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Changing the Questions at Work

written by Margaret Greenberg and Senia Maymin 14 January 2009

Margaret Greenberg and Senia Maymin are the authors of the book Profit From the Positive. Articles written jointly by Margaret and Senia are here.

Margaret Greenberg, MAPP '06, founded The Greenberg Group, an organizational effectiveness consulting practice, in 1997. Margaret specializes in coaching executives and their teams using a strengths-based approach. Full bio. Her solo articles are here.

Senia Maymin, MAPP '06 is an executive coach to entrepreneurs and CEOs. Her PhD is in organizational behavior from the Stanford Graduate School of Business. Full bio. Her solo articles are here, and her articles with Kathryn Britton are here.

Changing the Questions

Since this month’s topic is on change, we thought about how business leaders can change the questions they ask.  Here are some ways business leaders can bring a more positive, strengths-focus to their organization.

“Had we just started with a workshop on strengths, it would have failed miserably. Instead we realized we had to explain what we expected of our managers and then let them decide if they wanted to play this role. Many opted out – they were technical leaders, and managing others just wasn’t in their DNA.”

~ Business Division Leader

Changing the questions

  Changing the questions

Do We Reflect the Questions We See Around Us?

Becoming a strength-based organization isn’t about implementing some program du jour. It’s a way of being – a way of leading. Leaders must first acknowledge and model their own strengths. Only then can a leader truly appreciate and leverage the strengths of others. But why is this so difficult for some of us?

Because many of us view the world through a deficit lens and are constantly asking questions like: What’s missing? What isn’t right? What needs fixing? Some of us spend way more attention and energy on the negative (as opposed to focusing on growth). We are keen at finding fault. Think about this:

  • What do people (or you for that matter) focus on when they get their 360 Feedback Results? They skim over their strengths and obsess over their weaknesses or development opportunities.
  • What do people focus on when they get Employee Survey results? The bottom 10%.
  • What do parents of school-aged children focus on when report cards come home? On the four A’s or the one C?

How Can We Change Our Questions?

“Working hard to manage weaknesses, while sometimes necessary, will only help us prevent failure. It will not help us reach excellence.” ~ Dr. Martin Seligman, the University of Pennsylvania

Becoming a strengths-based organization is a journey of self-exploration. Many of us may already lead from a place of strengths, are reaping the benefits, and want to learn more from the latest research. Great! For others, approaching work with a focus on strengths may be a real stretch.

Here are some questions strength-based organizations focus on daily:

  • How can we capitalize on strengths? Where are people’s natural talents and proclivities?  Where can people get excited about their job AND be most productive?
  • How can we manage around weaknesses? Weaknesses are not ignored, rather they are understood and as best-selling author Marcus Buckingham says “neutralized.”
  • How can we align work with people’s passions? When people are allowed to do what they do best both the employee and the company win!
  • How do we share what’s working? We all talk about sharing “best practices”, but we rarely do it. In strength-based organizations success stories are broadly shared and there are structures, both informal and formal, to do so.
  • How do we recognize accomplishments? Both big and small. Giving rewards for results and outcomes is only natural, and tying strengths-based performance to the bottom line excites the team while building the company.
  • How do we encourage building positive relationships? What Professor Jane Dutton at the University of Michigan calls “high quality connections.” In strength-based organization HOW you do your work is as important as WHAT you do.
  • How can we encourage viewing the future optimistically? Numerous studies link optimism to higher productivity, more personal success, and even better health. Strength-based organizations are hopeful of their future and take actions to ensure that it is. Without an optimistic view there is no hope, no reason to stretch, and no belief that the organization can rally to achieve its vision.

“I Buy Into All This”

Suppose you buy into all this, and you want to start implementing.  As coaches, we have seen a few caveats along the way.  In the comments section, we would love to hear what you would do first.  Suppose you’re ready to move strengths to the forefront of your team at work, and suppose you’re ready to change the questions, what would you do first?  What steps would you take first?

Image by davidniblackAt the same time that you’re moving forward, you might want to keep your eyes open to potential alerts.  We have noticed that when an initiative is activated half-heartedly, employees can see right through that.  The above suggestions are not meant as a fix-it, but as an open way of approaching work situations.

Similarly, you may not want to promise that changing the questions a) means you change EVERYTHING, or that b) you don’t need to continue doing what you have been doing.  Changing the questions you ask doesn’t mean you ignore ways to improve your processes. And focusing on strengths is not carte blanche to ignore performance problems or let a team do whatever they want to do. Rather, the above questions are a change in focus.  You can add these questions and keep the best of what has been working before. Each day there is work to be done: customers to be served, deadlines to be met, work to be processed. As a leader you’re responsible for getting results.


This article is part of the message of the book by the authors:

Greenberg, M. & Maymin, S. (2013). Profit from the Positive: Proven Leadership Strategies to Boost Productivity and Transform Your Business. McGraw Hill.

