Three steps to a positive work culture

Or: appreciative organizing when you really mean it

Personally, I love my job. That’s to say, I love a lot of aspects of my job. For me, helping others to learn, improve teams and being able to connect to a lot of great thinkers and practitioners is a lot of fun. However, just as virtually everyone, I do run into some less pleasant work aspects every now and then. Who doesn’t recognize toxic team culture, authoritarian managers and coworkers who don’t do what they’ve promised? Organizational psychology has come up with a wide array of remedies — from the carrot and stick approach to autonomous teams. However, I think that a very important element is not just what we do, but our reasons and beliefs underneath. Do you ask someone else’s opinion because that’s step 5 from your course on Great Leadership creates Tame Followers? Or because you sincerely want to know her opinion?

For me, this is boiled down in an approach you can call Appreciative Organizing. Based on Appreciative Inquiry — an organizational development approach — it gives both a guideline for your attitude and your behavior. With the risk of creating just another three steps to a positive work culture, I’ll describe three steps that can help you create a positive work culture. But, and that’s a promise, it’ll only work when you really mean it.

Step 1 — inquire

First of all: inquire. Everyone is a human being. Everyone is like one of those warning lights in your car. It doesn’t make sense to ignore a flashing red light just because you want to drive on. In the same way, it doesn’t make sense to ignore a team member who’s unmotivated. What can you learn from that person? Listen to others and to yourself. Questions that are really helpful are questions about someone’s expectations, problems, wishes and goals. You don’t need to fix everything immediately, just as you don’t need to agree on everything. Just acknowledge that someone else has an expectation or desire. And you have a different expectation or desire.

Step 2 — appreciate

When you’re listening and inquiring, don’t forget to inquire on what went well. What are the current and past successes? Search for hidden and forgotten gems of success stories, strengths and talents. Perhaps you’ll get inspiration for how to handle a current problem. Or you’ll get a positive feeling — you’ve been able to do good stuff in the past, that’s satisfying.

Even more important: combine appreciation and inquiry to define the desired outcome. Acknowledge what’s wrong, and ask yourself what you want in place of the problem. What does the future, when everything goes right, look like? Find yourself the inspiring point on the horizon.

Step 3 — action-oriented

I’ve seen many teams working through these first two steps. With delight and enthusiasm, teams end the sessions with good spirits, thinking of what might become. However, after a while, everything seems just like it always was. The third step is crucial: action. When you’ve co-designed the desired future, think about the first baby steps others and you can take to move one step closer to that future. See the first step as a first experiment — either it helps you to improve, or you’ll learn what doesn’t work.


All in all, the three steps are three parts of a positive, growth-minded approach on organizations. You don’t need to run them consecutively all the time, just keep them in mind. When you want to have a positive work culture and are interested in your team members: use these steps to guide your behavior.

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