Creating Conversations that Matter

Random header image... Refresh for more!

The Strength-Based Workplace

The task of leadership is to create an alignment of strengths in ways that make a system’s weaknesses irrelevant

– Peter Drucker, Professor Claremont Graduate University and Management Consultant


A Strength-based workplace at a glance.

Try this short thought experiment. Imagine you are a hospital patient experiencing a “code” (emergency response team needed). Ask yourself which team you would prefer to have rushing into your room.

The first team is made up of good people (well-trained professionals; e.g., pharmacist, critical care nurse, doctor, chaplain, respiratory therapist, etc.). The members of this team have been assigned to work together for an entire month at a time. When a code is called during the assigned month, this team always responds together. As the month has progressed, the members of the first team have become increasingly comfortable and better working together. It is now three weeks into their month.


The second team is also made up of good people who have also been assigned to work together for a month at a time, just like the first team. However, the second team begins every day by meeting to discuss and practice how they will respond when the next code call comes in. And, each time they do care for a patient, they sit down together afterward and reflect about the care they provided. They also ask the patients and families about their experiences. They reflect as a team about what they do, visualizing, exploring, and testing how they could do an even better job next time, as a normal part of their work.


The third team has all the characteristics of the second team AND the team members (using insights from the VIA Character Survey) leverage their strengths to most effectively and efficiently improve:

  • How they run their meetings and roles played within;
  • How data are gathered, presented and evaluated
  • How they interact with the patient and family and who has those interactions
  • The clinical processes and roles they are using to deliver care
  • Who controls what decisions – at the bedside, before and after
  • How conflicts are managed

In addition, this team (along with hundreds if not thousands of other staff, managers, patients, and other stakeholders):

·   Had been involved in the (re)design of the hospital, the organization of clinical services, the facilities, the IT systems (i.e. how patient info is displayed) etc.; and,

·   Have the authority to make decisions that affect only their team and to interact directly with other teams that may need to be involved in any changes.

We are pretty certain you chose the third team, as did we. Why would you not want that same level of “care” throughout your organization?

Why Strengths?

In a study of more than 1,000 employees in 13 countries the number of “fully engaged” employees was dismally low. China and the U.S. each reported just 19% of such workers, while Argentina and Spain rounded out the bottom of the list at 13%, according to research by The Marcus Buckingham Company (TBMC).

Buckingham says that while corporate methods, behaviors, and values vary by country and by industry, the report indicates that the most powerful human need at work is help to discover strengths and to use them frequently. He says managers would do well to stop trying to fix weaknesses and figure out better ways to leverage strengths.

Why should that make a difference? Because the continual focus on weaknesses and errors generates fatigue, blame, and resistance. In contrast, deep inquiry into what works well and discussing how to get more out of those strengths taps into creativity, passion, and the desire to succeed.

In 1982, University of Wisconsin researchers studying adult learning videotaped two bowling teams. The members of each team then studied their video to improve their skills. But the two videos had been edited differently. One team received a video showing only its mistakes; the other team’s video, by contrast, showed only the good performances. After studying the videos, both teams improved their game, but the team that studied its successes improved its score twice as much as the one that studied its mistakes

The word, ‘Strengths’ has many different meanings. So what do we mean by that term? Let’s start by looking at what we consider the two most relevant perspectives: the Clifton StrengthsFinder popularized by the Gallup organization, and the work of Christopher Peterson and Martin Seligman captured in their book, Character Strengths and Virtues.

Gallup defines a strength as: “the ability to consistently provide near-perfect performance in a specific activity. The key to building a strength is to identify your dominant talents, then complement them by acquiring knowledge and skills pertinent to the activity.” Hence, strength is a combination of talent, knowledge and skills.

Peterson and Seligman take a very different approach and define strengths as: “positive individual core character traits that make a good life possible.” They describe their classification of strengths as “a manual of sanities” in contrast to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM- the standard classification of mental disorders used by mental health professionals in the United States, which lists thousands of terms describing mental illness).

