People are wired to notice what goes wrong, what could be a threat, and what is missing. It’s what saved us during our evolution, in times of danger and scarcity. Negative comments, events, mistakes, problems and threats stand out. It’s natural, and often also reinforced by our upbringing and training.

Many business schools and managers still focus on solving problems, instead of stimulating and amplifying what is already working well. Of course, sometimes you need to fix that problem and focus all your time, energy, and resources until it’s resolved. But some problems may not fall into that category of being both urgent and crucially important… The wisdom lies in “picking your battles” as they say.

Some problems might go away if you don’t feed them with too much attention. Some issues aren’t important, after all. Some threats could be bypassed with just a little adjustment.

Focus on what is working well: it might double or triple if you feed it with attention and energy. How great would that be for your team, your goals, or organization?

Though it might not feel natural, looking for what is going well can be learned. The effects may be stunning. It’s the basis of Appreciative Inquiry and of Positive Organizational leadership. That’s why we practice it in the Positive Culture Academy.

The first step is to start noticing what is going well, instead of focusing on everything that’s wrong. This can be a source of positive energy, and it might release a lot of positive action to amplify the outcome; the second step. From good to great to “positive deviance” (another word for: amazingly sustainable high performance, coined by Positive Organizational leadership).

  • What is working well in your organization that you’d like to keep and amplify?

Kind and supportive

Let’s review what some participants to this Academy answered. Bill shared: “I did voluntary work at a club over the last two years. We were inspired by serving the greater good and how we grew together, and appreciated how kind, appreciative and supportive we were to each other. We had great autonomy and trust to do what we really wanted. The events we organized got excellent feedback, especially for having Heart.”
Reading this, I’d love to join them!

When Bill focused on what didn’t go well, he said: “People were very busy and this was a voluntary commitment so sometimes things were done very close to our event date. I also could have spent more time on facilitating commitment around how we would work together in the beginning and also debriefed in greater depth after events.” How does that sound? Less energizing, for sure. Would you join them?

Getting things done

Jacqueline’s example: “What goes well and inspires people? Getting work done and making an impact on customers. We know that the data we provide makes a difference. We would be at our very best when we catch failures in data acquisition as quickly as possible and build relationships with data suppliers to get advance notice of changes.” Great focus on what’s working well, and she includes a challenge to further improve.

Even though improving their work needs some more creativity. “The problem is we can’t afford to injure current processes and we have a high work volume with urgent things popping up. Finding the time to look for broader solutions is a struggle.”
Put this way, the challenge doesn’t feel so good anymore. We’re entering a struggle here. That’s not what we would want… If Jacqueline would rephrase it, she might get us onboard to help her. “How could we collaborate to build relationships with data suppliers to get advance notice of changes, and catch failures quickly? Once we have this in place, our high work volume would be no problem because there wouldn’t be urgent things popping up! We’d dazzle everyone with what we’d get done!”

Pride and passion

What is working well in Gabrielle’s workplace is: “Pride and passion about a ‘higher cause’; working and learning from cross-department teams; working on high profile projects; personal contact with the CEO and company owners.” Sounds good! Their work is important, and prestigious.
What could be improved is “taking full responsibility and giving ourselves permission to ‘be empowered’.

Gabrielle is working on this challenge as we speak. She used to hear objections like:
“My boss doesn’t let me”, “Why should I do that, when s/he doesn’t”, “It’s not my responsibility / not on my job description”, “S/he doesn’t have the skills to do that”, and “I don’t have time to do x”. Typical expressions of problem-thinking, and maybe even comfortably hiding behind big hairy obstacles.
Gabrielle’s focus is on their higher cause, what’s working well, and how everyone could contribute to that cause. She provoking people to give it a go, to step up for this reason.


Many things are working well in Alex’ organization. “A CEO who’s very open, with realistic expectations, encouraged transparency. The company actively looks to improve in many areas, it promotes personal growth and expects hard work while also interjecting fun.” Nice example of Work Hard, Play Hard, Learn More!

This is the main focus, even though there are some areas of improvement. Alex diagnoses he would prefer “a higher level of self-awareness among individuals, especially some at the senior management level, and more vulnerable/authentic interactions from all employees. We say we strive for excellence, but personal responsibility for improving self-awareness is not upheld by all.”
It’s great that at least the CEO is open, being the change that he wants to see in this organization. In addition, Alex says: “I will strive to exemplify vulnerability and have candid one-on-one’s with co-workers.” This is a great way to build trust and connection, showing others the speed of trust… This openness fits a “Work Hard, Play Hard, Learn More” company and might work if enough people commit to being authentic at work.

I hope you feel it, too: the energy when you start from what is already working well, and next, see how you could amplify that.

What I also like about this exercise is seeing the uniqueness of both people and organizations. Some are inspired by getting things done, others by the greater good, others by a wonderful CEO. This diversity illustrates some of the values of the current culture, in alignment with the Competing Values Framework of culture. It’s different for each organization.

Unfortunately, Jeanie doesn’t work in a great place. She found it hard to see anything that is working well: “It sounds like many of you are working places where there is asking and real caring for team members! I had a particularly uninspiring week last week, so hearing about other positive experiences reminded me about the times when I have worked in these environments and was able to help shape the positivity in the culture.
My goal for this week is to focus on my own behaviors and interactions to make sure that I am modeling and reinforcing a positive work environment.”
This short-term solution is great. She focuses on what she can do right now: giving what she would like to get: care and attention. In the longer term, she might want to look for another workplace if not enough others are responsive to her positive interactions.

  • How about you? What is working well in your organization that you’d like to keep and amplify?

Do you want to amplify what is working well? Join this Positive Culture Academy. Many people are starting in September, if you want to learn with others! That’s why we have a special, temporary offer. Check it out! The curriculum can be done self-paced as well. Help your team or organization develop its positive potential.

© Marcella Bremer, 2018. All rights reserved.