Pondering the “Why”

Pondering the “Why”

This article is part of a series highlighting insights in the field of Positive Organizational Scholarship that come from the Center for Positive Organizations (CPO) at the University of Michigan Ross School of Business. Many of our executive consultants hold dual positions at both Riverbank and CPO. 


It’s a challenge to explain why I love the field of positive organizational scholarship and why I love the Center for Positive Organizations without it dripping with earnestness. I truly love this field. But I’ll try to have some tangible reasons to help with that.  


There are a lot of ways I could answer this, but I’ll start with the heart of it. When I was talking about my thoughts for the future, with a mix of nerves and excitement, a new friend of mine (who was also involved with the Center) surprised me with a dead-on observation of me: I need to love what I do or else I shut down. He’s exactly right, but there’s more to it. I burned out in the extreme during high school, to the point where I didn’t even want to be in the same state as those years of my life — and writing off California for college is a pretty big deal. But I started off loving everything I was involved in with a burning passion. And it was that unbridled passion that burned me in the end. So once I got to college, I focused on sustainability for myself and the way I work. 


I’ve maintained a healthy relationship with POS for three years now. I continue to find the field energizing, supportive, buoying… all of the uplifting images you can imagine. Trying to explain my feelings towards the field seems a bit difficult, as it’s all a little ephemeral. We’re getting into sappy territory, so I’ll try and go back to some specifics. 


For one thing, this field is all about making work and being part of organizations something sustainable and enlivening for everyone involved. So not only do I feel that way about the field itself, but the goal exactly aligns with my values.  


One of the ways I assess a field is by how comfortable I feel and how much I identify with the people in it. I definitely feel I belong with the people in this field — and that’s not to in any way suggest that we’re homogenous. This field encourages people to bring their whole selves and their complete experiences to the table. And that’s not an empty platitude. Just days after my 2.5-year relationship ended, I attended CPO’s Positive Business Consortium. I told my boss, Chris White, during breakfast, and he pulled me aside for half an hour to process with me as I needed. He left the conference early in the day, and I was then adopted by a group of wonderful women who I’d never met but treated me with such love and respect, despite me being the youngest at the conference. This is just one such moment where I’ve seen this field embrace people as they are in each moment. 


That’s something about POS — it’s not about ignoring the negative or pretending it doesn’t exist. When we hear all these words like thriving and flourishing, sometimes it’s easy to think that difficult times or bad experiences don’t have any place in POS. But we’re focused on a much more sustainable sense of wellbeing, in terms of the individual and the organization. And that doesn’t mean always being happy. I’m still relatively early in my studies of the field, considering that I’m hoping to embrace it for years to come, but it seems our main goal is to figure out how we can make being part of an organization something that fulfills each member in a way they couldn’t experience on their own, through connecting, sharing, supporting. And fulfillment is something much deeper, more meaningful, and more sustainable than just being happy. 


Alicia Haun is a content marketing intern at Riverbank Consulting Group. Alicia is a senior at the University of Michigan, where she also works with the Center for Positive Organizations at the Ross School of Business. Alicia is passionate about the field of positive organizational psychology and looks forward to helping work become a place of flourishing. 

Honoring Transitions

Honoring Transitions

I have to pack up all my things again. I calculated the exact number of addresses I’ve had at some point, but I’ve since forgotten — somewhere in the high teens. When I was growing up, my parents and I moved every year because of dad’s job, and the pandemic has made college housing even more hectic than usual. But I like moving. 


My parents were both military brats, so they grew up moving often too. My mom gets especially antsy when she’s in one place for too long. They’ve been in the same house since I was in 6th grade, and by the end of high school, there were days where I’d wake up to find the furniture in a different arrangement than the night before, and things would move again by the time I came home from school and again when I went downstairs for dinner. 


When it comes it housing, we love change. That’s not to say it’s always easy. For one thing, it always seems to rain on moving day, even when we live in the desert. And sometimes it’s downright hard. I remember being so scared when my parents told me that we were moving across the country from Florida to California. I was terrified I wouldn’t be able to make any new friends.  


Moving houses is just one of many big transitions most of us are bound to face over the course of our lives. In the work world, on average, people change jobs every 4.1 years, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. So how can we seek to honor these inflection points and make them a positive experience for everyone involved?  