Road blur courtesy of niBlack
Changing the questions courtesy of the Italian voice

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Todd 15 January 2009 - 11:36 am

I happen to really enjoy this article. Instead of providing definitive answers, instead of coming to some degree of closure about what needs to be done, instead of focusing on a “one size fits all” solution, you raise lots of thought provoking questions and you address the important mantra that sometimes “it depends”.

cool beans.


Senia 15 January 2009 - 11:40 am

Hi Todd,
Thanks so much. That’s how we see it too – what can managers start doing? And life is different for each person and each work team. Thanks, really appreciate your thoughts!

Dave 15 January 2009 - 11:51 am

Margaret and Sienia,
After hearing David Coopenrider present similar concepts and, thinking about my own interactions both up and down the organization, I would start with a group reframing. The difficulties in applying this wonderful lens have been based upon the deficit based view of those coming in, or the presumed biases of stakeholders.

For example, a supervisor with a solution in mind and “decisions made” looking for execution from a stakeholder without the stakeholders input – to solve a problem?

Looking at this through the affirming lens led to a good result, working on making more out of a strength (in this case web content), and making more of it through links in correspondence and reformatting the content in to smaller and more focused chunks.

My current challenge, is to help my staff reframe the “top down” decisions we are being asked to execute in an affirming way. Which can be tough when our perspective appears to be getting marginalized.

Along with reframing, I believe being courageous (brave) enough to step back from the “bleeding edge” to the “leading edge.” In other words focus on execution as much as planning…remember, the tortoise won the race!

Your PPND piece is great – I look forward to reading your book.


Christine Duvivier 15 January 2009 - 12:55 pm

Senia and Margaret,

Great article, thanks! You pose excellent questions– and I agree whole-heartedly with your point that strengths need to come in the context of where we’re going as a business and what we are expecting of ourselves and each other.

These questions offer a great starting point for considering focus and also for understanding inter-related factors (for example, rewards and peformance feedback).

Thanks for the article and congratulations on the book– I can’t wait to read it!

Senia 15 January 2009 - 11:56 pm

Hi Dave!

“My current challenge, is to help my staff reframe the “top down” decisions we are being asked to execute in an affirming way.” What are some of the specific steps you are thinking of taking? I think this’ll be really valuable to hear.

Thank you so much for your detailed comment!

p.s. And yes, “execution is the chariot of genius!”

Senia 15 January 2009 - 11:58 pm

Christine, you know, I think you’re right. The point is that inter-related is the important part! Seriously.

I’ve been reading a bit and thinking a lot about reward and punishment with respect to research lately, and I am extremely interested in which when, and how they inter-relate. Thanks so much for that comment. You’ve been doing that a ton lately, Christine, really showing the depth of PPND articles through the discussions. I can’t even out into words how much I appreciate that – it makes the whole site so much richer.


Jeremy McCarthy 16 January 2009 - 11:04 am

This is so good! I’m pinning this up on the bulletin board in my office. Thanks!

Margaret 18 January 2009 - 5:41 pm

Dave – have you tried “perspective coaching” to help your team reframe those top/down directives?:
1. Ask the team to name (in 1 word) how they CURRENTLY feel about the topic (in this case top/down decisions). They may come up with things like “frustated”, “marginalized”, etc.
2. Ask how this CURRENT PERSPECTIVE is serving them well? They’ll discover for themselves that it doesn’t or only in some small way.
3.Ask them to “try-on” at 2 or 3 OTHER PERSPECTIVES they could hold that are more positive. If they cannot come up with any, that means they’re really stuck so they’ll need your help. You could suggest things like: What would your Future Self perspective be — you, 20 years from now? Or, what would the Good Student perspective be? Have some fun with it. Sometimes you can get a team unstuck by suggesting some funny perspectives and having them attach their own meaning to it (I’ll never forget suggesting to a team that they try on the Mr. Potato Head perspective. At first they looked at me as if I was crazy, but then one guy said that would mean we were really adapatable).
4. Ask them to pick 1 perspective (or combination of perspectives) other than their CURRENT, to hold for just the next week or so. Notice what happens.

Margaret 18 January 2009 - 5:55 pm

Todd, thank you for your feedback! You’re right, when it comes to running a business (or your life for that matter) “it depends” is a good mantra. What positive questions have you found helpful?

Margaret 18 January 2009 - 5:58 pm

Christine – thank you for your thoughtful comments! I know you consult with many large businesses. I’m curious what other questions you have found helpful to move your clients to a more positive, strength-based focus?

Margaret 18 January 2009 - 6:00 pm

Jeremy – now that’s a testimonial! Thank you! As you attend or hold meetings yourself this next week, just notice the balance of positive to negative or neutral questions. See if you can shift the balance to more positive. Cheers!


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