What is an Upward Spiral?

BlueSpiralUpwardIn September, 2011, Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz wrote in his Letter to America, “Yours is the voice that can help ignite the contagious upward spiral of confidence that our country desperately needs.” He continued,“We must be catalysts for change… waiting for Washington to act is not a plan of action.”

Why is the CEO of a major public corporation asking everyday citizens to help shift the country’s cultural climate? And what does he mean by an “upward spiral”?

In a way, we know what Schultz means by an upward spiral.  It is the antidote to a downward spiral: a way to reverse destructive cycles that drag groups down to their lowest level.

Any leader with a vision knows exactly what I mean. How do you get your team to care? Your banker to take a risk? Your customers and partners to trust that you will deliver?

Knowing how to reverse downward spirals and mobilize upward spirals can revolutionize how you lead, in business and in life.

The Upward Spiral as a Metaphor for Growth

If a downward spiral is a metaphor for deterioration, an upward spiral is a metaphor for growth. Many things in nature grow in spirals, from ferns to seashells to whirlpools. They can be as small the double-helix of a protein molecule, and as large as the spiral arms of the Milky Way. No wonder the spiral is universally recognized as a symbol for growth.

We can define an upward spiral as any self-reinforcing process that creates a valuable resource as it grows.

Though Schultz focuses on confidence, that resource could also be trust, accountability, knowledge, or any asset that helps a business or community thrive. According to Rosabeth Moss Kanter’s book, Confidence, investing in the core resource or infrastructure a team needs is the secret sauce of a successful turnaround.

The Power of Positive Influence

The central truth that makes an upward spiral possible is that individuals can operate in both highly effective and highly dysfunctional ways. Recent research in social psychology and neuroscience proves what Steve Jobs knew long ago: we have enormous hidden potential, but it has to be activated. According to Ryan and Robert Quinn, authors of Lift, we can learn to activate this potential in ourselves. As Malcolm Gladwell highlights in blink, even intelligence is not fixed: picture yourself as a college professor and your score in Trivial Pursuit can go up by 30%.

But sometimes we need help. For five years, John McCain maintained his courage and honor as a POW in Vietnam. It wasn’t willpower, he says. It was hearing the quiet taps on the wall from fellow prisoners each time he was taken to be questioned. When teams do this for each other, according to positive leadership researchers, Cameron, Dutton and Quinn, they generate more ideas, create new knowledge and increase their performance as individuals and as a team. The secret is positive influence:  the ability to activate another person’s potential.

But What about “Them”?

Before we invest our energy in another person, we need to believe that hidden potential is there. Sometimes this is not so clear. For example, a colleague and I recently met with the CEO of a small business that had hit a plateau. (I’ll call him Hari.) Despite a stream of product innovations, they were losing customers faster than they could replace them. But Hari could not get his team to care about service. “They just aren’t the caliber of professional I need,” he concluded. “Unfortunately, I can’t afford to replace them all at once.”

When systems are stuck, we naturally retreat into our corners. Executives close their doors. Teams eat at separate tables. Congress-people stop playing poker with those from the other side of the aisle.

At times like these, it takes radical imagination to picture anything changing.

Imagine for a moment you are in Nashville. It is 1960. For three months, you have been sitting at lunch counters at which you are not welcome. You have been humiliated, threatened, beaten or arrested. Today, 4000 of you have gathered in the courthouse square. Mayor Ben West comes out to talk; but how do you speak to someone so false that they campaign with black voters, then do nothing to end segregation?

Eventually, 22-year-old Diane Nash steps to the front of the group. “Do you believe segregation is wrong?” she asks the mayor.  He agrees that it is. “Will you use your prestige as mayor to ask for an end to segregation?” she continues. He asks all citizens present not to engage in segregation. “Does that include the lunch counters?” she persists. Cornered, he reluctantly answers, yes. “Wait a minute,” calls out another protester. “Are you really asking for an end to the segregation of eating facilities?” There is silence in the square. Then Mayor Ben West replies with force. “Right, that’s absolutely right.” Suddenly, he and the black leaders are embracing each other. And with that, desegregation has begun.

Up until the moment it happened, few saw the potential for this breakthrough. Yet with just three questions, Diane Nash helped the mayor make a decision he was proud to have made. Though enormous fortitude and courage were required to get to that moment, and though the work to achieve equality continues, her actions in that moment enabled a very important step.

Could our client CEO Hari achieve a similar breakthrough?

When my colleague and I met with Hari’s team, we discovered the answer was yes. His staff was energetic, intelligent and committed to great service — but they were discouraged. They needed certain documentation to be able to answer customer questions, but their requests had gone unanswered. Hari didn’t need to convince them to care!  He needed to provide the documentation they asked for, then hold them accountable for using it to deliver better service.

The Right Combination of Yes’s and No’s

As you can see, positive influence is not about “being positive” in the usual sense. Often, it includes saying no. “We are better than this,” says Howard Schultz in his letter. He then called on business leaders to withhold campaign contributions until Congress reaches a transparent, comprehensive and fair debt and deficit package. His solutions are not complete solutions. But by outlining both a no and a yes, Schultz took a first step toward reversing the downward spiral and mobilizing an upward one.

What is the right combination of yes’s and no’s for your situation? What is your version of “not waiting for Washington to act?” Is your team waiting for something and you just don’t know it? Does the leader need something from you before they can take the next step? How can you spark the hidden potential in your team, through an invitation or challenge?

A longer version of this post was originally published by Elizabeth Doty entitled, “What is an Upward Spiral?” at Worklore.com on December 1, 2011.