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Positive Design for Corporate Leadership Training

written by Lisa Sansom 7 February 2012

Lisa Sansom, MAPP '10, is the owner of LVS Consulting, an independent consulting firm that helps to build positive organizations. Lisa provide services such as individual and leadership coaching, team facilitation, effective communications training, Appreciative Inquiry and change management consulting. Full Bio.

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I recently gave a series of workshops to a number of supervisors and managers who all work together within the same organization. This was an interesting study for me, as I’d never before delivered the exact same material four days in a row to different audiences.

The Design

The overall topic of the session was leadership, though I had constructed the entire day so it was built on a framework of positive psychology.

The morning started off with an appreciative interview, inviting participants to share moments of excellent leadership. We then moved into a deep dive of their key areas of accountability (as established by the client organization) and discussed what each accountability looks like, what shining examples of each accountability already exist, and who within the organization already excels at delivering each different accountability.

Highly interactive meeting

The afternoon was a series of tools, many of which were modeled on applied positive interventions that helped to establish leadership competencies, such as building relationships and developing other people. The day was highly interactive, energy was positive, and the food was good.

The day was also rife with learning. Each participant worked through several exercises in a participant workbook and crafted a personalized action plan (based on goal-setting theory) to take away and implement, starting the next day. However, the learning was not just for the participants.


Apart from the fact that I need to buy new shoes, here are a few things that I learned as well:

People love positive psychology

After the appreciative interviews, I had several people come up to me and express how much they enjoyed the activity. They had never participated in anything like that before, and it enabled them to share their own good stories, of course, but the greatest boost was from meeting someone else and gaining insight into the hard work that they do in another part of the organization. It not only established a positive relationship, but also created greater organizational insight into how the corporation functions as a positive whole.

People love positive tools

Conducting workplace training sessions, especially when dealing with a topic as abstract as “leadership”, can tend towards the theoretical. Delivering a workshop that was based on concrete actionable items was enormously practical and welcome. Tools included a collection of powerful coaching questions, mind-mapping for solutions (as opposed to root-cause analysis), and the importance of “turning towards,” as described by John Gottman. We also talked about the importance of having a box of tissues in every manager’s office.

People love positive action plans

All too often, people feel inadequate in a leadership role. The burden can feel heavy, and the leader can easily see gaps in his or her own performance – the leader sees the vision and aspirations, and the difference between here and there. Participants were encouraged to build an action plan based on their own strengths. Throughout the day, we talked extensively about what they were already good at, and the action plan was designed to help them build on past success. And then we talked about the design of that action plan, so they can all bring it into the workplace as they are developing others and co-creating employee action plans.

Major Take-away

Positive psychology was not just a lesson in the day; it was the entire framework of the day. For me as the trainer, that also made all the difference. Delivering the same material day in and day out was not exhausting or boring at all. The positive energy and excitement from the participants made each day a brand new adventure. Now I’m just looking for shoes that will positively energize my feet to keep up.

Some resources that were in my mind / back pocket as I designed this program:

David Cooperrider’s work on Appreciative Inquiry:
Cooperrider, D. and Whitney, D. (2004) Appreciative Inquiry: A Positive Revolution in Change. San Francisco: Berrett-Koehler.

Gallup and VIA work on strengths (notably strengths-based leadership from Gallup)
Rath, T. & Conchie, B. (2009). Strengths-Based Leadership. New York: Gallup Press.

Marcial Losada and Barbara Fredrickson’s 3:1 positivity ratio
Fredrickson B. L. & Losada M. F. (2005). Positive affect and the complex dynamics of human flourishing. American Psychologist, 60, 678-686.

John Gottman’s three ways to respond to bids for connection
Gottman, J. & DeClaire, J. (2001). The relationship cure: A 5 step guide to strengthening your marriage, family, and friendships. New York: Three Rivers Press.

Teresa Amabile and Steven Kramer’s “Progress Principle”
Amabile, T. & Kramer, S. (2011). The Progress Principle: Using Small Wins to Ignite Joy, Engagement, and Creativity at Work. Harvard Business Review Press.

Heidi Grant Halvorson’s work on goals that lead to success
Halvorson, H. (2010). Succeed: How We Can Reach Our Goals. New York. Penguin Group.

Laura Whitworth’s “Co-Active Coaching”
Whitworth, L., Kimsey-House, H. & Sandahl, P. (2007). Co-Active Coaching, 2nd Edition: New Skills for Coaching People Toward Success in Work and, Life, 2nd edition. Palo Alto, CA: Davies-Black Publishing.

