Executive coaches and leadership consultants who encourage positive thinking often encounter cynical, hard-driving executives with a close eye on the bottom line.
But positivity coaches have come a long way since author Norman Vincent Peale preached his positive philosophy of faith and miracles. Today’s positive-psychology movement is founded on empirical evidence. Social scientists have documented the benefits of optimism, emotional intelligence and happiness in multiple work settings.
Positive leadership is no longer seen as a feel-good ideal with little bearing on business results. Mounting evidence reveals that leaders who focus on their people’s positive contributions, while concomitantly achieving tough goals through measurable tasks, enjoy higher performance outcomes.
While positive leadership is gaining traction among CEOs and executive teams, it’s often poorly understood and implemented. University of Michigan management professor Kim S. Cameron, PhD, offers a cogent definition of the term in his new book, Practicing Positive Leadership: Tools and Techniques That Create Extraordinary Results (Berrett-Koehler Publishers, 2013):
“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.”
Finding the Right Feedback Ratio
A wave of research reveals that “soft”-sounding positive management practices – including conversations focused on dreams, strengths and possibilities – motivate people to achieve higher performance levels. In fact, the more positive the message, the better the outcome.
But managers are charged with pointing out what’s not working and solving real problems – a mandate that presents a potentially frustrating leadership dilemma: How can you focus on the positive when continually required to make corrections?
Richard Boyatzis, PhD, a professor of organizational behavior at the Weatherhead School of Management at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, offers a pragmatic solution: “You need the negative focus to survive, but a positive one to thrive. You need both, but in the right ratio.”
Let’s quantify this ratio. Effective leaders should provide 3-5 positive messages for every negative message they deliver. Your communication must skew heavily toward the positive, without sounding incongruent or inauthentic. If you fail to “accentuate the positive” (to borrow a World War II-era song title), you remain stuck in negative feedback patterns that demotivate your staff.
Barbara L. Frederickson, PhD, a psychologist at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, has found that positive feelings expand our awareness of a wider range of possibilities. Instead of looking at what needs to be fixed, we learn to focus on what’s right and needs to be reinforced. When we emphasize positive deeds, using positive language, achievement builds upon itself.
Dr. Frederickson’s psychology research shows that a positive focus bestows greater attentiveness, more flexible problem-solving, enhanced creativity and improved teamwork.
You can identify companies that have implemented positive practices throughout history and compare their mission statements with those of their less successful counterparts.
Positivity clearly appears in mission statements that value societal contributions over the desire to be “No. 1”:
o Ford Motor Company: democratize the auto (1900s)
o Boeing: bring the world into the jet age (1950s)
o Sony: obliterate the image of poor-quality Japanese goods (1960s)
o Apple: one person, one computer (1980s)
Compare those mission statements with the following:
o GE: be No. 1 or 2 in every market we serve
o Walmart: become the first trillion-dollar company
o Philip Morris: knock off R.J. Reynolds as the No. 1 tobacco company
o Nike: crush Adidas
o Honda: destroy Yamaha
Improving your leadership positivity starts with your organization’s mission statement. Ask “why” you and your organization are here; then, ask yourself and your colleagues what you/they want on a deeper level:
- Which values merit coming to work each day to give your best?
- How will you inspire staff and customers to make contributions that benefit the world?
Begin to transform your team by attaching everything you say and do to higher goals and values. Leaders, managers and staff become more positive when they pay attention to the language they use. Rephrase statements in a more positive way, without sacrificing honesty or reality.
If you’re in a management position, everything you say – or don’t say – is magnified, making it even more important to boost your positive/negative ratio. Aim for a least a 3:1 (ideally, a 5:1) ratio of positive to negative statements. When you adopt this approach, others will follow suit.
Show Frequent Appreciation
Instead of seizing on what your people do wrong, start to verbally acknowledge what they’re doing right. Track and recognize progress. Most people perform better when they know they’re appreciated, even if it’s only for small wins.
This doesn’t mean you should suppress bad news. Instead, learn to deliver it in ways that are less likely to provoke defensiveness. Your execution will improve with practice. You’ll gain respect and better performance outcomes.
In Search of Best Practices
If we want to staff our organizations with executives who can deliver results and demonstrate superior social skills, we need to start identifying them during the hiring and promotion processes.
Results-oriented executives can learn to improve their social skills by retaining an experienced executive coach. Additionally, organizations can improve their effectiveness by:
- Hiring for both technical and social skills
- Training equally for social skills and technical savvy
- Rewarding goal attainment and displays of social skill
- Promoting those who demonstrate social prowess
CEOs and upper management must realize that rewarding achievement alone has its limits. Organizations must provide incentives for behaviors, even when people take risks and “fail up.”