In Appreciative Inquiry Mark Lau Branson says health and dysfunction live side-by-side in every system. We want health to prevail, but it doesn’t always. Sometimes negative attitudes and behaviors overwhelm the positive, and a spirit of doubt, suspicion, and anger prevails.
Branson says it is possible for a church to get back on a more positive course, and how it is done has to do with how an organization perceives itself. It’s self-perception is it’s sense of how things are and how they are supposed to be, it’s reality. Branson mentions ten factors that influence how the members of a system create it’s sense of reality. I’ll discuss three here.
One, what we focus on becomes our reality. The standard approach to solving difficulties and to promoting growth and change in most systems is problem solving. The trouble with this approach is we focus on problems. We identify them, study them, and contemplate solutions for them. During all this time we are focusing on the problems, granting them our time and energies and thus, by default, making them the object of our focus.
This can be seen in someone in a system (business, church or family) becoming unhappy with the leadership or an activity. They talk to other members of the system about it, making it an issue for them. News of the dissatisfaction spreads through the system, eventually reaching the leadership. Management meets to discuss the dissatisfaction and related problems issuing from the original one, namely, gossip and its negative consequences, spreading discontent, loss of respect for leadership, and the rising popularity of the one who started the whole process. The focus of the entire company is now concentrated on the problem and “problem” personality, elevating the dysfunction of the organization to the level of reality.
The second factor is related to the first one: our language becomes our reality. Our words and speech express what we are focusing on. If our focus is on problems, our speech will give expression to our thoughts. Without intending to, without even being aware of the dynamic, our language continues to feed the perception that the overriding issue in our system is burgeoning problems. And problems continue to compound.
Leadership now feels the pressure of member dissatisfaction and growing negativism in the system. Meetings are characterized by stress over the problems and the press of needing to find solutions. Anxiety overwhelms everyone present. Without a doubt, the focus and language of this group is creating their sense of reality: problems.
Another factor is that organizations are heliotropic. Heliotropic is a botanical term referring to a plant’s inclination to grow toward the sun, it’s energy source. People in groups are the same way. They gravitate toward whoever or whatever produces heat or energy. A disgruntled member of the system who is actively promoting discontent is a definite source of energy. It doesn’t matter if the energy he is producing is negative, unproductive, unethical or even wrong. The fact that he is generating heat means he is going to get attention, and his behavior will help shape the sense of reality for the organization. Everyone, both those in his corner and those who oppose his opinions and behavior, can all become consumed by the negativism of this person.
By the time leadership can begin to address the initial complaint, a pessimistic undercurrent has permeated the whole group. Suspicions soar. Everyone becomes judgmental and edgy. Small groups develop in opposition to each other. Workers are discouraged. This is not a healthy environment. But it is the reality.
A biblical example of this problem occurring in the spiritual community can be seen in the wilderness wanderings of Israel, where complaints against God’s provisions and Mosaic leadership resulted in the rebellion led by Korah, Dothan and Abiram. By the time the festering wound of complaint became public, these men led a contingent of 250 people against Moses. (Numbers 16).
The same factors that produce a toxic atmosphere in a family, church or business where members are unhappy and critical can also produce a healthy environment. The leaders cannot allow the current negative spirit to determine the organizational reality. They must rise above the current spirit, envision something more beneficial, and use focus and language positively, allowing these heliotropic factors to produce the new sense of reality they desire.
First, the leaders must refocus the attention of the members from the negative to the positive, from dysfunction to health. This can often be accomplished by using a system called “Appreciative Inquiry,” that is, a series of questions leaders ask of members that draws out their image of when and how the organization was operating at its best. “What are your best memories of this organization? Who was involved? What did we do? How did we do it? What were the feelings and the emotions of everyone involved? Just the asking of the questions may be enough to alter the focus of the people from the negative to the positive and cause them to start imagining a more congenial working environment again.
Next, the language of the leadership must reflect the positive focus they are trying to instill. To dream of a more positive environment but continuing to use defeating speech (talking about all the things that are wrong) is counterproductive. Leaders must speak of the desired outcome as if it is a current reality.
If leaders of a church ask members about a time they remember the body functioning well, and they hear talk about mission emphasis and youth devotionals encouraging faith, they might do well to think about reviving these activities. Members who recall these past functions might even be involved in the planning and reorganizing of them. The organizational stage will be a time for continued positive recall and discussion, allowing language to continue the healthy focus. Newer and younger members also involved in the planning will ‘catch’ the rebirth of the positive feelings. Announcements can continue to use language to promote a healthy atmosphere.
The combination of focus and language will hopefully (prayerfully!) promote a heliotropic response, with people leaning toward the source of energy. If the negative energy (grumbling, complaining, criticism) is replaced with something healthier (positive recall, working together toward a common goal, wider member participation and planning), members will be drawn toward that energy, and will get caught up in that spirit.
Jesus used such focus and language to create the reality he desired for his followers. “You are the salt of the earth. You are the light of the world. (You are) a city on a hill. Let your light shine before men” (Matthew 5:13-16). Such powerful metaphors redirected the theological and social expectations of fishermen, tax collectors and other ordinary men to envision and actually produce a spiritual revolution. The power source they produced by their commitment to Jesus and submission to the Holy Spirit shook the earth with new hope, possibility and reality, the aftershock of which is still felt today in all of us who confess, “Jesus is Lord.”