By Robert E. Quinn
Last week I watched a video of a school principal who turned around a failing school. The next day a colleague told me the story of a navy captain who transformed a troubled ship. The next day someone told me the story of the transformation of a manufacturing plant. Each story was inspiring.
I always think of these transformational stories as rare. They are rare in that most troubled organizations stay troubled. Yet it dawned on me that, in the overall scheme of things, organizations are often transformed. These seemingly rare stories occur with some regularity. While each situation is unique and what the leader does is unique, there are some general patterns that occur in every case. The patterns have to do with vicious cycles, virtuous cycles and with positive expectations.
In her book, Confidence: How Winning Streaks and Losing Streaks Begin and End, Rosabeth Moss Kanter examines vicious and virtuous cycles in sports, business and politics. She makes an important connection between virtuous cycles, vicious cycles and the role of confidence in the process of collective success.
Virtuous cycles and vicious cycles are mirror images. Both success and failure tend to shape perception. Winning creates a generalized, positive bias while failure creates a generalized negative bias. The positive perception of a team or organization tends increase the willingness of people in and around it, to invest in it. Employees increase their commitment, recruits are more attracted, customers are more loyal, and investors more willing. In uncertain situations, the actors in the system get the benefit of the doubt. Since they have been successful, it is assumed that they are now making good decisions. In failing systems, all the opposite tendencies arise, it is assumed that the decisions are bad, and the system spirals downward.
At the heart of these two patterns is the notion of confidence. Confidence is defined as “the positive expectation for favorable outcomes.” When confidence goes up, people expect to win. In the moments of extreme challenge, they are more willing to make the necessary extra effort. Confidence creates positive momentum. It leads to the assumption that conditions are getting better, the expectation of success and the emergence of a self-fulfilling prophecy.
According to Kanter, confidence is at the heart of social life, and it tends to unfold at four levels:
When we ask the first questions, we create positive expectations about our own future. When we ask the second question, we ground those expectations in our own values.
The third question is designed to shift us from a self-focus to an other-focus. As we make this change we create more positive expectations in our relationships. As these relationships improve, the group begins to perform at a higher level, creating positive expectations for the overall system. As the overall system begins to improve, external support will begin to increase.
The fourth question is designed to open us up to feedback and learning. When we are externally open, we are more likely to have insights and to choose creative paths. These new ideas and new actions signal that others should invest in what we are doing. Our creativity increases their confidence.
Transforming an organization means we have to build the confidence of others. This process begins, not by changing others, but by first changing us.
Organizations begin to change when one person “lifts” self to higher positive expectations and then attracts others to higher positive expectations.