We believe that combining these viewpoints provides the most useful way to think about strengths as related to the workplace and to creating the adaptive organizations necessary in today’s world. Hence we define strengths as: the connection of people’s talents, knowledge and skills to the best of who they are at their very core. We believe this offers the pathway to unleashing their full human capability in ways that benefit them as well as the enterprise in which they work.

July 14, 2017   No Comments

Safety Conversations

The concept of meaningful conversations has taken hold in the safety, health and environmental industry. My article, co-authored with Rosa Carrillo, is the cover story in the Professional Safety Journal January 2015. See

The essence:

• Drift and weak signals (clues to potential incidents) are often hidden. Even when known, strong sociocultural barriers prevent people from talking about them.

• This article explores research that supports the need to encourage, equip and coach managers and supervisors on the art of conversation with their employees as the most influential form of communication.

• The research areas include social neuroscience, relationship psychology, complexity, drift, weak signals, information management through relational coordination, and the role of leaders in managing and influencing behavior. The authors combine these concepts into a direct approach to managing the human/organizational factors of safety performance.

Curious about your own experiences with conversations that have made a positive impact on safety.

January 22, 2015   No Comments

Rethinking Governance

My colleague Bernard Mohr and I are nearly finished with a new book on governance. Some of the  propositions we examine are:

  1. What if……Governance  were all about guiding a human system in ways that generate sustainable health and prosperity for both itself, its members and the community of stakeholders in which it lives, within ethical, legal and moral boundaries?
  2. What if such governance occurred every day, in all corners of the system and not just in the rarified air of quarterly board meetings?
  3. What if such ubiquitous governance were produced by the integrated arrangement of systems, processes, structures, and relationships?
  4. What if this arrangement were intentionally designed to identify, magnify and connect individual and organizational strengths?
  5. What if this intentional design emerged from a highly participative process?
  6. What if all this led to levels of staff engagement and operational excellence that enabled significantly faster responsiveness to shifts in threats, demand or opportunity?

We believe that moving these six points from the realm of provocative propositions to reality can explicate the hidden resource of governance in your organization; one you can tap into to bring your people alive and help your organization thrive. How to make that happen, the design and functioning of governance systems and even how we think about governance, its functions and how they should be executed … these are the questions the book will engage. Please stop by often for updates.


November 5, 2014   No Comments

Appreciative Governance

Introducing Appreciative Governance – Part One

Neil Samuels*

Over the past year, I have had the pleasure of joining an international consortium of practitioners to research and write about a topic of the future – Appreciative Governance. With thought leaders in alternative governance models we have been exploring the creation of new and more life-giving governance models – models that sit at the intersection of shared contribution and the alignment of strengths. The goals include creating organizations where all thrive and sustainable value is delivered as ‘the new normal.’


Why a New Governance Model?

In our conversations, experience, and research, the idea that major change is afoot was evident; there seems little doubt that we are in the process of a significant global paradigm shift. Our current structures and systems have clearly shown their limits. And new possibilities are emerging – even as the old are collapsing around us. Our growing understanding of complexity and intentional living systems is changing the basic premises for what it means to organize, to be human, to work and live on our planet. This new paradigm reinforces that the whole is greater than the sum of the parts and that rather than objective in nature, knowledge and action are subjective, contextual and interwoven. Attention to relationships, processes, networks, growth and development (evolution) is important: these are the essential elements of vitality and sustainable value.

During a year long inquiry into how we might reframe governance, the research carried out by the Appreciative Governance (AG) team showed that AG is distinct from traditional forms of governance in three essential ways:

  • First, there is an intentional commitment to distribute decision-making throughout the organization.
  • Second, AG capitalizes on individual and collective strengths to achieve organizational vision and mission.
  • Finally, AG is grounded in human systems theory and social constructionism, which translates into active support of self-organizing systems within organizational boundaries.

AG offers a set of principles that help to intentionally design the practices, structures and processes within which governance at all levels takes place. An AG design is more than changing the boxes on the ‘org chart’, more than ‘eliminating waste’, and more than simply publishing a new list of organizational values – although all of these may be outcomes.
Imagine a design process that is strengths-based where everyone in an organization, together, generates a life-giving governance process – one that finds people looking forward to the work week.

What’s next?

