What is Positive Leadership and why does it matter? Does “positive” mean that you can’t be critical? Of course not. By all means, keep thinking critically. “Positive” refers to a positive mindset while you stay grounded in reality and keep checking the facts, also those that don’t fit the story you tell yourself! Let’s explore the topic of positive leadership: what is it, why does it matter and how can you and your organization or clients benefit from it?
The simplicity of the positive leadership concept always strikes me, yet the research evidence is compelling: applying it makes a difference. If you’re a leader, you have a direct effect on the lives of others at a surprisingly powerful level. If you’re a coworker, you also have a very direct effect on those around you. If you’re a consultant, coach or other professional: likewise.
There are many books to read but here is my summarized introduction to Positive Leadership. Based on positive psychology, it departs from an “abundance mindset”. In a way, it has faith that there will be enough for everyone. It seeks to enlarge the pie instead of dividing its parts resulting in winners and losers. A bigger pie will make everyone win more.
Most of us are used to aim for the default baseline: “We fix a problem to go back to normal”. Positive leadership aims for positive deviance. “We are performing beyond expectations, and we are living up to our greatest potential as an organization. We are the best version of ourselves that we can be.” Positive leadership tries to stretch what seems possible – but without abusing people. It raises the bar and lifts teams to greater performance and pleasure.
It builds on what is already working well. It appreciates people for their unique contributions. It is trusting people so that they will surprise you in a positive way. It means acknowledging good things and actions. It includes leadership basics such as connecting with and caring for people, being authentic and honest, communicating continuously and coaching people as well as stimulating them with compliments.
Return on Investment of Positivity
Executive coach Steve Gladis researched the researchers on positivity before he wrote his summary in “Positive Leadership – the Game Changer at Work”. Let’s explore his book to gather more facts and practical positive leadership behaviors.
First, do we need to change “the game” at work? In most organizations the answer is a firm yes. Most people have heard of this notorious Gallup research: Currently, only 20% of the work population is actively engaged at work – so 80% are not!
Many people dread going to work on Monday because their “industrial age-organization” makes them suffer or barely survive. This negativity leads to disengagement and a 30% lack of productivity (Buckingham, 2005) while happy employees are 31% more productive and 300% more creative (Lyubomirsky, 2008). These research numbers combined state that 80% of the work population is producing 31% less than what they are capable of. That means a huge missed opportunity, both financially and in terms of wellbeing!
You choose your positivity level
But we shouldn’t ascribe disengagement completely to the boss, the old-fashioned workplace or that dull job. It is easy to blame outside factors and others, but research won’t have it. Everyone can take ownership of their (work) life when they realize: 50% of your happiness is inherited.
Half of how happy you are, is passed down through your gene pool. So be it… But check this: all your life events and circumstances add up to only 10% of the variance in your happiness level. Even major negative and positive events such as the death of a loved one and winning the lottery only account for 10% of your happiness! That lousy project and that numbing organization don’t have to bring you down. (For me, this is a surprising outcome. I would have expected adversity to have a bigger impact, but I’m glad I’m wrong.)
Apart from your genetic default and what life throws at you, you control 40% of your personal happiness. That is a big number within your control. Imagine what you can achieve with that 40% – by adopting a positive mindset and applying positive leadership to yourself and others.
Research shows that you control 40% of your personal happiness Click To Tweet
Why is positivity so critical for leaders?
Steve Gladis shares a story about his former bosses Phil and Bill. Phil was open, playful, easy and safe to talk to, and Steve enjoyed his job and team. Then Phil got promoted and was replaced by Bill. Bill was judgmental and distrusting and infected the team with his attitude, remarks and behaviors. To Steve’s surprise coworkers started to distrust each other. One after the other, people quit (in line with the research that people leave their bosses, not their jobs or the company). Does that resonate with you? I have similar experiences with former bosses.
Authority, either from Phil or Bill, has a powerful influence on followers because the leader archetype affects us all – whether we’re aware of it or not, and whether we like it or not. Remember the notorious Milgram experiment in the 1960s where people obeyed authority figures and inflicted what would have been fatal electric shocks to other people (no actual shock was applied – the others were actors). We have been trained to rely on and obey to the leadership of our parents, teachers, and elders. It is deeply embedded in our subconscious mind.
