This article is adapted from my recent book, What Matters in This Moment: Leading Groups Through Uncertain Times. — Harry Webne-Behrman
We spend a bit of energy trying to understand vicious cycles. These are negatively reinforced feedback loops in individuals, groups, and systems, where toxic actions reinforce one another and deepen the difficulties being experienced. Sometimes these vicious cycles are easily noticed and anticipated, perhaps even planned into the work systems we use and rely upon, while other times they appear suddenly and unexpectedly. For example:
I’ve just left a meeting with my supervisor where I surprisingly received some sharp criticism for my work. I feel I have been unfairly criticized, so I go back to my desk and sulk about it. In turn, this reduces my focus and productivity, so work piles up. The work I complete is done with limited zeal and commitment, resulting in errors and further stress.
I start to worry about criticism from clients and others. When a co-worker stops by, I gripe about work and our conversation becomes a “venting” session from which we both get more depressed. Taking these feelings home, I arrive in a bad mood and am distant and withdrawn from my family. I then “self-medicate” with a beer or two… you get the picture.
I got into a vicious cycle, and it sent me into a nosedive for the rest of the day. We know such stories well, and they often fill our narratives about work. Once engaged, vicious cycles reinforce themselves And once such behaviors are reinforced they easily become habits, as continuous confirmation feeds into our deeper belief systems.
But there are also phenomena known as virtuous cycles. A virtuous cycle positively reinforces desired conditions, feedback loops, and behaviors. With continuous focus, it renews its own energy and sustains desirable outcomes:
In this version of the scenario, I respond to the surprising criticism from my supervisor with openness, expressing a desire to specifically understand how I might address the concerns. In turn, my supervisor feels good about the interaction and places the critique within an overall context of respect and support, perhaps even offering additional resources to address our shared concerns. I return to my desk feeling heard, respected, and understood, with a renewed commitment to get my work done well. In turn, I am focused and engaged, producing high quality work. When my co-worker speaks, I am a patient listener to their concerns and help figure out how to address them, so we both leave that conversation feeling energized and purposeful. When I go home, I arrive in a good mood, able to play with my children or assist with homework, able to be a caring and supportive partner to my spouse. I might even discuss the incident earlier in the day as a “teachable moment,” where I learned something from the critique. That evening, I relax and eventually get a good night’s sleep.
Ahhh… that feels better, doesn’t it? My experience became an opportunity to recognize new options, even in the face of criticism. As a result, there is learning, self-reflection, and that encourages greater openness in future interactions. I just described an individualized cycle, but the same applies to relationships, small groups, and more robust systems. If we face the conditions through which a vicious cycle is taking hold, it is critical to intervene in the cycle in order to disrupt it. But that is only the start of the transition process:
If we want to foster a virtuous cycle, we need to actively engage in behaviors that support its conditions. Then we must sustain those behaviors, as the energy may readily dissipate unless it is reinforced until it flows on its own. Like the “wave” in a stadium, the energy requires an intentional commitment to the greater group activity.
Virtuous Cycles: Making It Happen
How do we do this? I see four distinct opportunities to influence their occurrence and sustainability. We need to act clearly to provide effective leadership, so virtuous cycles become the norm in our groups and organizations. I have provided thumbnail sketches of each type of activity and strategy, with additional information regarding several of them in the Appendix:
Phase One: Intervene on the Vicious Cycle
Negative momentum must be broken, intervened upon with clarity and intention. We have to intervene in the vicious cycle, putting a “floor” on the negative behaviors and patterns. This allows the group to consider other ways of interacting with one another. This is a critical and powerful action, so approaching it with clarity is important. In this way, we may stop the vicious cycle, prepare to shift its energy, and begin to reframe the situation. Here are some useful strategies to begin:
Appreciative Interviews: Bring people together around their experiences, assets, and commonalities, from which a shared vision of success and possibility can emerge. This strengths-based approach, derived from people’s actual experiences, generates positive energy that reinforces itself the more it is practiced.
Ground Rules and Operating Agreements: If such agreements don’t otherwise exist in the group, this is an important place to start ― How do we seek to work together? What are our basic expectations regarding how this may be a constructive, safe work environment? The ritual of creating and affirming operating agreements can be a powerful aspect of getting started.