Energetic meeting courtesy of Nearsoft
Storyteller courtesy of kiddharma
Green circle courtesy of linh.ngân

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oz 7 February 2012 - 1:09 pm

Lisa – could you point me to a controlled study (and peer reviewed) that demonstrates the superiority of AI?

Christine Duvivier 7 February 2012 - 5:35 pm

Lisa, thanks for your article. You clearly designed a great meeting and it’s a great idea to share the general flow with others. Like you, I’ve also found people from diverse cultures respond enthusiastically to the positive approaches when they are the way work is accomplished in the meeting. Congratulations on your successful programs!

Lisa Sansom 8 February 2012 - 10:24 am

Hi Oz – that sounds like a challenge! 🙂 First of all, superiority to what? Second of all, as you know, you couldn’t test AI that way. The studies on AI would have to be about effectiveness (does it work in the real world) as opposed to efficacy (how it works in the lab under ideal circumstances). There are too many variables to control for as a whole approach.

In my mind, and I’ve written about this in other places so apologies if this is a repeat, AI is squarely in the field of Organizational Development, which derives its data from case studies, observation, focus groups, interviews, etc. All very relevant and meaningful, but not the same empirical studies that Positive Psychology holds as the golden standard.

In my MAPP program, there was a course that was almost entirely dedicated to AI, and David Cooperrider was part of the teaching team in my year. It’s a powerful approach, no question. And there is little empirical double-blind randomized golden standard control research to back it up. So does it fit technically into Positive Psychology? Perhaps the research still needs to be done. That doesn’t mean we discount it.

All the best,

Lisa Sansom 8 February 2012 - 10:27 am

Hi Christine and thanks for the support! I’ll actually be sharing more about the day in an upcoming MentorCoach call on Feb 16th. I invite anyone interested to join – just get on the MentorCoach mailing list / website for more information: http://mentorcoach.com/

oz 8 February 2012 - 2:23 pm

Lisa – there are lots of organisational development studies in the research databases – psychological capital springs to mind. AI is definitely under represented.

I have always been intrigued that AI makes it onto the PP map (excuse the bad punn)given the limited literature available on it.

AI is a prime candidate for the Hawthorne effect so it really needs to be tested against other interventions.

I have to disclose a bias here – I work part time in a large organisation. I know of several people who practice AI – and these areas are the poorest performers in the organisation (as measured by metrics) – I personally believe they get caught up in their own spin.

Lisa Sansom 8 February 2012 - 2:28 pm

Hi Oz – I do appreciate your honesty and your bias! Of course, it makes me wonder – are those areas “the poorest performers” because they have AI, or do they have AI because they are “the poorest performers”. Agreed AI needs to be tested and researched further, and it’s going to be hard to ensure that any differences in outcomes are purely attributed to AI. Like anything else in Organizational Development, short-term improvements are easy; long-term positive cultural change is exceedingly difficult and requires great stamina, perseverance and leadership (not always from formal leaders). I’m looking to see how the research catches up and validates (or not) AI. I think we’re on similar pages.
All the best,

Christine Duvivier 8 February 2012 - 2:40 pm

Hi Oz, I’m intrigued by your comment. Could you point me to a link where I might see some of the research you mention? Sounds interesting, thanks.

oz 8 February 2012 - 4:05 pm

christine, email me wayne(at)i-i.com.au and I’ll send you some articles

oz 8 February 2012 - 4:09 pm

Lisa – AI needs a more nuanced perspective like everyting in PP. Rather than a gneral panacea for everything we need to explore the conetxt in which AI works and similarly when it odesn’t work. It doesn’t work for the people I mention because they are prone to a “pollyanna thinking”.

Scott 8 February 2012 - 7:22 pm

Thanks for sharing your “leadership day” with us and your learning moments. The fact that you are willing to bend, break and mold positive psychology to provide useful tools is commendable. Marty encouraged us to utilize the concepts and applications of positive psychology and submit them to the “consumer digest test” that is, does it work for some people and does it affect performance?
Behavioral change is key in our line of work and if there is any way I can help affect behavioral change in leaders I use it in my workshops and keynotes.
Finally, I second your personal lessons from the day. Positive psychology discussions and applications have provided rich dialogue and initial behavioral change in the leadership workshops I’ve facilitated. Hmmm, maybe we can convince our clients that they have to engage us for a long time so we can do a longitudinal study. Meanwhile, nice work.

Lisa Sansom 8 February 2012 - 8:02 pm

Thanks so much Scott – your positive encouragement is very meaningful to me.


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