Future blogs on the topic of Appreciative Governance will cover Principles and Processes for collaborative redesign of an organization’s governance system. In the meantime, if you would like to jump more deeply into this topic, the November issue of the Appreciative Inquiry Practitioner, dedicated to this topic, is available at <<>>

Join the Conversation

Creating organizations where individuals thrive and sustainable value is delivered as “ the new normal” is our goal. Appreciative Governance, its creation and practice, is in its infancy. You are invited to be part of a worldwide conversation. Join the LinkedIn Dialogue on AG led by Sallie Lee, Cheri Torres and Bernard Mohr.

The link is <>. You need to join LinkedIn to take part in the discussion.


* These ideas are based on work developed in collaboration with the team who produced the November 2011 AIP issue on this topic. That team is composed of Patti Millar, Joan Hoxsey, Bob Laliberte, Joep de Jong, and Dan Saint along with Sallie Lee, Cheri Torres and Bernard Mohr who were the co-editors of that issue.


November 4, 2011   No Comments

Green Cape or Red?


Solving “Wicked” Problems

Red Cape or Green?


      Imagine you have been charged with making the biggest possible difference for the world and the seven billion of us on it. Quite the challenge. But you are in luck, for I am a magic genie and can grant you one wish. I can give you a RED cape which will let you stop “bad” things. Or I can give you a GREEN cape which will let you grow good” things. Which cape will you choose?



      Want to stop Famine? How about Disease? Simply put on your red cape and wish them away. But what do you get if you stop famine? People who are no longer starving. (Don’t get me wrong; that would be a good thing. But is it enough?) What happens if you stop disease? Does the absence of sickness imply health? I think not. Simply ending the problem is insufficient.

      If you wanted to end famine, what would you grow instead using your green cape? How about something like “well-nourished” people.  If you wanted to end disease, what about growing “healthy” people? Notice how focusing on what you want more of, versus what you want less of can actually have a much bigger impact in actually dealing with the problem. Also note that in no way does Green Cape thinking ignore the very real problems facing the world.

      So if it’s true for changing the world, does it also hold true in business? What do you get if you stop customer dissatisfaction? Customers may no longer be leaving (again, a good thing) but are they telling their friends and families wonderful stories about your business. What if, instead, you grew loyal and passionate customers? Might that have a greater impact on your bottom line?

      Having a problem with staff turnover? Need to stop your best people from walking out the door?  What if you could grow an engaged and motivated workforce? Might your talent stick around?  The positive image of the future you want carries incredible power, much more than the negative image of the past you wish to avoid.

Positive Image              Positive Action

      What impact can a positive image have? At the individual level think of the power of our images of ourselves evident in the Placebo Effect. Most of the medical profession now accepts as genuine the fact that anywhere from one-third to two-thirds of all patients will show marked physiological and emotional improvement in symptoms simply by believing that they are being given an effective treatment, even when that treatment is just a sugar pill or some other inert substance.

(The Placebo: Is it Much Ado About Nothing? Arthur K. Shapiro and Elaine Shapiro; The Placebo Effect: An Interdisciplinary Exploration; By Anne Harrington 1997, Harvard University Press, Boston, Mass.)


      At the group level, the Pygmalion effect is equally persuasive.  In 1968, Robert Rosenthal, a Harvard University professor, and Leonore Jacobson, a principal of an elementary school in San Francisco, published ‘Pygmalion in the classroom: Teacher expectation and pupils’ intellectual development’. The main argument of the book is that the expectations that teachers have about their students’ behavior can unwittingly influence such behavior. This influence, or self-fulfilling prophecy, could have a positive or negative impact. In other words, when teachers expect students to do well, they tend to do well; when teachers expect students to fail, they tend to fail.   

