Positive Leadership in Action
Positive leadership has gained traction amongst hard-driving executives with a keen eye on the bottom line. Founded on empirical evidence, the benefits of optimism, emotional intelligence and happiness in a variety of work settings have been documented by social scientists.
But even as the practice of positive leadership expands among CEOs and executive teams, it’s often misunderstood and poorly implemented. It’s a bit more complex than expressing a positive attitude, celebrating progress, encouraging team spirit, fostering positive relationships and espousing inspirational values. As defined by University of Michigan management professor Kim S. Cameron:
Positive leadership refers to the implementation of multiple positive practices that help individuals and organizations achieve their highest potential, flourish at work, experience elevating energy and achieve levels of effectiveness difficult to attain otherwise. ~ Kim S. Cameron, PhD, Practicing Positive Leadership: Tools and Techniques That Create Extraordinary Results (Berrett-Koehler Publishers, 2013)
In today’s businesses and organizations, positive practices are truly rare. Two key factors explain our natural resistance to positivity:
- 1. Negativity bias: Physiologically, our brains are hardwired to pay more attention to issues that threaten our survival (negative supersedes positive).
- 2. Leadership pressures: In spite of our best intentions, problems steal attention from positive practices.
So how do managers and leaders focus on positivity and solving real problems, when continually pressured to make corrections?
The Right Ratio
According to Richard Boyatzis, PhD, “You need the negative focus to survive, but a positive one to thrive. You need both, but in the right ratio.”
Leaders successful with positive communication provide 3–5 positive, authentic messages for every negative message they deliver.
Managers and leaders who focus conversations on strengths, possibilities and dreams motivate and support people to achieve higher performance levels.
Failure to focus on the positive reinforces negative feedback patterns that demotivate your staff, and block problem solving, creativity and innovation.
The Benefits of Positivity
Notable researcher and scholar, Barbara L. Frederickson, PhD, has found that we are open to a wider range of possibilities when we experience positive feelings. If we learn to focus on what’s right, we can avoid being caught up in what needs fixing, stuck in problem-centric thinking. By emphasizing positive actions, with positive language, success builds success.
Neuroscience has found that positive feelings stimulate the brain’s reward center, releasing neurotransmitters such as dopamine. Our natural response to these mood-elevating chemical compounds is to crave more, which incents us to accomplish the small tasks that lead to achieving our large goals. This process sets the stage for our success.
As Dr. Frederickson’s research reveals, a positive focus, or positivity, produces more attentive and flexible problem-solving, greater creativity and improved teamwork.
Divergent Brain Functions
The frontal lobe of the brain is engaged when we perform analytical tasks or participate in technical conversations. When our discussions focus on people and feelings (social conversations), our inner brain, which manages memories and emotions, is engaged.
Through neurological imaging, researchers have found that the frontal lobe of the brain is more active in results-focused leaders, compared to the inner brain of more socially minded leaders.
Typically, leaders are promoted for their technical skills and prowess, not their social skills or emotional intelligence. Historically, goal-oriented bosses are perceived as great leaders by 14% of their employees surveyed, and socially skilled bosses by 12%. When bosses are both technically and socially adept, this number jumps to 72%. Unfortunately, only 1% of bosses excel in both skills.
Positive Leadership in Action
Unlike TQM or Six Sigma processes, positivity is a principle. As such, successful implementation requires clearly defined action steps.
Positive leadership begins in the mission and values of an organization, passes through leadership teams via expression of positive values, goals and incentives; assists managers with Implementation and tracking; and ensures that every individual understands the objectives and their role to receive rewards.
Organizations that practice positivity can be identified throughout history; consider the following mission statements:
- • Ford Motor Company: democratize the auto (1900s)
- • Boeing: bring the world into the jet age (1950s)
- • Sony: obliterate the image of poor-quality Japanese goods (1960s)
- • Apple: one person, one computer (1980s)
Now, compare the previous statements with these:
- • GE: be No. 1 or 2 in every market we serve
- • Walmart: become the first trillion–dollar company
- • Philip Morris: knock off R.J. Reynolds as the No. 1 tobacco company
- • Nike: crush Adidas
- • Honda: destroy Yamaha
It’s clear the positive messages that value societal contributions versus the desire to be number one.
Take a look at your organization’s mission statement. What is their purpose? Why are they here? Then, ask yourself the same question. What is it that you, and your colleagues, are seeking? On the deepest level, what do you want?
- • What values motivate you to go beyond showing up, and give your best, every day?
- • How will you motivate staff, and clients, to contribute in ways that benefit the world?
Positive leadership in action includes language and communication. Connect everything you say and do to higher goals and values. Without sacrificing honesty or reality, use positive words and phrases to communicate. The entire organization becomes more positive when they are mindful of language and word choices.
Verbal and non-verbal communication from leaders is magnified and often repeated, so it’s important for leaders to boost their positive to negative ratio. For every negative message, set a goal of three positive statements (5:1 is ideal). Others will emulate your standards and practice.
For critical thinkers, it’s easy to see what is wrong and what could be done better. Positive leadership uses that same skill set to recognize and acknowledge best practices – what your people are doing right. Recognize and reward progress. Most people shine when appreciated, and perform better when gratitude is expressed.
Before delivering bad news (negative messages), consider how it supports your mission and values. Without suppressing information, phrase it positive ways that are less likely to provoke defensiveness. With practice, your execution will improve. You’ll gain trust, respect and better performance outcomes whether you’re simply engaging in casual conversations, official performance reviews or formal presentations.
Positive Leadership Best Practices
The importance of sustainable happiness, especially in the workplace, is becoming more and more urgent. Engagement initiatives are not enough to bring employees to life; they need to flourish and thrive in order to fully contribute to the success of the company. Staffing our organizations with executives who practice positive leadership (or can demonstrate superior social skills) is critical, and begins with identification during the hiring and promotion processes.
Hard-driving, goal-oriented leaders with room to improve their social skills can learn from an experienced executive coach. Additionally, organizations can:
- 1. Hire for both technical and social skills
- 2. Train equally for social skills and technical savvy
- 3. Reward goal attainment and displays of social skill
- 4. Promote those who demonstrate social skills
Rewarding achievement alone has its limits. CEOs and upper management who realize this provide goals and incentives for behaviors, without exempting people who take risks and “fail up.”
Socially intelligent leaders are most effective, and can be trained, coached and rewarded to improve in this skill set, via:
- 1. Connecting mission to values
- 2. Day-to–day conversations
- 3. Performance reviews and feedback
- 4. Goals, incentives, recognition and pay
Identify and implement an action plan, and include every aspect of communication. Adjustments at the individual level will transform your work culture into a sustainable happy organization that values results and social relationships.
Positive leadership empowers employees at all levels to flourish, sustain energy and reach peak performance. Conversations that focus on people’s strengths, desires and dreams generate positive emotions and energy that drive us to work harder.
Researchers in positive psychology have demonstrated that sustainable happiness is a choice. Is it yours? Let me know how I can help you put positive leadership in action; send me an email or connect with me on LinkedIN.