Change doesn’t happen in one big bang, it happens over the course of thousands of small moments. If you are leading change at the moment, however big or small, you’ll already know how difficult it can be. It requires hard work, energy, bravery and openness. Understandably, not everyone is going to get there right away. 

Tapping into principles from positive organisational psychology can help. 

Often these aren’t “big bang” breakthroughs, but they help with guiding you and your teams through the small moments. They are subtle nudges to think differently and approach challenges from a new perspective.

Appreciative inquiry, for example, is all about building on what’s already working, rather than what’s broken. It encourages leaders to start from a place of curiosity. Consider some of these assumptions that form the foundation of an appreciative inquiry approach:

  • In every organisation or team, something works.
  • What we pay attention to, and the words we say, become our reality.
  • People are more confident to go into the unknown (the future) when they carry with them something that is known (the past).
  • If we carry parts of the past with us, they should be the very best parts.

Appreciative inquiry usually starts with defining the change with a positive lens. Instead of, “We need to reduce technology inefficiencies”, for example, you might focus on the opportunity: “We need to put in place the right technology to keep us doing great work”. Of course, sometimes change directives come from elsewhere, in response to problems that we might disagree on. 

Regardless of what’s motivating the change, it’s still possible to lead well using appreciative inquiry. Ask yourself and your team: What is already working well? What is the best part of working here?

These questions tap into the discovery stage of the process. They are all about appreciating “what’s good” about work, shifting the focus away from “what’s hard”.

Then allow yourself and your teams to dream. This is the second stage of the process. What would “great” look like for our team when the change process is over? What have been the high points of working together in the past, and what would our future look like if we had more of those?

The next stage is about bringing people back to what’s practical through design. Work collaboratively across the team or organisation to identify what needs to change to create this future state. What are we bringing with us as we go forward? How exactly can we play on people’s strengths to maximise the chance that this will go well? Who has an idea about how to make XX better based on what we’ve learned in the past?

Finally, the delivery stage initiates when the change is underway. This step assumes that people have had time to tap into their own values, understand why the change is needed, and feel empowered to make positive change. 

Naturally, people might still experience wobbles along the way. When these happen, encourage your team members to identify the next steps they can take, instead of being stuck in what’s not working. You might also encourage them to think back to the times in life in general, or in their careers, where they have adapted to change or uncertainty. What helped you to cope? What did you learn? What could you do again, now?

It’s hard to tackle positive leadership in one short article, and we know that it’s even harder to translate knowledge into behaviour. If you want to dive deeper, our team of psychologists facilitate 60- to 90-minute change readiness sessions for teams and leaders – get in touch if you’d like to learn more.

Or, if you want a quick cheat-sheet, here are our top (practical) tips for leading change based on the principles of positive psychology and appreciative inquiry:

  1. Pull on threads of positivity. If your team is stuck in a negative space, be on the alert for any language that might lead to appreciation. For example, if someone says, “I feel like management have lost respect for us and the value we add to the organisation”, you might ask, “Was there a time in the past that you did feel respected and valued?”

Once you’ve identified the conditions that worked in the past, you’ve got a better idea of how to move forward. Equally, if there are moments of positive emotion that arise during the drudgery of the change process, allow them to unfold and try to create more of them. Things like team quizzes or impromptu coffee breaks can be good sources of these.

  1. Look for alternative explanations. When we are living through change and uncertainty, our thinking naturally narrows. We search for explanations that are easy and fit neatly into our schema of “how things are”.

Otherwise known as the fundamental attribution error in psychology, we are more likely to attribute internal causes for other people’s behaviour (“She is a cruel person”) than explore the potential that there are other forces at play (“She is fearful for her job too, and receiving a lot of pressure from her higher-ups”).

Try to notice and challenge this thinking error yourself, and nudge your team to consider alternative explanations too, especially if conversations start to become negatively targeted towards certain people or groups of people.

  1. Lastly, lift others up. Part of looking for the good in change means celebrating the successes along the way (while validating and acknowledging the tricky parts). You might start your team stand-ups with an acknowledgement: “I know the last month has been hard with all of the new projects coming in” and a celebration, “I also want to celebrate that we still managed to hit our targets this quarter, even with everything else going on.”

Share the credit for successes generously, and don’t forget that change is effortful and energy-sapping. Adjust your expectations accordingly and focus on what’s going well, instead of how far you have to go. Remember, what we pay attention to, and the words we say, become our reality. Try to make them positive.