Rosenthal and Jacobson borrowed the term ‘Pygmalion effect’ from a play by George Bernard Shaw (‘Pygmalion’) in which a professor’s high expectations radically transformed the educational performance of a lower-class girl. ‘Pygmalion in the Classroom’ describes an experiment carried out in an elementary school (which the authors call Oak School) to test the hypothesis that in any given classroom there is a correlation between teachers’ expectations and students’ achievement. In the experiment, Rosenthal and Jacobson gave an intelligence test to all of the students at an elementary school at the beginning of the school year. Then, they randomly selected 20 percent of the students – without any relation to their test results – and reported to the teachers that these 20% of students were showing “unusual potential for intellectual growth” and could be expected to “bloom” in their academic performance by the end of the year. Eight months later, at the end of the academic year, they came back and re-tested all the students. Those labeled as “intelligent” children showed significantly greater increase in the new tests than the other children who were not singled out for the teachers’ attention.”

History of Education Daniel Schugurensky, URL:


It was proven that the image that the teacher held of the student was a more powerful predictor of a child’s performance than IQ scores, home environment, or past performance. Image creates action!


Green Cape thinking carries a much more positive, and therefore powerful and energizing image of the future galvanizing action rather then resistance.


So, which do you choose– Red or Green?

Note: I was first introduced to the Red Cape/Green Cape idea by Dr. James Paweski, PhD, from the Positive Psychology Center at University of  Pennsylvania.

March 27, 2009   3 Comments

AI Summit for 750

I spent the week of January 12 in Las Vegas leading a 4-day Appreciative Inquiry summit for an entire business of 750 people. As far as I know, this is only the second time a full Inquiry covering all 5 “D’s” has been done at this scale and it was the highlight of my career. The power of bringing the whole business into the room cannot be underestimated. The new relationships formed alone were probably enough to justify the investment. In addition to the whole new set of connections, they also developed 85 prototypes and projects to bring about the cultural and business changes they want and need. Even though the focus of the Inquiry was Empowerment, over half of the project ideas dealt with new products and services, as well as changes in marketing and sales approaches, organizational structure,  technology systems and business processes. Even during breaks, conversations stayed focused on the business at hand. The energy at the end of the Summit was as high as at the start, something I have never experienced before. Every aspect of the session reinforced the concept of empowerment. We had one ground rule: “Everyone is a fully functioning adult making informed choices about how to participate.” Other than at the start, we never herded people back into the room. We used only 8 content slides. And the leadership team members spoke for a total of 40 minutes over the course of the 4 days. They were full players in the entire process and their equal participation was noticed and appreciated. If you would like to hear more about this amazing event, please drop me an email of give me a call.

January 23, 2009   No Comments

How does change really happen?

What have been your real lived experiences with major change inside an organization? What was the initial catalyst? How did it migrate throughout the company? What might the model for that messy, complex change process look like? 

For me, the most appropriate metaphor is the hologram because it best captures the true complexity involved. Over the next few weeks, I plan on going into detail for each aspect of my model for change. For now, I invite you to simply reflect on the words and image and see what emerges for you as you think about your own lived experiences of change.

I once heard Meg Wheatley say that if you trace any major change back to its origin, it started with: “A friend and I were talking.” The example she shared was Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD) which began when two women were chatting and discovered they both had lost children to drunk drivers. Their conversation deepened into wanting to make sure other mothers did not experience the same tragedy. They built their relationship, broadened their inquiry to many others, tried different approaches and built on those that seemed to work and learning along the way. Their initial connection and conversation in 1980 sparked a movement that has grown into one of the nation’s most respected non-profit organizations.

What about change inside an organization? Does it happen the same way? I believe it does. In fact, I think it is the only way that successful change occurs. And by successful, I mean long-lasting and beneficial to all stakeholders–change that lasts beyond the existing leadership! But how to convey that kind of messy, complex, emergent process in a two-dimensional graphic. Through conversations with my colleagues Patricia Shaw and Nic LeDourec, I came up with the model below. (Note: Models make me very nervous because they are both our best friend and worst enemy. Friend because they simplify the messiness and complexity of real life and help us make sense. Worst enemy because they simplify the messiness and complexity of real life and can easily give us a very distorted sense of reality! What a paradox!)

I call it a “holographic” model because even though it looks on the surface like 6 discrete steps, in actuality, every step is embedded in every other. Consider a hologram: When a laser is bounced off the plate a 3-D image appears. If that plate should break, a laser bounced off any piece will still reveal the WHOLE image (though dimmer). I chose the image of the fern to convey the fractal nature of the model. That is, that the pattern repeats at every level of detail.


