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 Taking these feelings home, I arrive in a bad mood and am distant and withdrawn from my family.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.

New Book! What Matters in This Moment

I am pleased to announce my new book! What Matters at Work: Leading Groups Through Uncertain Times was released in late 2021 and is now available in both paperback and Kindle versions. This new effort builds upon themes first developed in What Matters at Work, adding new strategies, tools, and processes to lead groups and organizations through the complex, often uncharted waters we are now called upon to navigate. In addition, this is a call to action to see our place in the world, as resources to our communities so we can make a difference in addressing the complex challenges of our times. I invite you to join me in this effort…


What Matters at Work eBook on Sale This Week!

Please excuse this promotional announcement… The eBook version of What Matters at Work will be on a special sale on the Amazon site for the coming week. It started at $ .99 today, November 26th, then increases to through the next seven days before returning to its usual $9.99 price (still an excellent deal) on December 4th. If you’ve been waiting for an eBook version — or if you have friends and coworkers who might appreciate such a gift — this is your opportunity!

Consider the Risks of Global Networks and Build in Buffers

Connectivity is a fact of life in 21st Century economic, political, and social systems. We are now inextricably related to one another through networks that provide immense opportunities for leveraged scale and benefits, but which also expose us to the dark side of being unable to protect ourselves from the destructive actions of others over whom we have limited awareness or influence. 

Nassim Taleb has been examining these phenomena throughout his career. He is best known for coining the term, “black swan,” which identifies major unanticipated permutations of events upon these complex systems. A survivor of the Lebanese civil war growing up, he has been preoccupied of late with the responses around the globe to COVID-19. The pandemic has exposed the dangerous underbelly of global networks and “just in time” supply chains, which must be instructive to business and political leaders as we move forward to build the post-pandemic economy.

As Bernard Avishai reported from his recent interview with Taleb in The New Yorker, the pandemic isn’t a “black swan” but an event that reflects the dangers of global connectivity: 

“The great danger has always been too much connectivity.” Proliferating global networks, both physical and virtual, inevitably incorporate more fat-tail risks into a more interdependent and “fragile” system: not only risks such as pathogens but also computer viruses, or the hacking of information networks, or reckless budgetary management by financial institutions or state governments, or spectacular acts of terror. Any negative event along these lines can create a rolling, widening collapse—a true black swan—in the same way that the failure of a single transformer can collapse an electricity grid.

Covid-19 has initiated ordinary citizens into the esoteric “mayhem” that Taleb’s writings portend. Who knows what will change for countries when the pandemic ends? What we do know, Taleb says, is what cannot remain the same. He is “too much a cosmopolitan” to want global networks undone, even if they could be. But he does want the institutional equivalent of “circuit breakers, fail-safe protocols, and backup systems,” many of which he summarizes in his fourth, and favorite, book, “Antifragile,” published in 2012. For countries, he envisions political and economic principles that amount to an analogue of his investment strategy: government officials and corporate executives accepting what may seem like too-small gains from their investment dollars, while protecting themselves from catastrophic loss.”

When now looking at our efforts to deepen our efforts at What Matters, Taleb’s approach offers great wisdom: We need to create systems that include buffers, those protections that insulate risk factors and limit their ability to infect the entire system. We must do so while staying true to our Values and Intentions, especially:

Transparency: By demonstrating openness in our deliberation processes, we engender trust among those constituencies and partners who must take the risk, with us, to address concerns that are Upstream and which, most likely, do not seem tangible.

Integrity: We must constantly dare to question ourselves and be open to hearing criticisms and concerns from others. This discomfort is essential to navigate the inherent uncertainties of such times, and comes with a big dose of Humility. 

Communication: When in doubt, let people know what you know and (more importantly) what you don’t know. Share the burden of knowledge with others whose perspectives may inform your own. 

Inclusivity: Hear from all voices, especially those typically marginalized and feeling pain that may be caused by the actions of those with traditional privileges in the organization or community. This is a “long game,” and it requires resources that may not be immediately apparent. To insure those resources are available to solve emerging issues, an inclusive approach to problem-solving is a key value. 