In addition to our focus on leadership, the amygdala in our brains scans the environment for potential dangers, like a smoke detector. “It is always on and stimulates the injection of hormones for fight and flight. Its basic question is: Will this threat eat me, or can I eat it? (Goleman, 2007).”
If we assess something as a threat, we will focus on it which narrows our scope, creativity and ability to think of creative solutions. In contrast, our normal peripheral vision offers an 180-degree panoramic vision – but under stress this is reduced!
“When we get overstressed through the grind of threat after threat in our fast-paced world, we invest more energy to keep things afloat. (…) Eventually, all that stress pushes us in a state of negativity called dissonance. Dissonance produces poor judgment, disharmony and ultimately dysfunction (Boyatzis). Under these conditions, our visual field can narrow to as little as 30 degrees, depending on the severity of the threat. We get fixated only on what is in front of us – often making poor decisions – because we lack the advantages of peripheral vision (greater data input).”
Stress creates tunnel vision and makes us vulnerable to judgment errors, jumping to conclusions, getting defensive and worse. Moreover, it’s spreading. Gladis says: “Leaders are like WiFi broadcasting a signal that gets picked up by roaming wireless network connectors in the brains of coworkers. Thus, leaders set the mood of the workplace and create a long-term culture over time.”
Fortunately, in case of positive leadership, this can be a good thing. Research shows that working in the vicinity of a positive leader, makes you positive (Goleman, Biyatzis, McKee, 2004).
Some theorists even say that we affect people at least three levels out beyond ourselves. Imagine a “contagion” of positivity, spreading because you decided to make a difference!
How can leaders increase positivity?
Gladis breaks it down in three things: get social in your relationships, get strong at work and get positive in your activities. I’ll highlight a few things because we can always use reminders – even though many of Gladis’ advices are rather obvious.
All people need to bond with other people – we have to be social to stay happy and healthy. That means making time for family, friends and coworkers – not just focusing on targets and work deadlines. What’s your natural tendency? Mine is to focus on getting things done – so I have to remind myself of making time for people.
Moreover, researcher Marcel Losada found that people need a ration of 3:1 of positive to negative interactions to maintain a healthy relationship. A 2:1 ratio produces a flat-line relationship and 1:1 even means you’re in danger of breaking up.
Building relationships includes your boss: it’s the most critical relationship outside of your family (Goleman, 2007). It’s wise to invest time in your boss and look for similarities because people will like people who are like them (Cialdini). Building relationships with your coworkers is crucial as well. They will assess whether you’re a threat or an asset to the team – so: get to know them, find similarities and help them out. Building relationships comes down to caring for people and giving them attention, communicating regularly and asking lots of questions.
Use your strengths
Positive leadership also requires getting strong at work. Gladis emphasizes to get to know yourself and become more aware of what you need and what makes you happy – for instance with a personality test like MBTI, or DISC.
When you know yourself, you can arrange your work around your strengths to become positive, happy and effective. Being aware of your weaker points also helps – and you may appreciate diversity in your team even more.
Get positive and purposeful
Looking at yourself and your team, how do you regard your work? Lyubomirsky (2008) found that there are three mindsets about work: people can see work as a job, a career or a calling.
The job viewpoint: people watch the clock because work is just their way to make a living.
People who want to achieve something and climb the ladder, have a career viewpoint. Rather than watching the clock they watch the calendar to determine their progress.
People who have a calling want to make a difference. They love what they do and do what they love. They neither watch the clock or the calendar, but they have a sense of urgency: it’s time to make a difference! It’s no surprise that this third group is prone to positivity. People with a calling are scattered over all positions. Janitors and bus drivers can have a calling while CEOs can experience their work as a job to pay the bills.
Getting positive in your activities relates to your physical, mental and emotional state as a leader or colleague. Think of getting enough sleep, watching your diet and exercise.
Make yourself peaceful with meditation and mindfulness, watch your self-talk (is it positive?) and make sure to have a preference for doing things rather than buying more stuff.
Actionable positive ideas
Now that you lead yourself in a positive way, you take your energized, positive Self to work and practice gratitude, kindness, optimism and love with your team. A well-known advice is to celebrate successes. You can also start meetings with a positive moment, where everyone shares something they liked. Or, ask your team to write down three good things about team members.
