How to Create a Flourishing Culture, One Conversation at a Time

I was consulting on a project for an organization, and as a part of that work I was asked to join the project team conference calls. On the first call, I noticed that people were strangely quiet. The project manager, hired to lead this team, seemed to be taking a backseat to the Director who was running the meeting. We were moving through the agenda items at a fast pace, as there was not a lot of discussion or input from the group. It didn’t feel good. I couldn’t put my finger on exactly what the issue was though. I left the meeting feeling a little depressed.

Afterward I got an email from one of the team members. She shared a great idea for the project and asked me if I could take it forward. I commended her on what a creative idea it was and suggested that she send it to the project leader and the director. Her answer was what tipped me off to what was going on. She said, “I would prefer if you take it forward, because the last time I made a suggestion, the experience was quite humiliating.”

When you hear employees use words like humiliating to describe their interactions with their supervisor you can bet there is some bullying going on. And at that moment I knew why I felt so negative and depressed in the meeting. The project was being micromanaged. Good ideas and suggestions were shut down or not brought up at all for fear of ridicule. The conversations were depreciative, critical and destructive.

Obviously people cannot contribute their best in a team culture like this.

Consider this “Story 1.”

For “Story 2” I submit to you a different workplace conversation. In this situation, I had a contractor working with me on an event I was managing. He was doing an amazing job of promoting the event and boosting registration. He was meeting all the targets we set. Because of his success in meeting our goals I ignored some of the negativity in the conversations he had with others on the team. After all, not all his conversations were negative (I told myself). But it was about the fourth time that I noticed the tone of his words that I felt a need to step in. I couldn’t avoid the conversation any longer and decided to take an appreciative approach.

I started by commending him on the remarkable job he was doing to help us create a successful event. I was truly grateful to him for this work. I chose to ask some questions to learn more about his perspective. I wanted the questions to be generative, with a view to encourage him to shift his mindset and potential. I knew that his behaviour did not fit with our organizational values and I needed to relay that to him, hoping to create a shift, but also knowing that if that shift did not happen, I would need to let him go.

When we talked about our organizational values, how these values guided the way we operated in this company, and how some of his conversations did not fit with these values, I simply asked him “Where do you think we should go from here?” I left it in his court to decide what would be in his best interests and that of the organization. He made the decision to shift his behaviour. He really did an about-face. And he apologized. The shift in his behaviour continued past our work together on this event, and I would hire him again in a heart-beat.

This was a conversation that was appreciative, intentional, and turned out to be positive and instructional.

It was a conversation worth having.

Jackie Stavros and Cheri Torres, authors of the book Conversations Worth Having: Using Appreciative Inquiry to Fuel Productive and Meaningful Engagement tell us, “a single conversation is a micro movement that can create a macro movement!”  Just think about how the culture in your workplace could shift if the majority of the conversations were appreciative and positive.

In Stavros and Torres book, we learn that all of our conversations fall along two axes: 1) They are either appreciative or depreciative, and 2) they are either inquiry-based or statement-based. For example, a conversation that is appreciative and statement based might be giving some positive feedback, such as “I love what you’re doing with this project.”

Looking at conversations this way, they end up in one of four quadrants, as per the diagram below.  The four kinds of conversations we can have are: 1) Affirmative (e.g. “I prefer option B because it gives us more flexibility.”), 2) Destructive (e.g. “Your work is sloppy and you will never amount to anything in this company.”), 3) Critical (e.g. “Why does the kitchen sink sponge have dog hair all over it?” or 4) Conversations Worth Having, which are both appreciative and inquiry based (e.g. “What ideas do you have for making this project more efficient?”)

© Conversations Worth Having: Using Appreciative Inquiry to Fuel Productive and Meaningful Engagement by Cheri B. Torres and Jacquieline M. Stavros, 2018


In Story 1 above, the conversation was critical, depreciative and destructive and the result was a team that fell apart and was not productive.

In the second story, although constructive feedback was clearly needed, the conversation was mostly affirmative and inquiry based, and became a “conversation worth having” that produced a positive result.

In Brené Brown’s latest book Dare to Lead: Brave Work. Tough Conversations. Whole Hearts. she shares the results of interviews that she and her research team conducted with senior leaders from around the world. They were asked to share their opinions of what needs to change about the way people are leading organizations today. The number one answer boiled down to this: “We need braver leaders and more courageous cultures.” Specifically, leaders said that one of the behaviours that gets in the way in organizations globally is avoiding tough conversations and avoidance of giving honest, productive feedback. Brown says, “We have a cultural norm of being nice and polite.” (And this wasn’t even Canada she was referring to! It happens in organizations all around the globe.)

How do we change this?

One way that you can move into having courageous conversations is to start becoming aware of what kind of conversations you are having right now. Are they primarily negative or positive? Do they focus on what’s going wrong or what might be possible? Do you ask questions in these conversations? Think about your habits of giving and receiving feedback. Do you avoid it? If so, what keeps you from giving and receiving good feedback?

Two simple practices you can try incorporating to change your conversations are: 1) positively framing the conversations, and 2) learning to ask generative questions to shift the dynamics of the conversation.

To positively frame the conversation, focus on where you want it to go (your vision) instead of the problem. Intentionally shape the conversation to invite engagement. You do this by asking generative questions.

Generative questions are helpful to surface new information and knowledge, to gain a new perspective and to focus the conversation on what might be possible. A few examples of generative questions are: What have we learned from this experience? What else might be true? What small action can we take to move things forward?

A big part of our workplace conversation also involves being able to provide and receive effective feedback. Feedback is one of the best ways for organizations to improve, and in order to do that we need to change feedback avoidance patterns. Here are a couple of tips to do that:

  • Try giving feedback in the moment. When you catch someone doing things right, tell them! If you see that an improvement can be made, mention it right away. Perhaps say, “This is what I like about what you’re doing (e.g. Your sales goals are met each month) AND (not BUT) here is a suggestion about how you can improve (e.g. participating more in weekly meetings.)
  • Try accepting positive feedback with gratitude. (E.g. When someone compliments your work, say “Thank you so much. That means a lot to me.” Try not to discount it or deflect the feedback.

Learning to change the conversations in your workplace can shift your culture in significant ways. At work, we are almost always engaged in internal dialogue or external interactions. Those conversations influence our personal well-being and the well-being of our teams and the organization as a whole. As Dee Hock, Founder of Visa says, “Our organizational lives and the lives of others flourish or flounder one conversation at a time!”

How often are your workplace conversations “conversations worth having?” How often do they fuel meaningful engagement and energize people to solve huge challenges? How often do they contribute to a flourishing environment? Flourishing people contribute their best, see more possibilities, and are more proactive and innovative.  To create a culture of flourishing in your organization, start to become aware of the conversations you are having and use these suggestions to shift your culture, one conversation at a time.

Follow this blog for bi-weekly ideas to create your “better place to work.” To delve deeper into the practices in this blog, join the pilot of Deborah’s online Conversations Worth Having Bootcamp 1 starting June 4/19. Enrolment is extremely limited (20 people maximum) so register today if you wish to join. CLICK HERE for more info and to register.

Purchase Deborah’s book: A Better Place To Work: Daily Practices That Transform Culture HERE. A perfect book for your next book club! Reduced prices are available for bulk orders .

Deborah Connors

Deborah Connors teaches leaders to radically shift culture so that people can flourish. She is an engaging speaker, storyteller, author and coach.

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