Sheila Haji

The Shadow Side of Positive Organizational Change


This research investigates tensions associated with positive organizational change (POC) that prioritizes positive possibilities over traditional problem-centric approaches. Recent literature critiques the prevalence of toxic positivity in society, claiming a bias toward positive thinking denies emotions of sadness, disappointment, anger, and frustration (Collins, 2022; Cross, 2022; Tufvesson, 2020). A recent flurry of studies suggests toxic positivity results in the marginalizing of individuals for expressing their emotions that may not always be positive (Collins, 2022; Cross, 2022; Tufvesson, 2020). A key question this research addresses is what do with the “elephants in the room” that represent what people think is undiscussable in a POC context?

Participants in the study include 41 organizational development practitioners with direct experience leading POC initiatives using the Appreciative Inquiry (AI) methodology. Practitioners shared their experiences of dialectical tension associated with AI in organizational change efforts and how they navigated those tensions in organizations. The practitioners have over 600 cumulative years of leading over 3,500 AI interventions in 39 countries.

This study responds to the gap for more research on polarities associated with privileging positive, strengths-based dialogue over talk about organizational problems or deficits (Fitzgerald et al., 2010) by bridging the concept of organizational shadow (Bowles, 1991; Fitzgerald et al., 2010; Jung, 1968) with dialectical tension theory (Baxter & Simon, 1993). This study’s findings advance scholarship about positive organizing tensions by naming the leadership, voice, and temporal shadows. These shadows emerge as three dialectical tensions with theoretical implications for framing and understanding organizational tensions and practical implications for managing tensions. First, the voice shadow identifies the tension between free expression and limited expression of what is discussable in the change process. The leadership shadow describes the tension between hierarchical and collaborative leadership. The temporal shadow describes short-term orientation versus long-term orientation tension that surfaces in POS initiatives. Further, this study problematizes our understanding of the positive-negative polarity commonly associated with AI (Fitzgerald et al., 2010; Kolodziejski, 2004) by identifying the contexts in which tensions are likely to arise, the theoretical implications of tensions and different strategies used to navigate tensions in a POC context.

Critical views of AI oversimplify a (perceived) myopic focus on the positive as restricting talk in change initiatives (Fineman, 2006; Grant & Humphries, 2006; Hill & Onyett, 2012). However, the results of this study indicate experienced practitioners often honor talk atypical of AI’s focus on the positive while demonstrating nuanced approaches that manage tensions and coalesce toward a positive core. Strategies included coaching organizational leaders to demonstrate agility in support of collaborative leadership initiatives. In addition, practitioners used the AI principles of free choice and wholeness to enable the expression of counternarratives that diverge from dominant narratives. Practitioners often reframed tension as complementary dialectics such that one pole does not negate the other.

This research implies that practitioners need not fall prey to toxic positivity wherein organizational leaders and staff are reticent to talk about the “elephants in the room.” The ability of practitioners to navigate dialectical tensions in POC initiatives demonstrates that it is possible to hold a vision of a positive future while also creating space to hear divergent perspectives.

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