“Where Do You Stand?”: Consider using a purposeful “ice breaker” to actively facilitate deeper appreciation and understanding of one another’s backgrounds and perspectives. “Where do you Stand” is an example of such an activity: Through a series of questions, group members identify shared experiences and perspectives that they bring to the group. Even in an ongoing group, this is an effective way to “data mine” the group collaboratively, thus discovering their skills, knowledge, and shared points of reference and experience.
“Mingle” variations : This approach forces fast-paced interactions and story-sharing about meaningful personal values, or other ways to quickly and energetically share innovative thinking around a common theme (such as a process improvement or a new product).
“Sharing our Journeys”: Storytelling demonstrates the importance and legitimacy of sharing diverse, sometimes controversial perspectives, which will be essential as we move forward. This can happen silently through “story-boarding” along a wall, or through more deliberative conversations such as Appreciative Interviews, noted above.
Phase Two: Develop the Group
People have likely seen one another through a lens of distrust, where hierarchy reinforces power and divisions contribute to turf battles. There is a need to transform the identity of the individuals involved so they begin to view one another as a group that can be developed into a cohesive team, capable of solving problems together:
“World Cafe Process” (and its variations): This highly engaging approach is an effective way to energetically include and glean everyone’s ideas, all towards addressing core priorities or concerns raised in the earlier phase.
Brainstorming, brainwriting, and other idea-generation tools: By using different modalities, group members stretch their “creative muscles” in new ways, and more voices are included in the conversation as introverts and extroverts are both more likely to feel welcome.
GROW Peer Coaching: This approach to peer coaching facilitates the development of important ongoing relationships, often by involving employees who would not otherwise interact with one another. The discussions center around Goals – Realities – Opportunities – Will in order to identify best pathways forward around a meaningful dilemma.
SOAR: This method of strategic planning builds from Appreciative Inquiry to be an asset-based/ strengths-based approach to this essential exercise. Strengths, Opportunities, Assets, and Resources serve as the four elements of planning.
Block’s “Six Conversations”: In his book, Community: The Structure of Belonging (2008) management consultant Peter Block describes six types of conversations that groups must have together. In this conversation about virtuous cycles, we emphasize the Gifts Conversation, which focuses on understanding the varied skills and assets brought to the group by its members.
ORID (Focused Conversation Method): In this approach, originally developed by Stanfield et al in The Art of Focused Conversation (1997), groups are led through Objective, Reflective, Interpretive, and Decisional questions to facilitate a deeper level of deliberation around meaningful issues.
“Learning Stations,” and “Gymnasiums,” for skill-building: We have adapted ideas from elementary education and physical education to great effect. We create “skills stations” where participants are able to focus on a specific practice they have been learning, then proceed around the “circuit” to develop skills in specific areas of learning and growth.
Phase Three: Sustain the Group as it Evolves
There may well be initial successes that build confidence, but we also require investment in sustaining that success. Reinforce the virtues of the group, write new stories about its successes, and build infrastructures that carry its redefined insights forward into its new sense of possibility:
Collaborative Negotiation: Building upon the model described in my books, What Matters at Work (2020) and What Matters in This Moment (2021), integrate negotiation into a variety of deliberation opportunities.
Project Management Milestones: Keep leaders and group members on track by developing milestones and holding groups accountable to them. Whether using Agile or Waterfall processes, these should be integral metrics to use in assessment and evaluation efforts (see below).
“Pulse Checks”:By having routine opportunities to “check in” with group members, leaders are able to understand the status of projects, levels of energy, and otherwise catch difficulties early, so interventions in the process may be easier. Virtuous cycles are never to be taken for granted, as they can unravel easily by a misstep or an underestimation of a given challenge that erodes trust and undermines continued commitment.
Core Principles and Values: Regularly review these initial expressions of What Matters and revise them as needed in order to keep them vibrant, alive, and relevant.
“Questions about Questions”: This approach forces participants to defer judgment and closure. By doing so, members are forced to notice what now emerges, often with powerful results. In the same spirit as the well-known “Nine Whys” exercise from the Liberating Structures group, this approach stretches groups into a constructive discomfort that yields powerful insights.
