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Robert Quinn
  Robert Quinn

New Book by Ross Professor Seeks to "Lift" Organizational Culture

11/30/2009 --

Robert Quinn offers guidelines for exerting positive influence, effective leadership.

ANN ARBOR, MICH. — Ross professor Robert Quinn wants to give you a lift. He says it is natural for each of us to be comfort-centered, externally directed, self-focused, and externally closed. Since it is nature’s default option, we all spend time in this state. It is possible however to elevate ourselves, to become purpose-centered, internally directed, other-focused, and externally open. When we elevate ourselves on these key dimensions, we also elevate others.

In his new book, Lift: Becoming a Positive Force in Any Situation (Berrett-Koehler Publishers Inc.), Quinn and co-author/son Ryan Quinn identify four simple questions that can be used by anyone — from an international CEO to the local barista — to enter the lift state.

  • What result do I want to create?
  • What would my story be if I were living the values I expect of others?
  • How do others feel about this situation?
  • What are three strategies I could use to accomplish my purpose for this situation?
Quinn is the Margaret Elliott Tracy Collegiate Professor of Business Administration and professor of management and organizations at Ross. Son Ryan Quinn is a professor at Darden. Together they argue that these four questions — and the four corresponding mindsets they enable and create — comprise a universally applicable leadership model. And, Quinn says, "There's no simpler model anywhere in the world."

Recently, Quinn sat down for a Q&A about the concept of "lift," the characteristics behind it, and why it's the key to productive, energized, and happy organizations.

How did you come up with the concept for the book?

Quinn: After about 20 years of going into organizations and trying to help them change, I wrote a book called Deep Change: Discovering the Leader Within [Jossey-Bass, 1996]. That book basically argued that life constantly invites us to make deep changes. The more we resist the invitation the more we experience slow death. When we accept the invitation profound things happen.

After publishing that book a lot of people would write and tell me how they made a significant life change. Their stories were very inspirational and powerful. I began to consolidate those stories and analyze them in a book called Building the Bridge As You Walk On It: A Guide for Leading Change [Jossey-Bass, 2004]. In that book, I wrote about the concept of a "fundamental state of leadership."

Normally, people think of leadership as a pattern of fixed traits. In contrast, we conceptualize leadership as a state, a dynamic condition. As people go through deep change, they tend to enter this elevated state, and they have enormous influence when they're in it. That's when I indentified the four dimensions of "lift."

Of those four dimensions, which do you think is the most difficult for people to embody?

Quinn: I think they're equally hard. Each of the four is incredibly difficult. Take the first one as an example. Everyone wants to believe they are results-centered. Most of the time, this is a self-deception. Our actual stance is comfort-centered. We are seldom proactive. The same holds true for the others.

I found it interesting that you use the metaphor of the Wright Brothers' quest for flight throughout the book.

Quinn: After I wrote the first two drafts of the book, Ryan and I had a telephone call with Steve Piersanti, the CEO of Berrett-Koehler. Steve led us through a brainstorming session that helped us simplify and clarify some of the core concepts of the book. It was in this session that we came up with the idea of labeling our core concept "lift." The idea was to use the concept of aerodynamic lift as a metaphor for the psychological state and the social influence of lift. At this point, Ryan took over and wrote the next two drafts of the book. As Ryan wrote, he realized that the Wright brothers’ discovery of how to harness aerodynamic lift was similar to our discovery of social and psychological lift, and also that the process they experienced was similar to the process of experiencing lift in everyday life. Their story instructs us and provides us with a metaphor for our efforts to achieve positive influence.

Some executives might look at the ideas in Lift and just not buy into them. When you come across people like that, what can you do to help them be more open-minded?

Quinn: The key is that you almost never present it to them directly. I always start with where they are. I will ask them, "What result to you want to create?" They might say, "I want to create profit." I would then ask, "Well, why?" And I just take them deeper and deeper in terms of getting some increased meaning. I gradually take them through the concepts without directly teaching them anything. The conversation becomes deep and authentic, and they begin to explore things they normally don't think about.

