Professor Emeritus of management and organizations Robert E. Quinn, co-founder of the Center for Positive Organizations, spoke to about 100 students and educators about bringing out the best in employees and students on Thursday afternoon at the Ross School of Business. The talk focused on how authentic group discussions are the most constructive way to create a better work environment. 

The lecture centered on the analogy of turning horses into unicorns, which Quinn used to mean turning good employees and students into great ones. 

“This is the central question that I want to lay out: how can … leaders and others turn horses into unicorns?” Quinn said. “The real question is, how do you turn an ordinary company into a great company.” 

Quinn then introduced a colorful pie chart based on a balance of virtues and their vices. This chart was meant to show managers that every action has a pro and a con. For example, Quinn said encouraging creative action could also potentially introduce chaos.

“The thing that’s different about this particular picture is that it’s cognitively balanced and the virtues have opposites,” Quinn said. “This picture is very simple, yet very complex. The average manager does not have this picture in their head.”

His final point, social excellence, was based on the story of Gerry Anderson, chief executive officer of DTE Energy. When the recession of 2008 hit, Quinn said Anderson consulted with a financial advisor and was told he would have to cut his labor force. According to Quinn, Anderson decided to be honest with his employees. 

“Gerry goes to his ‘herd of horses’ and he says, ‘Let me share with you what’s really going on,’” Quinn said. “‘I don’t want to downsize. I’ll do anything to avoid downsizing. Problem is, I don’t know what to do. I believe you (the employees) do.’” 

Quinn made the point CEOs do not typically admit when they do not know something. However, Quinn claimed Anderson’s authenticity helped the company have its best year in 2010. 

Chinelo Onuigbo, CJ Greer and Ty Moreno are master’s students in the School of Social Work. Onuigbo said the three came to the talk for a class. Moreno also said they wanted to learn new leadership styles.

“We came here because we’re learning about new leadership styles and new philosophies,” Moreno said. “Not just, ‘You do what I say,’ but, ‘What does the group want?’ The idea of group wisdom versus manager wisdom.” 

Onuigbo said she enjoyed the talk and liked the multiple options provided.

“There were a lot of different models to consider and maybe adapt to different scenarios and work styles,” Onuigbo said. 

Greer said he particularly liked the example with Anderson. 

“I thought that the talk was very innovative, and it was very practical in the examples that it used, especially hitting close to home using DTE as an example,” Greer said. 

However, though Moreno enjoyed the talk, she admitted she had heard much of it before. She speculated the talk might be differently received by different age groups in the audience. 

 “Individuals from the community who are out of school and are much older and maybe learning this as something brand new,” Moreno said. “And there’s students who, I think from our generation, are already hip to this. It’s very intuitive because we are not a generation who wants to be told what to do. We aren’t a generation that doesn’t have confidence in our own answers. To see this laid out in an educational framework is nice, but I didn’t think it was revolutionary.” 

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