Creative Flexibility: Consider options and ways to frame situations that have never been tried before. These are far more likely to emerge if Inclusivity is actually occurring, as this builds capacity for creative thinking. Facilitate processes that encourage divergent thinking, adaptability, and the capacity to defer judgment as long as possible. 

Compassion (and Forgiveness): Make a genuine effort to understand the pain being experienced in the present time, as well as the trauma triggered from past events by unanticipated crises being experienced in this moment. As you confront your own harm and pain, seek a path of reconciliation that may allow you to move forward and fully experience the opportunities of this new moment.

In a practical way, we may apply this thinking at a few different levels: 

  • In our Project Teams, we need to be sure the integrity of the team’s work is protected through documentation (including version control), transparency of decision-making and inclusive deliberation processes, with continuous communication among team members and with other teams within the system being impacted. At every opportunity, deliver on promises and deadlines and be honest regarding when they are not being met so all can come together to determine how best to proceed… This is in contrast with a common practice to withhold such information until few options remain or the consequences of mistakes are already being felt elsewhere.
  • In the larger Organization: There are inter-dependencies that are both necessary and beneficial, yet there are risks that may be reduced by allowing “warnings” to be conveyed routinely, coupled with a shared commitment to understand emerging problems and address them without blame, finger pointing, or shame. This is akin to “pulling the chord” above an assembly line, made famous through Toyota’s “Kaizen” continuous improvement program and the specific “Andon” approach for signaling problems to others that should be addressed quickly and cooperatively. In fractal, interconnected systems, we may not fully appreciate the value of slowing things down, but to do so as part of a commitment to risk reduction can prevent disproportionate difficulties from overwhelming the system.
  • In the Industry or larger Community, it means that we examine the underlying assumptions built into our most robust and far-reaching systems and understand their current and future purposes. While they may have served us in the past, they may have evolved into systems that do not serve current needs. An excellent example is the role of police in ensuring public safety: There were very different priorities and dominant political voices in the 1990s than today, so those under-served and even oppressed by police actions are now being heard and understood by the privileged dominant culture in very different ways. Over time, police services (along with the criminal justice system) shifted from a community policing approach that had some commitments to rehabilitation in the 1970’s and 1980’s to a more militarized and punitive approach through the past 30 years. As a result, those with drug-related issues are prosecuted, rather than medically assisted, and those with mental health concerns are met with force and domination, rather than compassionate caring responses.
  • The future of public safety and violence prevention requires a re-imagination of these systems and their relationship to the communities being served, which includes coming to terms with uncomfortable truths about how racialized and marginalized communities in particular have been systematically deprived of basic human rights and dignity through this evolution. Making available resources to prevent and manage conflict, as well as restorative justice processes that can help people become “whole” in their lives as they go forward, will be essential buffers during this significant reconstruction of our public safety systems. 

As Nassim Taleb also points out, such approaches also require an acceptance of lower short-term profits on the part of businesses and investors (including those investing in public efforts). These lower initial returns are more than offset by reducing losses that are more likely to occur in fractal systems, so this risk reduction actually will result in increased profits over the long-term. In addition, if we keep in mind the “triple bottom line” previously discussed on this Blog, the social and political stability reduces the costs of significant upheaval and its associated relocation and restructuring efforts. If fewer of us live in the floodplain, for example, there will be reduced need to deal with the associated costs of increased flooding events that once were “one in a century” but which now occur every few years. 

Beyond Capitalism

In focusing on What Matters, it is crucial that we transcend previous constraints and parameters that limit our thinking about What’s Possible. Most of us have a tendency to view our own experience as “normal” and to extrapolate from our own realities to assume the “normal” for many others. This blind spot (previously explored in the Johari Window and Ladder of Inference discussions) is also true in our theories and practices in our workplaces and in the development of public policy: 

For example, as an American now living in Canada, I am acutely aware that my experience with the US healthcare system limited my understanding of how a universal healthcare system might operate, as it does in Canada. Furthermore, since our news sources are locally focused and biased, we often fail to receive information from other perspectives that might inform those blind spots. So when responding economically to healthcare challenges, we might not recognize options and opportunities that are well-established in other countries and regions, overlooking potentially beneficial responses.

