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Managing Positive Change

written by Amanda Horne 3 May 2011
Oxford Handbook of Pos Psych and Work

Amanda Horne is an executive coach and facilitator whose business theme is "Thriving People and Workplaces." She is an Authentic Happiness Coaching graduate and a founding member of Positive Workplace International. Full bio.

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Leaders and managers often face the task of implementing organizational change, a complex process which is frequently experienced as difficult to get right and which requires sophisticated and flexible management styles. What insights can leaders gain from Positive Psychology and Appreciative Inquiry to help them lead successful change? This question is addressed in two chapters in the Oxford Handbook of Positive Psychology and Work edited by Alex Linley, Susan Harrington, and Nicola Garcea:

Oxford Handbook of Pos Psych and Work

  • Chapter 6: “Change and Its Leadership: The Role of Positive Emotions” by Malcolm Higgs
  • Chapter 7: “Working Positively Toward Transformative Cooperation” by Leslie Sekerka and Barbara Fredrickson.

These chapters reinforce the idea that leaders can influence the environment in which transformation efforts can succeed. Below are some of the key points from these chapters.

Change Doesn’t Have to be Viewed as a Problem

“Managers are trained to view change as a problem which can be analyzed and solved in a linear or sequential manner.” (Higgs)
“Scientific management-based programs….which tend to employ functional and structural solutions… are unlikely to improve organizational performance over time. In part this is because they are not intended to be transformational, but are reactions to dysfunction.” (Serkera & Fredrickson)

In these quotations, the authors refer to the complexity of change and the limitations of linear processes. However, their main focus is on how leaders influence their own and others’ orientations towards a change initiative. Are they solving a problem, or are they creating transformation? Are they creating fear or enthusiasm? The leader’s mindset is critical.

One View: Resistors are Bad People

For example, leaders might perceive that people are the problem, and resistors to change are bad people to be coerced. Another example is the use of the famous burning platform image popularized by John Kotter. Leaders can also deplete energy by engaging in conversations about change which rest too much on the organization’s limitations, focusing on what’s wrong with its people, systems, and processes. This can lead to a collective sense of “We are not good enough.” Overall, more negativity can be created than is needed to generate the positive energy required for sustained change.

A Shift in Perspective

In helping leaders to create an alternative context and mindset, both chapters suggest that a shift in perspective can be achieved by:

  1. Understanding Fredrickson’s Broaden and Build theory of positive emotions and how a climate of positivity (a ratio of considerably more positive than negative) can be the foundation for sustainable organizational change. The benefits of positive emotions include: creativity, connectivity, resilience, cooperation, collaborative inquiry, enthusiasm, energy, meaning, appreciation, psychological health, growth, flexibility, respectfulness, empathy, motivation, willingness, openness, less fear, less narrowed thinking.

    “Positive emotions coupled with collaborative values can help an organization thrive, in that its members are motivated to create new organizational forms.” (Serkerka and Fredrickson).

  2. Shifting the emphasis so there is a greater understanding of the individual and organizational strengths, in addition to an understanding of the key problems. Analyze what is being done well and how to leverage this for future change.
  3. Imagine Create

    Seeing the change as an opportunity to energize people so they feel they are a part of the change, rather than feeling they are the subjects of the change.
  4. Expecting that when people are energized and enthusiastic, the behaviors required in the post-change context will emerge and can be learned.
  5. Having a mindset that change is not bad. Change is natural, is part of organizational growth, and offers new potential.
  6. Incorporating Appreciative Inquiry as a way to “find elements in the organizational system which are well and find ways to deploy these strengths in a way which supports the goals of the change,” according to Higgs.

“If transformative cooperation is desired, the power to create deep and sustainable change resides in the emotional dimension of the workplace enterprise.” (Sekerka and Fredrickson)

Doing Change To or With People?

In his chapter, Higgs refers to research which he and colleague undertook in 2005 to 2008. In successful change programs they found that change leaders set the tone and overall direction, yet they allowed people to become responsible for the change and to adjust the plan as the implementation unfolded. That is, leaders were doing change with people, not to people. Analysis revealed that these leaders had four change leadership behaviors:

  1. Attractor behaviors: connecting, tuning in, building the story, seeing patterns, serving the higher purpose, self awareness, sense-making.
  2. Edge and tension behaviors: establishing reality, constancy, and persistence, challenging assumptions, creating discomfort, setting a high bar.
  3. Container behaviors: setting boundaries, expectations, and values, expressing confidence, affirming, encouraging, showing empathy, creating trust and ownership, making it safe to have hard conversations and to take risks, creating alignment at the top.
  4. Movement behaviors: creating systems of possibility, learning, and difference, supporting creativity, freedom to be open and vulnerable, freedom to break established patterns, and powerful inquiry.

Creating tomorrow today

Higgs points out that these four change leadership behaviors are supported by the use of Positive Psychology and Appreciative Inquiry, for example, by collaborative, appreciative inquiry into what is working well, by an understanding of the Broaden and Build Theory of positive emotions, by a focus on strengths together with a balancing use of rules, by creating challenging goals, and by having hard conversations.

A more integrated approach

Draw Upon Inner Strength

The information above by no means provides the silver bullet for successful change. However it does provide change leaders with questions for productive reflection:

  • Are they creating climates in which there is energy and enthusiasm for the change?
  • Do they tend towards the fear and deficit mindset that can underpin some change programs?
  • How can they bring strengths-based and deficit-based theories together to create a more balance approach?
  • What are the foundations they can create and on which they to build their change and transformation programs?




Higgs, M. (2010). Change and Its Leadership: The Role of Positive Emotions. In P. A. Linley, S. Harrington, & N. Garcea (Eds.), Handbook of positive psychology and work, (pp. 67-80). Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press.

Sekerka, L. & Fredrickson, B.L. (2010). Working Positively Toward Transformative Cooperation. In P. A. Linley, S. Harrington, & N. Garcea (Eds.), Handbook of positive psychology and work (pp. 81-94). Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press.

Harvard Management Update (2008). Leading change without a burning platform.

Kotter, J. (1996). Leading Change. Harvard Business School Press.

Photos by Amanda Horne and Alice Tay

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Margaret Greenberg 3 May 2011 - 12:39 pm

Amanda,thank you for translating these chapters into practical tips for business leaders (I’ve already passed it along to one of my clients), and for highlighting a more empowering way to view organizational change. Your practical experience shines through in your writing.

Amanda Horne 5 May 2011 - 1:12 am

Hi Margaret – thank you! Do share any practical insights your client might have. It’s helpful to compare clients’ insights with the research.

amanda 7 May 2011 - 8:33 am

Thanks Amanda, A WONDERFUL just in time piece for a client of mine 🙂 and so eloquently and elegantly put! Well done. A


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