May 15, 2008   No Comments

Welcome To Profound Conversations

Our Profound Conversations website has just gone live and I’m excited! Both that we have a new site and also that our homepage has blog features: so that I can share my thinking, approaches, and tools for successful change with you here . I hope you enjoy exploring this site!

And I hope it raises questions in your mind. Because I believe that questions are what produce generative profound conversations. Questions are very fateful – What we ask about determines what we find.

Right now I am very focused on questions that help develop leadership: in myself, in my community, and as a key part of my consulting practice.

What are you curious about? I look forward to learning from you, and with you.

Feel free to provide feedback by adding a comment below. Or email me directly:

April 22, 2008   No Comments

Appreciative Inquiry – A Summary

One of Profound Conversations’ core approaches is The Importance of Questions & The Appreciative Approach. One of the questions I am often asked by clients is to explain what exactly I mean by the Appreciative Approach, why I use it – and how they can learn more.

I made them a summary – and I would like to share it with you.

Appreciative Inquiry & The Appreciative Approach

We have two possibilities, we can look at what works or we can look at what doesn’t work – whatever we look for is what we are going to find”. – Marjorie Schiller, Phd

The Appreciative Approach is based on Appreciative Inquiry (AI).

AI offers a new, invigorating approach to dealing with the very real business issues you face. We focus on what gives energy, and support leaders, their teams, and their organizations on remembering and re-discovering themselves at their best.

Let’s contrast it briefly with the traditional approach: The traditional approach to change is often deficit-focused. It comes from the belief that organizations are problems that need to be solved. That all we need to do to “fix” the problem is to identify the root cause of failure and then develop and implement solutions to close the gap. Often, experts are called in to diagnose the problem and “prescribe” solutions.

Appreciative Inquiry’s new theory of change is that broad-based participation and collaboration focused on purposefully exploring for and enhancing that which gives life to an organization when it is performing at its best is much more effective and efficient in shaping the future. Or as David Cooperrider (the originator of AI) put it: “AI is an exciting way to embrace organizational change. Its assumption is simple: Every person, every team, every school, every organization has something that works right – things that give it life when it is most alive, effective, successful, and connected in healthy ways to its stakeholders and communities.”

Therefore, the Appreciative Approach means we direct our questions away from deficits and gaps. We focus instead on what gives energy, and support leaders, their teams, and their organizations on remembering and re-discovering themselves at their best. As a result, a powerful vision for, and commitment to, an energizing future emerges.

You can learn more about Appreciative Inquiry here. Or ask me a question via email or in the comment section below. I look forward to your feedback!

April 22, 2008   No Comments

Some Questions

Over the past two weeks, I have found myself continually returning to one particular story and a John Quincy Adams quote.

A Story: Two Wolves

An elder Apache was teaching his grandchildren about life.

He said to them, “A fight is going on inside me, it is a terrible fight and it is between two wolves. One wolf represents fear, anger, envy, sorrow, regret, greed, arrogance, self-pity, guilt, resentment, inferiority, lies, false pride, competition, superiority, and ego. The other stands for joy, peace, love, hope, sharing, serenity, humility, kindness, friendship, empathy, generosity, truth, compassion, and faith.

This same fight is going on inside you, and inside every other person, too.”

They thought about it for a minute and then one child asked his grandfather, “Which wolf will win?”

The old Grandpa simply replied, “The one you feed.”

A Quote:

If your actions inspire others to dream more, learn more, do more, and become more, you are a leader.
– John Quincy Adams

I believe that the same fight the elder Chief refers to goes on every day in many organizations–within individual leaders, within the leadership team, within and between departments, between the field and home office, between management and staff… I could go on.

The questions it raises for me are:

  • Which wolf have I been feeding? (Which wolf do you feed?)
  • Are we choosing which wolf to feed or simply continually re-running long-standing patterns?
  • What impact is it having on us and our organizations?
  • How is that choice affecting our ability to inspire others to dream, learn, do, and become more?
  • What possibilities might a different choice create?

I would love to hear your answers to these questions. And perhaps you have some questions for me, too?

April 22, 2008   No Comments