Digest: Positive Organizations 

An Interview with Robert E. Quinn, Ph.D. and Deborah Connors, BSC, MPE

What does a positive organization look like?

* A positive organization is driven by a higher purpose.

* The primary role of the leader is to become a better leader by finding purpose not to solve transitory problems.

* Organizational like individual purpose must be discovered and rediscovered as it continuously evolves in a healthy organization.

* Authenticity is the essential creation of the fundamental state of leadership.

* Higher purpose is the constant adviser of the positive organization as it evolves.

* A positive organization continuously stimulates learning.

* The leaders of positive organizations continuously encourage middle managers to join them in entering the fundamental state of leadership.

* The alternative to becoming a positive organization is mediocrity and slow death.

What is the Center for Positive Organizations and Positive Organizational Scholarship?

Since 2002 the Center for Positive Organizations based at the Ross School of Business, University of Michigan has been the hub of research on Positive Organizational Scholarship. As such the Center’s scholars have explored Positive Culture, Positive Ethics and Values, Positive Leadership, Positive Meaning and Purpose, Positive Practices, and Positive Relationships in an organizational setting.

The three cofounders, Kim Cameron, Jane Dutton and Robert E. Quinn have each led their colleagues, students and clients in exemplary practice expanding both the range and depth of learning in the field from the start. Early on they would recognize the close kinship of their work with that of the Positive Psychology movement. Positive organizations are built on positive emotions, the fundamental state of leadership which embodies engagement, its outer directedness that binds its members and serves society, the centrality of higher purpose which fosters deep meaning and leads to exceptional accomplishments. In brief, PERMA.

Other features of positive Psychology will also be recognized through positive organizational practice. Personal growth and leadership depend on cultivating character strengths as well as the recognition of positivity and growth mindsets. Flow and powerful questions come of deep self-examination encouraged in a dynamic positive organization. Likewise Appreciative Inquiry is often the beginning of a personal leadership or organizational transformation.

How does the fundamental state of leadership change work culture?

Goal setting and mission finding have long had a significant role to play in building the integrity of the individual moving forward. This focus is part of the positive psychology toolkit as well as the best practices portfolio of many modern management initiatives. In Robert Quinn’s view, and he has found anecdotal and more formal evidence to support it, the primary role of any individual striving towards the Fundamental State of Leadership is to start achieving the transformation which comes with it. Leading by example, not highly detailed direction and especially not micromanagement is a bigger motivator by far.

This is how formal and informal groups of people effectively learn to redirect their efforts towards a higher shared purpose. There is always a big role for skills and practices in solving problems or managing situations, but these have little resonance if compliance is not coupled with individual efficacy, enough autonomy to adjust to individual circumstances or perspectives and dynamic connection to the whole. In other words, the positive organization accommodates self-determination theory through alignment with shared goals and processes. Robert Quinn describes the fundamental state of leadership as being both inner directed and outer focused.

This process of becoming an authentic leader is never simple or easy. However, unlike many managerial experiments clients, colleagues and workers are not forced into becoming guinea pigs or otherwise manipulated to support policy metrics. The struggle is between normal expectations and your objectives to become your best inner directed but outer focused self. This is also where the confrontation with hypocrisy comes to the fore.

One more point of note is that unlike so many over generalized high-level mission statements, the goals of a positive, authentically led organization resonate with all those who align with them. But this is how leadership evolves and transforms whole organizations. Such leaders are not always or ever merely box occupiers at the top of the organizational pyramid. Anyone, given the opportunity, can be a positive deviant and make contributions beyond the limitations of the job description. Leaders of positive organizations encourage such initiatives, listen carefully regardless of the message source and recognize the need to nourish any group that has renounced slow death in favor of transformation.

About the Featured Presenters:

Robert E. Quinn’s Contribution to Positive Organizational Scholarship

In addition to his being a co-founder of the Center for Positive Organizations and the Margaret Elliott Tracy Collegiate Professor Emeritus at the Ross School of Business, Dr. Quinn is the author of 18 books including the best-selling Deep Change studied widely around the world.

Current with the science of organizational behavior, he is also responsible for advances in pedagogy and coordinating multiple elements of positive psychology over his 35 years of experience as a practicing consultant both national and internationally taking the positive organization model to the world.

Robert Quinn is impressive as a speaker who talks his walk. What might pass for asides from others resound as firmly held beliefs coming from him. Perhaps this results from his insight that human beings are by nature hypocrites. For lesser scholars and practitioners that might offer a short pathway to cynicism, but Bob sees as a daily challenge to confront self-deception.

If it were not for the exceptional influence he has exerted in the course of his career as a scholar, teacher, consultant and leader, we might regard Quinn’s idealism as more or less an expression of enthusiasm. His accomplishments in the classroom and positive influence with organizational cultures around the world force us to ponder it carefully. What he has done is to link the transformational process associated with positive psychology and the individual, with the evolution of positive organizations.

Positive Organizations Practitioner Deborah Connors, BSC, MPE

Dr. Quinn is joined in the dialogue recording by Deborah Connors author of A Better Place to Work: Daily Practices that Transform Culture (2018).  Debi who has worked with Professor Quinn for several years is best known for developing “The Better Workplace Conference” which she led successfully for 17 years; she continues to transform working cultures across Canada as an advocate, author, coach and consultant. The culmination of that experience, her coaching and connections with practitioners around the world has been her book. In it Deborah discusses the practices and habits that build better workplaces, leaders and employees. Readers familiar with Robert Quinn’s writing will recognize familiar themes like reflective, personal and organizational practice, finding purpose, asking transformational questions.  She includes profiles of international influencers who have helped her on her journey as a conference organizer and author.

Prominent among these inspiring thought leaders is Professor Robert E. Quinn who writes on the back cover, “Deborah Connors is a woman of learning and vision. Paying careful attention to the most insightful voices of our time, she has heard the underlying messages and formulated them into a book designed to make our lives more abundant. Her vision is compelling and her book a gift to all.”

Deborah Connors is an active member of the Canadian Positive Psychology Association and served that positive organization by wearing yet one more of her many hats as the graphic recorder at the CPPA’s 2018 Conference.


* Positive organizations like individuals in the fundamental state of leadership exist in a state of dynamic tension between action and reflection.

* Action that is not grounded in reflection lacks meaningful direction. Reflection without action is speculative daydreaming.

* Human beings are hypocrites by nature. Growth occurs when we address the challenges of our hypocrisy. The process is painful offending both our egos and sense of dignity. But longer-term consequences are frequently transformational and exponentially positive.

* Another healthy dynamic tension occurs through what is called polarity. Many problems are conceived as requiring decisive action favoring one extreme or another. In practice, neither polarity is “correct”, but both need attention.

* The continuing task of positive management is to balance polarities. For example, organizations often face the apparent dilemma between investing for growth and cost cutting to stay viable. In a positive organization both needs would be met to the fullest extent possible. 

* Highly nurturing communities are the most productive.

* The achievements of highly effective leaders come not through what they do, but from who they are. In normal organizations managers underestimate the significance of authentic example in both productivity and positive change. The result is mediocrity at best.

* Leaders are called on to practice “tough love” from time to time. However, tough love is a polarity that must be very carefully balanced. One without the other ends up being neither challenging nor nurturing and tends to fail.

Tools & Resources: 

For more information, insights, and stories from Robert and Deborah about this topic, watch the full 30-minute interview

Have questions or comments you would like to share with Robert and Deborah or fellow WOD members about this topic? Join the discussion on Engage!