By Robert E. Quinn
In this five-part series, I explore the ways in which positive organizational scholarship’s teachers and practitioners can use empirical examples to make the subject both clear and engaging.
Most senior authority figures tend to be smart. But not all of them are wise. Wisdom often comes with experience, and experiences often change a person’s natural assumptions.
I was recently interviewing a CEO. He was financially focused and hard driving. He told a story of a young employee who made a mistake and lost some money for the company. As I listened to the story, I knew I was talking to a man who had evolved from the normal, narrow worldview to a more effective worldview. Here’s why.
The young man visited the CEO and began to tell his story. The CEO sat quietly, listened to every word, asked if there was anything else. When the young man was clearly finished, the CEO thanked him for the visit, reassured him and then sent him on his way. After telling the story, the CEO asked a question, “Do you think that was my instinctual response?” He said his natural reaction was to become irate and to jump all over someone who makes such a mistake.
Why did he not take the “normal” path?
Over time, this CEO has learned something counterintuitive. If he follows his natural instincts, he gets the short-term reward of exercising his authority and venting his frustrations. And it appears that he has corrected a problem. But in the long run, he reaps a lasting outcome that creates a much bigger problem. He creates a closed culture in which truth will not speak to power. In such a culture, the CEO will eventually be cut off from reality. His employees will fear presenting issues to him, and he will lose touch.
A CEO never has a conversation with one person. The entire organization is continually heeding the signals emanating, not from the words of the CEO, but from his or her behavior, along with that of the other authority figures who model their leadership style after him.
The Power of Conversation
Every conversation is thus a building block of the organizational culture. A conversation with one is a conversation with all. Every time a person with authority holds a conversation, they are orienting people and determining the operating rules of the culture. The organization has a culture of truth. Because this particular CEO wants truth to flow to power, he has learned to overcome his natural inclinations toward expressing his authority. He is creating a culture where truth can indeed speak to power.
In most organizations, that does not happen, and both truth and power decay. In a positive culture, truth speaks to power and power listens and changes. In such an organization the people can more effectively co-create the future.