Helping Organizations Deal with Despair

Excerpt from “Building Resilience with Appreciative Inquiry: A Leadership Journey through Hope, Despair, and Forgiveness” By Dr. Joan McArthur-Blair and Dr. Jeanie Cockell (Berrett-Koehler).

Organizational despair is that fateful state in which an entire organization or a team within an organization can’t lift its head to the horizon for some reason. Organizational despair arises when an entire leadership group or the organization as a whole is finding itself blocked. The people involved cannot move forward because of experiences, emotions, and systems that are dragging them to a halt. We often are called to work with leadership teams in organizational despair, and we find the causes varied, but all are rooted in a disconnection that has occurred either gradually or suddenly. Often, teams and organizations can’t articulate what is happening, and carry on in the despair. As one leader stated:

“We don’t commonly talk about our fears, and most of us are terrified of despair, of depression, of being immobilized forever by these dark feelings, and so we develop all sorts of defense systems…Sometimes they work, work for years, but ultimately, they go beyond their sell-by date, and it’s only then that you can talk to somebody who is immersed in dark feelings who has successfully avoided them for years…One of the things is about recognizing fear and being able to acknowledge and accept people’s defense mechanisms against those fears and those black holes of despair.”

The causes of organizational despair are as varied as organizations. Some organizations fall into despair due to the inability to bounce back after failures, to a lack of coherence between goals and the ability to achieve them, to issues between or among segments of the organization, to supervisory issues, to the power of negative members of the group, to long-term defeat, and to many situations. Sometimes despair arises during otherwise positive change processes, because of complex interpersonal issues. The difference between individual despair and organizational despair is in its scope of impact on people and systems. When individual leaders are in despair, they can use their strengths to weather what is going on. When an organization or team is in despair, shifting is much more difficult because a collective must tap into its strengths to move forward. For example, we worked with a team in organizational despair. Underneath the despair was a lack of respect for one another. The team members persisted in being critical of one another and assumed others were incompetent. This way of being resulted in an ongoing lack of trust for one another that negatively impacted any strategy or innovation that was brought forward. Although they stated they wanted to move forward, they were frozen by their lack of mutual trust. Organizational despair requires sustained effort both to understand the roots of that despair and also to focus on what is strong inside the organization and how those strengths can be amplified. 

Appreciative inquiry is a powerful force when used for organizational despair. We use AI processes such as the 4-D model (discovery, dream, design, and destiny) supported by an AI approach to mediation, interviews, and visiting and revisiting the smallest of successes in forward movement. The nature of the storytelling and sharing successes begins to shift the feeling that the organization is stuck. To appreciate in this type of situation means to value what is working well, no matter how small, and to be deeply and fully aware of all that is going on. As in the previous example of organizational despair, being fully aware of the issues was an important part of the process. For instance, team members’ lack of trust impacted their ability to lead and move the organization forward, and we needed to hold that issue within the AI processes. During the design phase of the appreciative inquiry in these complex situations, we encourage teams and organizations to develop small steps. 

Small design steps create room for people to practice their resilience together. Examples of these small steps might be 

1. Developing agreements for working well together

2. Developing principles for making decisions

3. Implementing structural changes

4. Reflecting on how they are being and doing together

5. Making changes in how new ideas are presented and discussed

We encourage people to revisit their design steps often to foster, celebrate, and grow the strength of the team or organization. In the example, the team members created design steps to practice trust with each other and be trustworthy with each other. Over time, the team began to move forward and change how it did its work and then was ready for bigger steps…

Organizational despair is accompanied by a sense of urgency in that entire systems are being affected. This urgency often drives proactive attempts to shift the despair and to practice other ways of working and being together. We use the word, “practice,” intentionally with teams and organizations because it is a practice to shift structures and ways of being. It is not a destination that teams and organizations can just decide to arrive at. Rather, it is a daily practice of using the skills of appreciative resilience to either withstand what is going on or to move forward. There have been times in our practice when all we could do was assist teams or organizations with the strength to withstand—a port in the storm—because they could not move to a different way of being at that moment in time. Despair in teams, organizations, or individuals can be based on events or circumstances that create a powerful disconnection from hope. 

Excerpt from “Building Resilience with Appreciative Inquiry: A Leadership Journey through Hope, Despair, and Forgiveness” By Dr. Joan McArthur-Blair and Dr. Jeanie Cockell (Berrett-Koehler).

Dr. Jeanie Cockell and Dr. Joan McArthur-Blair are co-presidents of Cockell McArthur-Blair Consulting and co-authors of “Building Resilience with Appreciative Inquiry,” published by Berrett-Koehler.

Dr. Cockell is a dynamic facilitator known for her ability to get diverse groups to work collaboratively together. For 20 years, she has served as an educational and organizational consultant helping people, organizations, and communities build positive futures and respond effectively to change. 

Dr. McArthur-Blair is an inspirational writer, speaker, and facilitator. She specializes in the use of appreciative inquiry to foster leadership, strategic planning, and innovative strategies for organizational development. 


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