Fostering Cooperative Capacity Helps Shift Cultures

Like an annoying toddler, I ask a lot of questions in my work. Perhaps the most frequently asked is, “Why?”

It’s my curious nature to see if I can identify the causal relationships among situational factors. 

Frequently, I’ll be given a few immediate answers to my first “why” question. As I persist in asking that same question, a common refrain is something like, “Well, that’s just the way it is,”  which seems to signal that element of the organizational (or team, family, community, etc.) culture is intractable. The implication is, it’s just better to steer clear of that issue, as nothing’s going to change it.

Lynne Twist (The Soul of Money) would say this response is just another example of one of the powerful myths by which we live our lives. These myths shape our attitudes and reflect a poverty of imagination. “They are,” she says, “life sentences that imprison us in resignation to the way things are….When something has always been a certain way, and tradition, assumptions, or habits make it resistant to change, then it seems logical, just commonsensical, that the way it is is the way it will stay” (p. 53). 

Twist reminds us that “Scarcity-based life sentences are mere constructions of language that have become embedded in our thinking; but once there, they reinforce the myths of scarcity and give [the underlying assumptions] enormous destructive power” (p. 58). 

Further evidence of this imprisoning resignation is the feeling of being isolated and alone. Even those with high motivation sometimes feel that they’re charging up a hill with nothing more than moral support from equally isolated well-wishers.

Leading in this context need not require positional power nor approval. What is required is a belief in the power of combination, where strengths sharpen and reinforce other’s strengths. Therefore, your own mindset shift puts you on the cusp of contributing to the very cooperative capacity any new initiative will require. Likely, it will begin to shape your language, too.

The constructionist principle has us understand that our words do in fact foster our environment. Deficit focus and language = contributing to a deficit environment (intentionally or unconsciously); positive/generative focus and language = contributing to an environment of idea sharing, lift, and possibility. 

While no person acting alone is likely to immediately reverse a toxic culture, you can make a contribution to the kind of world you want to see emerge. 

The essence of the constructionist principle—and, I believe, its contributing power toward building cooperative capacity for positive and lasting change—is that as we talk, so shall we make. Barrett and Fry1 call each of us to this choice of where to place our focus:

“…we create the world that we call ‘real’ through our words—our conversations, symbols, metaphors, and stories.…In conversations together we create the organizational world that we then experience as normal and real….[A] single word is never a single word, but rather a link to a worldview. Thus altering the everyday vocabulary in a social system has potentially powerful consequences.…When language begins to change, whole new possibilities open up.”

Thus, your contributive power as a leader is to continually help others frame their choices toward intentional scrutiny of your collective strengths and success. 

Why study your successes? Because we live in the world our questions create. By focusing primary attention on your strengths and successes you don’t deny challenges and systemic issues, but you DO position yourself (and your surrounding culture) for better options. You set the stage for fostering cooperative capacity. You increase belief in self- (and team-) efficacy. Lord and McAllister2 amplify this thinking:

“When we see vivid proof that our actions have led to the results we wanted, however few and far between the instances may be, we’re compelled to admit (perhaps reluctantly) that we are indeed capable of influencing our surroundings and making a difference in the world….

When a group of people shares a strong sense of efficacy, they’ll see more choices available to them, set their sights high-er, put more effort into reaching their goals, remain resilient in the face of circumstances, and increase their likelihood of success.”

Building cooperative capacity fosters idea sharing, agility, and greater sustainability

I’ve come to believe that the operating speed of most environments makes the old traditional model of command and control, hierarchical leadership slow and ineffective. The flattening of organizations, the growth of intrapreneurship, and the required speed of responsiveness necessitates that every team member feel a real sense of self-efficacy, or what David Cooperrider calls individual agency.

In fact, more and more situations in which you’ll be asked to provide leadership will be characterized by a high degree of uncertainty in the operating environment AND significant disagreement among colleagues as to the best path. In such situations, the old posture and tools of management don’t serve you well. Many of these are markers of an earlier, less complex time when a bureaucratic, top-down approach could suffice. 

No longer. Now, your leadership posture will increasingly call for you to be present in the moment; foster connectivity and promote diversity; challenge habits and assumptions; reduce power differentials; increase information flows; and foster the conditions for innovation and renewal.

The following chart illustrates the point:



In an environment where the expectations of greater impact come from both internal and external stakeholders, we’ve got to rethink our long-ingrained habits of going it alone. Perhaps there’s no better reminder than the African proverb, “If you want to go fast, go alone; if you want to go far, go together.”

You have more influence than you may think and you may never fully know the impact you’re having. What you can control is the contribution you make—contributions of attitude, language, invitation, and interaction. Regardless of where you sit (i.e., regardless of perceived positional power), you can contribute to the culture that is trying to emerge by growing your own “relational capacity to mobilize creative potential and turn it into positive power – to set in motion positive ripples of confidence, energy, enthusiasm, and performance – to make a positive difference in the world.” 3

Barrett, F. J. & Fry, R. E. (2005). Appreciative Inquiry: A Positive Approach to Building Cooperative Capacity, pp. 42-43. 
Lord, J. & McAllister, P., What Kind of World Do You Want? 
Whitney, D., Trosten-Bloom, A., & Rader, K. (2010). Appreciative Leadership, p. 3.