Being a part of the Center for Positive Organizations has taught me a lot about how to approach change, both in the classroom and out. We learned about how one company, HopeLab, approaches transitions with appreciation and acceptance of all that comes with such large changes: “Transitions are just a part of life. They can be emotional experiences for the person who’s leaving, for the people who are staying, and approaching it with some awareness and some acknowledgement that those things are — they just are. And then continuing to cultivate the kind of community, the kind of organization, the kind of team that we all want to be a part of, even in the face of change and transition.” 


When the people at HopeLab celebrated one of their team’s transition to a new career, they embraced the full range of emotions that people were feeling: “In any farewell, you have both the sadness of leaving and the joy of reflecting on the good times. You don’t want to ignore either.”  


When we think of ways to positively frame transitions, we often think of the excitement of the new. I look forward to the challenge of experimenting to see which art pieces will go best on which wall in my new apartment. Figuring out how to arrange things is one of my favorite parts of being in a new place.  


But there are other ways to appreciate change. One option is to implement rituals during moments of change that help you feel more grounded in familiarity. Whenever we moved, I knew to expect that my dad would carry my mom across the threshold of our new place on the first night, and we’d order a pizza as we sat on the floor, watching a movie downloaded on the laptop.  


But my favorite part of moving might be the opportunity to reflect on the time I’ve spent in the place I’m leaving. I enjoy the process of sifting through memories as I pack up my belongings. It’s almost always a bittersweet process as I realize all the ways things have changed and I’ve grown.  


For an experience to be positive in the way we mean when we’re talking about positive organizational scholarship, it doesn’t need to be happy. We’re looking to create organizations where people can bring their whole selves, and as the team member who left HopeLab says, “Being vulnerable is being willing to feel and express the whole range of emotions, be it joy and laughter to tears and sadness.” The flourishing and thriving we’re aiming for isn’t superficial — positive experiences and positive organizations are ones that are fulfilling and enlivening, with all the complexity that carries. 


Alicia Haun is a content marketing intern at Riverbank Consulting Group. Alicia is a senior at the University of Michigan, where she also works with the Center for Positive Organizations at the Ross School of Business. Alicia is passionate about the field of positive organizational psychology and looks forward to helping work become a place of flourishing. 

Finding Creativity on the Chopping Block

Finding Creativity on the Chopping Block

I’m on the phone with my mom right now, which she says is procrastinating. I asked her, “Why is writing so hard?” Her answer: “Because it’s a creative effort.”  


When you’re tasked with conjuring up something innovative, something new, you might think it’s best to open up all the options you can. But think of this scenario from the TED talk “The Power of Creative Constraints”: 


“Imagine you’re asked to invent something new. It could be whatever you want made from anything you choose in any shape or size. That kind of creative freedom sounds so liberating, doesn’t it? Or does it? If you’re like most people, you’d probably be paralyzed by this task. Without more guidance, where would you even begin? As it turns out, boundless freedom isn’t always helpful.” 


So, too much creative freedom could be cementing your writer’s block (or whatever block applies to your creative domain). But go to the other end of the spectrum, and you’re not heading for much creativity either. Step by step instructions are great when you’re looking for reliability, and a lot of the time, we are. My mom has a blue binder full of stained recipes in plastic page protectors. Most of the time when she cooks, she follows the recipes pretty exactly, maybe making one or two adjustments after trying it out a few times. But once a year, our kitchen becomes a wild playground for creative experimentation: the annual Haun family Chopped. 


Each year, I go out to different grocery stores to gather supplies to model the Food Network show Chopped. I pick out four secret ingredients for each round of the competition: a 20-minute appetizer round, 30-minute entrée, and 30-minute dessert. After I do my shopping, I prep the kitchen by preheating the oven, boiling water, and setting up the induction burner. Then my parents are ready to open the baskets and compete to make a cohesive, creative dish using all of the secret basket ingredients for that round in that time allotted — no recipes allowed. 


But of course, by the nature of the game, there are plenty of restrictions, and pretty challenging ones at that — think having to make an appetizer featuring guava paste, yellow rice, spam, and bell peppers. Introducing creative constraints to the innovation process can help provide focus and spur new ideas. I imagine if I were to give my parents free reign over the pantry, endless time, access to any resource, and the simple challenge to create a new meal, we probably would have ended up with some safer bets than what has come out of the Chopped kitchen so far because “when there are no constraints on the creative process, complacency sets in, and people follow what psychologists call the path-of-least-resistance”. [1] And I bet it would have been a less energizing process too.  


