Cultivating A Positive Culture

This blog article has an accompanying article on positive deviance, and an accompanying case study on culture change


What is a positive culture?

Cameron’s research has revealed three key distinguishing features that define a positive organisational culture. Essentially these are: an interest in learning from success to exceed standard performance; the cultivation of graceful behaviours such as helpfulness, patience, humility, forgiveness; and a bias towards spotting and affirming the good in people and situations.


The nature of culture

Organizational culture is fascinating. It is complex and paradoxical, slippery and intangible and yet highly impactful on organisational behaviour. It acts as a constraint on the possible for organizations. This becomes particularly pertinent when an organization decides it needs to change itself in someway. Organisational culture has a big impact on attempts at change while being highly resistant to change itself.


Changing cultures

Culture is as culture does. It is hard for organisations to step outside their existing culture, to act ‘as if’ they weren’t in their existing world. Attempts to ‘bring in’ or in any other way impose a new culture by diktat or plan or rhetoric is pretty much doomed to failure. New cultures need to be cultivated; they need to be grown from within the organization, which means exploring the variance that already exists within the organization to find that which already exists and is emblematic of the desired new culture. In addition we can create variance.


Growing cultures

When considering this, it is helpful to think of the organization as a complex adaptive system, that is, a living human system. From this perspective the organization is both created by, and constrains, the small daily habitual patterns of interaction and communication of everyone in the organization. These patterns are at the root of consistency (replication) and change (variation). Change these and you change the organization.

The patterns of behaviour are both products, and reinforcers, of our patterns of mind, that is, our habitual way of understanding the world. As we understand the world so we act. Change your mental models or underlying beliefs about the world and you change the action potential. Powerful experiences that can’t be accommodated by our existing world-views are the things that change our mental models. Such experiences can be located in either action mode or thought mode.

Exposing someone to different experiences can work to shift their views, for example sending the production manager out with a salesman to experience customer behaviour and need first hand. In a similar way creating events where people experience each other differently can shift their beliefs about each other as they discover aspects of and qualities in the person to which they had not previously been exposed.

Alternatively the powerful experience can be an internal one, for instance when we are asked a powerful question that causes us to have thoughts, make connections, see things that we haven’t up to now. The experience of being asked a really powerful question is akin to having the world shake on its axis as so many neurons unexpectedly fire off at once in response to the pinpoint accurate stimulus of a good question. Thought and action are interactive and iterative. To affect one is to affect the other. We often talk about the need for behaviour change in organisational change. Then we think in terms of training courses and job descriptions. Both of these are possibly useful. The smallest point of leverage though is to affect people’s understanding of the situation they are in by getting them to think differently by asking them different questions.


Why is culture change so hard to achieve in organizations?

Essentially because it is about social dynamics not formal structures, processes and procedures; these are surface phenomena and as such easy to change. To affect the social dynamics of an organization we need to work at the deeper level of recurring patterns of interaction, relationship and communication. Whole system change methodologies such as Appreciative Inquiry do exactly this.

So, how do we cultivate culture change?

  • Recognize it as a moral act, a judgement call on what is ‘good’ and involve others in making these judgements
  • Focus on patterns of interaction as much if not more than on individuals
  • Ask world-shift questions of people, groups, the organization
  • Identify and build on the positive core of values, strengths, resources, abilities and positive organisational experiences
  • Use a methodology like Appreciative Inquiry to grow it not order it


This blog article has an accompanying article on positive deviance, and an accompanying case study on culture change

More on these and related topics can be found in Sarah’s book Positive Psychology at Work.

See more articles from the Knowledge Warehouse on this topic here.


Appreciating Change Can Help

Appreciating Change is skilled and experienced at supporting leaders in working in this challenging, exciting and productive way with their organizations. Find out more by looking at how we help with Leadership and Culture change.

For further information on these alternative approaches to change, please contact us or phone 07973 782 715