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Words Shape Perceptions and Results in the Workplace

Communication is one of the most central functions of life. Like air, the words leaders speak can give life to a business. But words can also constrain and limit realities for individual employees, teams, and organizations. Leaders that talk about what is wrong and ignore what might be limit what is possible. Fighting the fire of the day is not unimportant but considering the best of what is and what might be is a priority for inspiring a shared vision. Shared vision enables growth, embodies hopes, and gives an organization a sense of purpose.

Changing Your Mindset to Change Your Results

Many current work processes are designed to identify deficits and problems rather than find strengths. A deficit thinking approach starts with leaders identifying shortcomings and then selecting solutions to improve those shortcomings. The goal is to see all the potential gaps so that continuous improvements can be introduced. While this approach leads to progress, this approach does not identify what you want beyond knowing the solution to the problem.

Deficit thinking leadership approaches are failing business and society. This mindset has led to incremental workplace improvements, a flood of low cost, high-quality disposable products, and a lack of innovation.

While deficit thinking has been used successfully in many organizations, it is not without risks. Deficit thinking techniques can put people on the defensive, create resistance, a lack of buy-in, and in some cases develop a culture of blame rather than encourage change. How engaged will employees be if they believe leadership views them as problems needing to be fixed?

Additionally, when leaders are always approaching employees about what is wrong, eventually, employees associate the leader with being the problem. Even if what the leader has to share is helpful to the business. You know this link has occurred when hearing others say sarcastically, "I am from corporate, and I am here to help." They are saying this because they know they are not being viewed as helpful.

Compared with strengths-based approaches, deficit-oriented thinking leads to lower employee engagement, lower levels of performance improvement, and higher employee attrition rates. In learning studies, it has been found that individuals engaged in approaches to identify deficits have lower perceptions of competence and lower intrinsic motivation than strength-based approaches.

Strength-Based Thinking

I define strength as the best of what is and potential for the best of what can be within a person, team, or organization. Strength-based thinking is not ignoring weaknesses; instead, it is about prioritizing and pursuing understanding, reinforcing, and leveraging the best of what can be. Appreciative framing and appreciative interviews are two strength-based skills that support strength-based thinking.

Appreciative Framing: Individuals, teams, and organizations move in the direction that is repeatedly discussed, and questions are asked. Appreciative inquiry assumes that our inquiries define outcomes, and we influence the results by discussing them. Appreciative framing is taking a given focal point for transformation and restating it as an opportunity. The following are some examples:

Framed as Concerns

  • Bias in the workplace

  • Customer complaints

  • Missed opportunities

  • Absence of leadership

Framed as Opportunities

  • Embracing differences at work

  • Exceptional customer support

  • Seeing new challenges

  • Growing exceptional leaders

Facilitating Appreciative Interviews: Every employee and team has strengths. In contrast to deficit thinking, the focus is on what has worked, what is working, and the strengths. An appropriately developed appreciative interview builds on these points to guide the individual and team toward a positive future. Then where you are listening, it is essential to focus on the positive things happening in the story, how they are happening, and what attributes make their dreams and wishes so exciting. Once the focal point of the discussion is framed appreciatively, a couple of my favorite appreciative questions are:

  • What would you wish for if you had three wishes to dramatically improve your organization's health and vitality? (no, you cannot wish for more wishes)

  • Imagine it is five years from today, and everything you had hoped for and hoped for related to the appreciative focal point of the interview has come true. What would you see and hear? Describe the changes with people, processes, places, products, and services. Describe what you or others have done to make these changes possible.

Embracing a strength-based approach prompts us to explore new and creative ways of approaching our work, solving problems, completing projects, and more. Instead of our words working against us or limiting us, strengths-based thinking works in our favor.

If you are looking for executive coaching or need a change management consultancy, we're ready to partner with you to craft a solution specific to your organization's context and challenges. Getting started is as easy as visiting or contacting us via email Organizational Talent Consulting utilizes proven, simple, and transformational personal and organizational development solutions to help our clients learn, change, and apply tools in ways that benefit their unique needs and corporate culture.


Brown, T. (2009). Change by design: How design thinking transforms organizations and inspires innovation. Harper Collings Publishers.

Cooperrider, D. and Srivastva, S. (1987). Appreciative inquiry in organizational life. In R. Woodman and W. Pasmore (Eds.), Research in organizational change and development, Vol. 1, pp. 129–169.

Greenaway, K. H., Wright, R. G., Willingham, J., Reynolds, K. J., & Haslam, S. A. (2015). Shared Identity Is Key to Effective Communication. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 41(2), 171–182.

Hodges, T. D., & Clifton, D. O. (2004). Strengths‐based development in practice. In P. A. Linley, & S. Joseph (Eds.), (pp. 256-268). John Wiley & Sons, Inc.

Hiemstra, D., & Van Yperen, N. W. (2015). The effects of strength-based versus deficit-based self-regulated learning strategies on students' effort intentions. Motivation and Emotion, 39(5), 656-668.

Wolff, P., & Holmes, K. J. (2011). Linguistic relativity. Wiley Interdisciplinary Reviews. Cognitive Science, 2(3), 253-265.


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Hi, I'm Dr. Jeff Doolittle. I'm determined to make your personal and professional goals a reality. My only question is, are you?

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About Dr. Jeff Doolittle

He is the founder of Organizational Talent Consulting in Grand Rapids, MI, and Program Director of online graduate and continuing business education at Olivet Nazarene University in Bourbonnais, IL. Executive leaders who work with Jeff describe him as thoughtful, decisive, intelligent, and collaborative. Jeff is a business executive with over twenty years of talent development and organizational strategy experience working with C-suite leaders in Fortune 100, Forbes top 25 private, for-profit, non-profit, and global companies in many industries.

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