Phase Four: Manage Transitions as Membership or Scope Change Over Time
The experience of a virtuous cycle is non-linear, as there will be transitions from one context to another and challenges the group must navigate together. Embrace the transition as a natural element of that experience, rather than as a deviation. This allows members to acknowledge its power, leave behind the “old normal” and understand the future that is now emerging.
“Coat of Arms” Exercise: This activity is especially useful at times of such transition and group adjournment, de-briefing insights, capturing learning, and providing a way for the new group to take commitments forward into its next phase.
GROW Peer Coaching: Use this tool again, this time for transition planning.
“Harvesting Wisdom”: We need to have appreciative interviews with those who are retiring from the group in order to capture their insights. This can occur in workforce planning, transitions of group membership on/off standing committees, and as an element of fundamental change that demonstrates respect for those who came before us.
Metrics for Success
At its worst, the virtuous cycle can be a delusional, feel-good experience where “insiders” congratulate themselves on their glorious achievements. We can protect against such bias by integrating rigorous assessment processes into our efforts. “How do we know it’s working?,” is an important question. We never know with certainty. Virtuosity in groups is a fleeting, temporary state that is appreciated to the degree it exists and sustained in a manner that varies across systems and contexts. The nature of complexity reinforces the uncertainty of this state; still, there are some useful metrics we can harness here.
Effective Task Achievement: Groups need to get stuff done. So it is important that they be assessed for how well they accomplish things That Matter:
- Within the scope of the group, how well are we addressing our mission and objectives? Is this still understood to be the correct mission and focus?
- Are there tangible results and deliverables that respond to the reason the group was formed in the first place? Are these documented in a manner that can be readily understood over time?
- Have we defined goals and milestones operationally and transparently, in a way that is readily understood and embraced by all involved in the effort?
Creative Task Achievement: We are encouraging approaches that go beyond our usual results:
- Both within and beyond the scope of the group, does the group also identify connections with other possibilities that may not have been otherwise realized?
- How creative are the ideas generated? Does the group transcend “familiar responses from the usual suspects” and truly offer innovative ideas that engage the full spectrum of group membership?
- Does this creativity result in new connections that synergistically allow the group to identify relationships to other challenges, enabling it to offer new areas to explore or new possibilities to address?
Cohesiveness: We seek to create groups that have highly positive relationships as a way to retain capacity to address the next challenge, not merely respond to what has already been noticed. We observe that all members treat one another’s ideas with respect, listening and validating divergent perspectives, expressing appreciation for one another’s contributions:
- Do we witness group members listening intently to one another, validating and extending upon one another’s thinking?
- Are feelings respected within the group, particularly at times of dissent or conflict?
- Does it appear we have cultivated a sustained capacity to keep these relationships strong and to integrate new members whose expertise may be important to respond to future challenges?
Energetic State: The energetic state of a group provides another way to assess success. We need to observe the group’s interactions, but also monitor how individual members take this energy to subsequent, independent contexts (remember, these groups operate within broader systems):
- Before group meetings, are members excited about participating? Is this manifested both in their meeting preparation and in their “arrival state”?
- What is the energy level in the room when the group meets? After meetings, are members “jazzed” and inspired to bring energy, curiosity, and connectedness to their next interactions (beyond this group)?
- How does that excitement translate into productive contributions in other settings?
Capacity to Respond to Stress and Challenge: If the group is focused on What Matters, it will inevitably face significant challenges to its functioning:
- How effectively does it summon members’ capacities to address unanticipated challenges?
- How does the group respond to stress as it occurs among members? Are group members supportive of one another and able to respond constructively at such times?
- How effectively do we witness the group responding to complex challenges, including those that weren’t anticipated?
Keeping these criteria in mind, we can readily see how meetings may be structured so they can be virtuous meetings, fully engaging all members in constructive conversations around a wide array of meaningful issues. When we consider how much time is spent in meetings, the investment of resources to improve their capacities to catalyze and foster virtuous groups is important and worthwhile. If we extrapolate this thinking further, we can envision virtuous systems, where all elements align to positively reinforce one another. This is the essential “tipping point” we seek in our efforts to focus on What Matters; noticing it when it occurs can be a truly transformative moment.