Forget what’s wrong. Ask what’s right?

There seems to be a natural human tendency to be preoccupied with what’s wrong.  I think the intention is often good—let’s get to the heart of the problem so we can fix it.   So we ask:  What’s wrong with a situation? What’s wrong with this organization?  With this child?  With this country?  But personal fulfillment, higher performance and meaningful progress actually seem to arise when we focus on what’s right.

Back in the 1930s there was a famous study–The Cambridge-Somerville Study–that looked at an At Risk population and asked:  Why do these individuals fail?    It identified all of the problems and challenges that contributed to juvenile delinquency, poor social mobility and a host of psychological issues.  They developed interventions to address all of the problems with the hopes of seeing significant improvements in the long-term wellbeing of the ‘At Risk’ youth that participated in this 40-year, first of it’s kind, study.  As with any good study, there was a control group that received no interventions.

The results were shocking:  on almost every measure of wellbeing—depression, anxiety, criminal incarceration rates, social mobility—there was NO difference whatsoever between the group that received therapy and the group that didn’t.  In fact, the ONLY difference was a significantly higher level of alcoholism among the group that received interventions.

As the abysmal results starting coming in, a new group of positive psychologists started coming up and they led with a radically different question:   What makes some individuals succeed in spite of their unfavorable environments and circumstances?  They looked at what’s going on when someone is thriving and flourishing and found several factors that accounted for their uncommon success:

They had Role Models: someone that showed them there was an alternative way to live and could provide the wisdom and the connections to help them on their path.

They knew their Strengths: somewhere along the way, someone helped them figure out what they were good at and they became relentlessly focused on becoming great in their areas of strength.

They had Personally Meaningful Goals: they were driven by something that was personally relevant and meaningful—they had found their passion.

They had Optimism: they had a vision of something better and the belief that their personal effort and hard work could make it possible.

When these positive interventions were used in subsequent studies the results were extraordinary.     They saw significant declines in incarceration rates and drug and alcohol addictions and significant increases in social mobility and psychological well-being. In short, the At Risk individuals transcended their unfavorable circumstances and began to thrive.

In our work with organizations, the initial briefings are often mired in concerns about everything that is wrong with the organization–the problems, the challenges, the weaknesses and the failures. We quickly redirect all energy and attention to the bright spots. We intentionally bias our research to examine what’s going on when people are loving what they do and the organization is making a positive impact that all stakeholders feel great about.

If your organization is ‘At Risk’ and you feel Purpose might be a good intervention, please don’t waste your time taking stock of everything that’s wrong – focus instead on everything that’s right. Intentionally and consciously look for the good. Consider these questions to help you identify what’s going on when you’re at your best.

Where do people seem to light up and get naturally excited in the course of doing business?

What are people most passionate about?

What accomplishments are people most proud of?

What does the organization have the potential to be the best in the world at?

What do your customers love about you?

The goal is to shine a light on what makes the organization extraordinary. By doing so, what’s wrong will naturally begin falling to the wayside and what’s right can begin to grow and thrive.

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