Through our annual competition, we’ve created a safe space for radical experimentation. We expect and tease each other about the failures, and we’re generous with our praise for everything that somehow turns out edible. Our goal is less about the food and more about having fun together and playing with culinary skills we hesitate to try otherwise (turns out a rolled cake is more difficult to make than you’d think!). We’ve created “a strong innovation climate — one that is characterized by support for innovation, shared vision and objectives, shared commitment to excel, and sense of security”. Okay, maybe we’re a little lax on the excel part. 


Sure, we’ve had plenty of iffy bites come out of these Chopped meals. Try as you might, you can’t fry things in coconut milk. Most of it is passable, but not something we’d ever order off a menu. But every now and then, the circumstances of Chopped come together to make some real winners that earn a spot in the regular dinner rotation. My personal favorite is when Dad whipped up canned tuna in the style of crab cakes. I’ve made those more than a few times since (much easier for a college budget).  


So maybe the next time you’re feeling stuck on a creative challenge, lean into the challenge part by adding more constraints. I eventually got going on this article by pulling out my hourglass and self-imposing a deadline to get the first few paragraphs in place. Organizationally, there are plenty of ways to impose creative constraints. Some tactics are to “limit inputs” (such as the time limits in Chopped), “enforce specific processes”, or “set specific output requirements”. Just be sure to leave some creative room to breathe. 


[1] “Why Constraints are Good for Innovation


Alicia Haun is a content marketing intern at Riverbank Consulting Group. Alicia is a senior at the University of Michigan, where she also works with the Center for Positive Organizations at the Ross School of Business. Alicia is passionate about the field of positive organizational psychology and looks forward to helping work become a place of flourishing. 

Framing Positive Practices for Buy-In

Framing Positive Practices for Buy-In

I’m a firm believer in the power of positive practices to improve the culture in organizations. But I know not everybody shares this conviction. Some people think it’s “soft, light-weight and even naive.” The word pollyannaish gets tossed around, thinking positive organizational scholarship is just blindly optimistic. But I also know that this perception of positive practices as having no place in the real business world is missing the basis for important opportunities for growth. I’ve seen time and time again in research, field data, and case studies that positive practices provide improvement in many hard business metrics people are looking for, including higher productivity, higher creativity, and lower turnover, just to name a few. Working toward creating a positive organization where people can thrive can make a huge difference in engagement of the people working in the organization.   


I’m committed to the importance of positive practices. What I am learning, though, is how to be realistic about how we accomplish these outcomes for people in the organization and how we define success. I recently spoke with executive consultant Ron May, and we focused on how to frame positive practices to strive to create the most buy-in among people at all levels of the organization. In our previous interview, Ron emphasized that what is paramount to him is knowing that all of these practices are data-driven. I’ve also heard from Rich Smalling the importance of presenting the data in a sensible manner to create buy-in from his organization comprised of engineers. So, I was surprised when Ron said that sometimes you might not want to exclusively use the academic terminology I’ve been learning in my classes.  


Having the academic terminology — such as strength spotting, job crafting, high quality connections, among others — can be helpful when it functions as a shared vernacular. But Ron explained that when you’re trying to introduce change into an organization, which is always a challenging process, initially using what might be unfamiliar jargon could alienate the teams you’re working with, putting an extra roadblock in the path to flourishing. 


Instead, we could embrace curiosity and seek an understanding of where the organization is in their current state. What problems are they experiencing? What have they already tried? What have the responses been? Only after getting to know this specific organization, understanding its values and processes, can we start to pull on the research and practical concepts in a way to effectively bring about change.  


One of my biggest learnings as I’ve moved from the classroom to Riverbank is how to really think about ways to apply positive organizational concepts in ways that are customized to specific teams and organizations. Positive practices shouldn’t be cookie cutter tools that you introduce the same way to every organization, as it will miss some of the intentionality and power of these concepts.  


One common positive practice is thinking about how to be intentional about celebrations. I’ve mainly heard about this in case studies, where I’ve seen this concept applied as a way to frame beginnings, endings, and transitions, usually at a large scale. Ron gave an example of the way an individual in a team can implement these ideas without being a formal leader in order to bring a positive change. For example, perhaps you notice that your team typically seems really unhappy on Monday mornings, and the week begins with an early meeting in the conference room. Why not change it up? You could inject a bit of positivity to start off the week by sharing coffee and donuts, as a sort of micro celebration to set the tone. Or maybe you all have a walking meeting outside to get ideas flowing. These are small, individual and team level changes that can start to have big impacts.  