It is like that with Capitalism. The dominant American model defers great amounts of power to large corporations and other private entities. Through public policy and regulations, there are advantageous tax incentives to such organizations that have resulted in the terrain we witness today. There are routine cycles of prosperity and depression (“boom” and “bust”), all of which are framed as normal business cycles. There are widening gaps between rich and poor, as well as accumulation of capital in small segments of the population, all reinforced by a cultural narrative that the resulting investment, employment, and “trickle down” benefits accrue to your overall quality of life. This privately controlled and highly individualized framing of Capitalism also accepts that there are very few “public goods,” where the government must provide service and production. It is also accepted that there are few costs that exist beyond the system — “externalities” — which are then minimized in our economic models and analyses. Unfortunately, these biases and omissions are not inconsequential; they result in significant failures of the system and, given the dominant role of the US in the global economic and political system, the impacts are felt throughout the world.

Concentration of wealth has been a long-standing barrier to addressing these flaws in the system. In his 1949 essay, “Why Socialism?,” Albert Einstein wrote: 

“…Private capital tends to become concentrated in few hands, partly because of competition among the capitalists, and partly because technological development and the increasing division of labor encourage the formation of larger units of production at the expense of smaller ones. The result of these developments is an oligarchy of private capital the enormous power of which cannot be effectively checked even by a democratically organized political society...”

Externalities: A Fatal Flaw 

I have previously alluded briefly to “externalities” and the opportunity to address them in the triple bottom line. What are externalities? Why do they represent a fundamental flaw in our usual forms of Capitalism? How might we re-conceptualize Capitalism and create a new economic system that addresses these critical failings?

Externalities are those costs not integrated into the valuation of products and services in the economic system. A common example is pollution: If nobody is held accountable for the cost of dumping garbage into a river, then its consequences are not addressed and there is no incentive to clean it up. That’s fairly obvious, and most people recognized this flaw, but there was no mechanism to address it until the 1970’s.

But there is a more insidious aspect to how Capitalism fails to deal with externalities: Because the costs aren’t addressed in this current transactional space, they are passed down to others in the future to address their consequences. Those pollutants leach into the ground, affect the water table and the future costs of remediating it so it can be used for an economically valued purpose. The carcinogens that result from toxic runoff (a non-point source) belong to nobody as well, so the health care consequences that accrue to sick individuals or entire communities (recall “Love Canal”?) become a burden for those future recipients. While the companies or farmers who caused the problem are only held accountable by the Environmental Protection Act and similar legislation of the past 50 years, the system inherently avoids addressing such issues.

Furthermore, we have the aforementioned issue of Public Goods. This has at least two dimensions that are worth noting. First, there is the “Tragedy of the Commons,” the natural consequence of over-consuming natural resources that should be held in common. This concept was first offered by the British economist William Forster Lloyd (1833) and popularized by American philosopher and biologist Garrett Hardin (1968). Hardin updates the idea of the traditional English meadow being grazed by sheep, with each herd owned individually and nobody owning the Commons. The sheep naturally overgraze until the entire Commons is stubble, and the resource is destroyed. The Public Good is what we share in common but which is not owned, like the air around us, the oceans, outer space.

The other type of Public Good identified by economists is the natural monopoly; these are certain services that cannot be developed and delivered by the private market, whether due to excessive barriers to entry (e.g., costs), scale, or risk (e.g., much basic research). Public transportation systems, public education, and interstate highways and bridges, for example, needed to be federally funded because of these factors. They have little “Return On Investment” in most cases, so they are left to the public sector for the “profit” of the Public Good.

In most of the world, public health care is seen this way. While there is room for private corporations to provide a wide range of services, healthcare is viewed as a basic right, and the economic system is seen as the wrong place to defer such a critical responsibility. 

Social democracies do a far better job than the U.S. of internalizing the externalities and recognizing the intrinsic nature of certain Public Goods. But even there, the U.S. is limited by a preoccupation with Independence that obscures a greater need and reality: Interdependence (see previous post, “A Declaration of Interdependence.”) We need to reframe our system so it transcends Capitalism, fosters Interdependence, and creates spaces in our economy to recognize a far more significant role for Public Goods.