.

[2] Avolio, Bruce J., Jakari Griffth, Tara S. Wernsing, and Fred O.Walumbwa, “What is Authentic Leadership Development?   In Oxford Handbook of Positive Psychology at Work.  P. Alex Linley, Susan Harrington, and Nicoloa Garcea (eds), Oxford University Press, New York, 2010.

[3] Wethington, Elaine, “Turning Points as Opportunities for Psychological Growth” In Flourishing: Positive Psychology and the Life Well-lived.  Corey L. M. Keys and Jonathan Haidt (eds.), American Psychological Association, Washington DC, 2003.