We all know that there’s no one size fits all solution for individuals, and, whether we embrace it or not, organizations are fundamentally made up of individuals. And it follows, then, that there won’t be a one size fits all solution for how to employ positive practices in an organization. But by deciding to make flourishing a priority, you can focus on making the most of your business’s most important resource: people. 


Alicia Haun is a content marketing intern at Riverbank Consulting Group. Alicia is a senior at the University of Michigan, where she also works with the Center for Positive Organizations at the Ross School of Business. Alicia is passionate about the field of positive organizational psychology and looks forward to helping work become a place of flourishing. 

Want Your Organization to Thrive? Create a Culture of Trust

Want Your Organization to Thrive? Create a Culture of Trust

By now, I’ve published a bunch of articles on Riverbank’s blogs, and I’m genuinely proud of them. But I was a bit nervous to start working here at Riverbank. I had my first run-in with imposter syndrome when I thought about how I’d be the one creating much of Riverbank’s content, when many of the people I’m working with are the ones writing the books I’m learning from. I put off writing any articles for a while, doing an excessive amount of research to try and bolster my confidence in my ability to add value. So how did I make the jump? I could tell everyone at Riverbank trusted me.  


Even just in my first weeks, it became clear to me that Riverbank has a strong culture of trust. Chris often tells me that he trusts my judgment on different decisions, which initially surprised me as the newest and youngest Bankie. In our recent strategy meeting, he also expressed deep appreciation for all of our executive consultants, since he knows he can trust them to follow through on their commitments. He doesn’t have to worry and can instead devote that energy to moving forward. 


Trust is crucial if you want your organization to thrive. According to neuroscientist Paul Zak 


Employees in high-trust organizations are more productive, have more energy at work, collaborate better with their colleagues, and stay with their employers longer than people working at low-trust companies. They also suffer less chronic stress and are happier with their lives, and these factors fuel stronger performance.” 


But sometimes creating a culture of trust can be hard. Chieh Huang, CEO of Boxed.com, learned this through some trial and error. In his hilarious TED talk “Confessions of a Recovering Micromanager,” Huang describes how difficult it was for him to let go of control as he went from a one-man company to being a CEO a few steps removed from the shipping floor. At first, he sought the control he was used to by micromanaging, telling his employees exactly how to write personalized notes to customers:  


I’m going to tell these folks how to write these notes. What pen to use, what color to use, what you should write, what font you should use, don’t mess up the margins, this has to be this big, this has to be that big. And pretty soon this goal of raising morale by breaking up the monotony in the fulfillment center actually became micromanagement, and people started complaining to HR.” 


After this feedback, Huang changed tactics: 


“So it was at that point in time, we said, “OK, you know? We hired these great, wonderful people, let’s give them the mission that’s ‘delight the customer,’ let’s give them the tool to do so, and that’s these notes — have at it.” 


Because Huang wasn’t dictating what each note should look like, they started to change — in great ways, like when some people brought their artistic talents to the task, drawing beautiful “minimurals” on the cards. Of course, there were some missteps, but Huang reflected and realized that failure is inevitable to some degree when you’re trusting people to develop their own ways of accomplishing goals. But he sees failure as “a milestone along that mission towards success,” where each misstep helps the organization learn and recalibrate. 


Huang recounts the ways Boxed.com has grown in ways that he never could have expected or would have been possible if he hadn’t decided to stop micromanaging and start trusting his people. When there’s a culture of trust, people are able to bring their passions, talents, and creativity to work and help the organization to flourish beyond the sum of its parts, and way beyond what any one person could direct.  


As I’ve spent more time with Riverbank, I’ve noticed that we follow all of Paul Zak’s strategies to manage for trust. In addition to explicitly saying that we trust each other, we have a culture that encourages us to get to know each other as whole people — because it’s a lot easier to trust someone you know. And the trust is genuine. I’ve had a bunch of latitude to job craft my role into exactly what energizes me — from seeking out learning opportunities to having a large amount of creative freedom to deciding when I want to write (I’m a night owl, so it’s midnight right now). So sometimes I still feel a twinge of nervousness, but knowing that everyone at Riverbank trusts me helps me trust myself. 


Alicia Haun is a content marketing intern at Riverbank Consulting Group. Alicia is a senior at the University of Michigan, where she also works with the Center for Positive Organizations at the Ross School of Business. Alicia is passionate about the field of positive organizational psychology and looks forward to helping work become a place of flourishing.