In my experience, this won’t work with every team in every culture right away, so it may take probing and experimenting to find something that fits you and your team. Dutch people, for instance, in their “averaged Dutch organizational culture” will roll their eyes at sharing appreciation. They won’t see the value and may mock positivity, label it naive, or even “American”. The Dutch tend to see Americans as overly positive and exaggerating while they see themselves as realistic, down-to-earth, and clever. Of course, this is a generalization of Dutch culture. Eventually, though, Dutch colleagues are just like all other people. Compliments will do them good as well as keeping an optimistic perspective.
To create a positive team culture with Dutch people, I would introduce the performance effect of positivity. Next, I might playfully challenge them during the coffee break: to share something they like about working here, or about their team members. It wouldn’t be mandatory. I’d just praise the volunteers who share something and next, try to entice the others. This is an example of how I once worked with a skeptical Engineering team, and how you could enhance positivity as well even though it may be uncomfortable in your organizational or national culture.
Gladis recommends keeping a gratitude journal as its positive effects are backed up by research. Each day, before brushing your teeth and going to sleep, write down three things that went well. This won’t take more than a minute and can be really short. But the practice will help your positivity mindset and will make you feel happier.
At work, you can perform gratitude acts such as sending thank you notes or emails. Gladis promotes kindness and random acts of kindness. Kindness works well if you designate one weekday to do three kind things for others. If your day is Wednesday, you prepare the acts on Tuesday night. For instance: you decide to buy the secretary flowers, you will send your coworker a thank-you note for his excellent support with your project, and you’ll help a business relation improve their resume.
Random acts can work equally well. These could entail bringing someone a coffee or helping one stranger with whatever they need, or simply: being a kind, authentic colleague.
Start with Kindness
What would happen if you role model kindness, whatever your position at work? You understand that everyone tries their best, and everyone can make a mistake now and then. So, you show compassion. You don’t take things too personally. So, you don’t make things weigh more than they do.
You see disappointments as information. You’re open to welcome all kinds of information – and you handle anything with a positive-leadership-mindset. That means it’s safe to share “failures” or doubts with you.
You are there for your coworkers and teams. You give genuine attention. You compliment people – while you mean it. It costs nothing. All it takes is you: the best version of you.
You can start today – no matter how busy you are or how challenging it may be to see something good in your coworkers.
But what if positivity is not easy?
Several people objected to the idea of being kind at work when I asked them. “It is not easy to be kind in our organization.” That may be right. It’s not always easy in a corporate environment that does not “do” kindness. But we can uplift the others and choose positive leadership and kindness anyway. Though that takes courage. You may be labeled as weak, idealistic, or you may be mocked. How kindness is perceived, depends on the culture and the leadership team. Yet, positive leadership starts with one person displaying “normal” human kindness and offering a positive perspective… Are you going to be that uplifting example?
Positive leadership starts with one person displaying “normal” human kindness and offering a positive perspective… Are you going to be that uplifting example?
Positive leadership looks simple but to practice it consistently requires (inner) work. Like anything, it’s easier said than done. It requires managing your self-talk, embracing positive possibilities and dealing with your inner critic (and those outside).
Positivity, random acts of kindness, and keeping a gratitude journal may seem “overly positive” – which may evoke reactions from pessimists or cynics who think you’re a naive idealist, or worse. For me, that illustrates how badly development is needed in our workplaces, and how many people have lost hope. Let’s make this difference together!
- How can you enhance your 40% of happiness that is within your control?
- How can you change or strengthen your WiFi signal to uplift others?
- How can you keep yourself relaxed, so you enjoy a wide, creative, resourceful perspective?
- Which of these three is your first focus to enhance: get social, get strong in your work, or get positive in your activities? What one thing will you do differently this week at work? And at home?
- Write down your inner critical or skeptical responses to these ideas and actions. Acknowledge them – and save these statements so you can work to change them later.
Check out, if you like: Positive Leadership – the Game Changer at Work, by Steve Gladis.
Copyright © Marcella Bremer 2015. All rights reserved.
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Marcella Bremer is an author and culture & change consultant. She co-founded Leadership & Change Blog and OCAI-online.com.