This is a classic movie, filled with quirky, memorable quotes. I recently watched the movie with my brother while I was in California, working on my DMin. Interpreting the movie through the lens of my class work, a particular scene struck me.
In a nutshell, Heavyweights tells the story of pre-teen boys who are stuck in a summer camp dedicated to losing weight. The camp takes a turn for the worse when it’s bought by Ben Stiller’s archetypal villain character, Tony Perkis.
During one scene, Tony gets frustrated by the kids’ nonexistent weight loss, and he orders everybody on a twenty-mile hike. The lovable Pat Finley, played by Tom McGowan, tries to intervene by telling Tony that a twenty-mile hike is unsafe. Here’s Tony’s response:
Safe? Oh the fat man is going to tell me what’s safe? Know what? It’s funny. Nobody really cares what you have to say. You’re a negativity spreader. You’re contaminating my well, Finley… And I won’t have it.
Even though Tony Perkis goes crazy in this movie, there’s a leadership principle we can draw from this. Tony understands something about creating a culture of change.
Negativity isn’t the way to help people change.
One of the books we read for our class this last fall told the story of how a church engaged in a practice called Appreciative Inquiry, and how that process revolutionized their church. In his book, Memories, Hopes, and Conversations, Mark Lau Branson lays out the process of Appreciative Inquiry (AI for short).
In essence, AI is about asking positive questions. Too often, organizations get bogged down on negative concerns. We ask questions with a negative, problem-solving bias.
“Why don’t people like going to our programs like they used to?” “What can we do in order to get our teenagers to stop having premarital sex?”
Questions like these, though valid, don’t help us get excited about doing transformative work in our community, organization, or church. At best, we feel passionate about fixing something that’s wrong, but most often, we just respond out of obligation, or a sense of duty.
Granted, there’s nothing wrong with doing our duty, but that doesn’t excite people. Duty and obligation don’t mobilize people with the same effectiveness as a compelling vision of a desired future.
So in AI, we turn around the negative questions that are often based in frustration, guilt, shame, or exasperation. Instead of asking, “What’s wrong and why?” We ask, “What’s going well? What gets you excited? When have you seen our leadership function at its best? Who was involved then? What were your practices during that time?”
It’s amazing how quickly a conversation can change when we ask these types of positive questions. People become excited. They reminisce about previous successes. Stories are told with passion.
These are the situations that bring about lasting change.
Chip and Dan Heath, authors of the book, Switch, call this “finding the bright spots.” They retell numerous stories of how this process has created lasting change in unlikely situations.
If you lead a group of people, don’t be a negativity spreader.
Ask positive questions that get people excited. Look for best practices and see how you can duplicate those in appropriate ways for new situations. This is how lasting change happens.
- How can you incorporate more positive questions in your leadership settings?
- Do you foresee any challenges to this way of thinking?
- Does Appreciative Inquiry seem too naïve of a view of the world?