Sometimes in a group setting or high-powered meeting, I'm even more roundabout with that process. I don't say "here's this concept," because they wouldn't understand it. After I work with them awhile, they suddenly get it very clearly. I bring them along one step at a time.

I also turn it on them and ask, "What are your stories? When have you faced a devastating experience? When have you had enormous success that far exceeded anything you could possibly imagine? What happened to you because of it?" Some of them raise their hand and tell a story you'd never hear in a business setting. As people start to get it, they start to understand what these simple questions really mean. There's no simpler management model anywhere in the world than the four questions we present in Lift. Once you understand them, you can use them anytime, anywhere. You elevate your emotional cognitive state and you're able to do things you otherwise couldn't.

It almost sounds like you're a therapist for companies.

Quinn: That's exactly right. Sometimes I think of myself as an organizational brain surgeon.

Have you been able to track any quantifiable results after going into a company and walking people through this process?

Quinn: For us to say in advance what quantifiable results people should be measuring defeats the purpose of asking the questions. The questions should come first, and measurement should come second. Again consider that first question, "What result do I want to create?" Once we have real answers to that question, measurement not only becomes easier, it also becomes more meaningful.

On the other hand, if you mean, "Have you measured the social and psychological impact of lift in a scientific sense?" then the answer is, "Yes and no." There have been countless studies that measure the various components of lift, but we are just now beginning to design research to measure the impact of all of its components and their interactions. In the meantime, we have countless case studies showing the benefit of using the concept in businesses, homes, communities, and relationships.

Is there a leader in the public eye who exemplifies the four characteristics you describe in the book?

Quinn: In answering this question, it is important to remember that lift is a state, not a trait. This means that no one exemplifies these characteristics all of the time. It also means that there are very few people who have not experienced these characteristics at least once or twice. We have met, however, a number of people who exemplify these characteristics often. Few of them are public figures, but we highlight these people in our book and on our blog.

As for specific public figures, we tend to be wary of making claims without interacting with people personally because the media allows people today to do exceptional image management. Even so, some public figures in the business arena who may fit this description were described in Jim Collins’ book, Good to Great. In his book, Collins asked how a good company could become a great company. At first he wasn't interested in looking at the leadership in these great companies, but his employees came back and said, "You've got to look at leadership. These guys are different than everybody else!"

He didn't believe them, but they showed him the data. The incredible thing they found was the CEOs who had enormous impacts were humble. That was a word no one ever associated with CEOs, and so the question is how do you account for Collins' finding? I believe that what accounts for it is that those are the kind of people who exemplify what we're talking about. They're deeply sensitive to people's needs. They're focused and very task-oriented, but they don't have any need for the public eye. When they analyzed the secondary data in that study, they found there were twice as many articles about CEOs in the control group as there were about the CEOs in the "great" group.

Why is the concept of lift, and the characteristics behind it, so important to put into practice?

Quinn: Wayne Baker [Sparks Whirpool Corporate Research Professor of Management and Organizations at Ross] does research on networks and positive energy. He finds that in any given work setting, there are some people who give energy and others who just absorb it all. That energy data of his predicts four times the productivity that he used to get when he asked questions about power, like who controls information.

Lift is about teaching people to become energizers. If you can practice the concepts over time, they become natural to you. You will do better, and you will elevate others. You'll likely start to move up in your company or organization because you'll be so valuable. Before positive organizational scholarship [POS] came along a few years ago, the world was oblivious to this way of thinking. We believed that emotion is nothing, and it's all about being smart and politically powerful. But if it's true that emotion and feelings are as powerful as all this data and POS are showing them to be, lift is the mechanism by which someone can do something about it.

You recently debuted What is the goal of your blog?

Quinn: Ryan noticed that there aren't many POS blogs out there. He thought this was kind of a natural starting point. He asked me to be a regular contributor. But he also got a number of people around the field to make contributions as well. The idea is to have a really high quality set of outputs, and to try to engage as many people in the ideas of POS as possible.

—Leah Sipher-Mann

For more information, contact:
Bernie DeGroat, (734) 936-1015 or 647-1847,