“To crack the leadership code, you’ve got to care about people, you’ve got to be interested in people. I think once you can genuinely be interested in people then developing those skills… will follow. You need to care about people… And show up as the best version of yourself.”

Sue Langley recently spoke with Dr Michelle Pizer, for Crack the Leadership Code 2016, an online leadership summit. Michelle asked Sue for her insights on future leadership trends, and some of the strategies leaders can take to support people, build positive, innovative workplaces and make a real difference.

And before I talk about how you crack the leadership code; can you tell us something you love about your career as a leader?

I love what I do every single day, I have to admit. I like to feel that I’m making a difference out there, as many of us do, and I get to talk about really cool topics every day when it comes to leadership. We talk about emotion intelligence, positive psychology, and neuroscience and how that relates to being effective leaders, and I don’t think you can get much cooler than that, for me personally.

It’s also the feedback that I get from people; literally every day I’m getting a message back from somebody who’s been on one of our programmes, on the difference that it’s made. And that is pretty special, it’s a very lucky place to be and I’m very grateful for every day that I get to spend in this space.

Yeah, it does warm your heart doesn’t it when you get lovely feedback like that, and know you’ve made a difference?

Yeah, it’s not just the leadership space Michelle; it’s also what people do in their home life that’s pretty cool. So although we’re teaching leadership in a corporate setting, often it’s the way they lead their children that actually also makes a difference. So that’s pretty cool too, definitely.

What’s your take on how to crack the leadership code?

That’s always an interesting question, and I think for me it’s always the people-side. So we can all learn how to do the tasks better, we can all learn the eight steps of change model, or the four steps of a good decision-making model and those sorts of things. That’s not what will make a difference. It’s the ability to care about and be interested in people – that’s how we crack it. Because if you think about your role as you get more and more senior as a leader, you’re actually doing less, as in physically from a task perspective you’re doing less; what you’re doing more of is leading through people. You have to be able to lead and influence people in order to get the job done.

So for me in order to crack the leadership code, you’ve got to care about people, you’ve got to be interested in people. I think once you can genuinely be interested in people then developing those skills around reading people’s emptions, understanding where they’re coming from, leveraging the strengths and those sorts of things, leadership will follow. Ultimately you need to care about people.

So how do you make someone care about people?

Well I think it depends on your outcome, I mean hopefully some people do care about people anyway. I believe that most of us get up in the morning trying to be a good person, and we know that from a brain perspective we’re wired for social connection. We know from a wellbeing perspective that relationships are so important to our happiness and health. So I think we’re actually already wired that way.

What happens sometimes in the business world is we sort of get that knocked out of us a little bit in order to focus on the process, the task, and the stress of getting through everything and being productive. And sometimes it’s the people side of things that gets lost along the way. My belief is that most people do genuinely have that ability to care, because it’s how we’re wired.

What about the competitive nature of work? We might care about our co-worker yet feel ‘I want to win’ more?

Yes, that’s really interesting Michelle, because we do a lot of work on identifying people’s strengths, and if you look at how prevalent different strengths are in any group of people using the R2 Strengths Profiler as a lens, being Competitive is actually the biggest weakness here in Australia, and in New Zealand. It’s pretty similar in the UK and the US. So although we might be pretty competitive outside of work and on the sports field, and sometimes within our organisations we are encouraged to be competitive, when we actually report the things we do well that energise us, being competitive comes up least. So maybe it’s time to stop highlighting that.

Most organisations actually want collaboration more than competition. And again, if we look at how we’re wired in terms of social neuroscience; if we can actually help people tap into our strengths in relationships and potential to cooperate, we may find we get better outcomes anyway.

That is a smart move. And I really like the fact that it’s our weakness as well (laughs). It’s not energising, well not for me personally but I’m wondering… obviously it is for some. I just think of the cut-throat nature of the business world, and how this fits.

Yeah, and I think sometimes it does; and again if you look at businesses, what we’re often doing too much of is encouraging this competitive nature to happen within an organisation. Whereas actually what we want to be is outwardly competitive in the market place, yet maybe not inside because that’s where we need more collaboration.

I have to admit, a quote sticks in my head from a very senor leader who was running the Australia/New Zealand arm of a massive global business, one of the biggest in the world. He said something at one of the leadership programs I was running: “We’re very good at turning $20 million deals into $2 million deals, because we’re too busy competing internally”.

Oh… that’s a scary thought!

Yes, it happens all the time because we’re trying to create this… like you said, a sort of cut-throat arena in business. Yet in most organisations I go into, one of their number one things they’re trying to do is break down silos and collaborate more. We’re actually wanting to act the way the brain is wired, so if we can let go some of these old-style corporate cultures and move into where the future is taking us, toward a more caring and collaborative leadership style, we’re probably going to be more successful.

I’m just wondering what is going to make the biggest difference for leadership in the future then?

I think there is a few things. When you think about positive leadership, which is a way of bringing out the best in people that draws in all the research around positive psychology and positive organisational scholarship; and link it to neuroscience to understand the way our brains work, you’ll find that when people are in a more positive emotional state they are more creative, more productive. We learn more and take in more information; we’re better at problem solving, we’re better at new ideas, we’re actually better at connecting people and we build those social connections. Plus, it’s also really good for us in terms of resilience, optimism and even physical health when we’re in a positive emotional space. Positive leaders create those kinds of environments in the workplace.

Many organisations are starting to latch onto this. If they can create a more positive culture where positive emotions predominate over negative emotions, where strengths predominate over the deficit model, where leaders are positive and show they care about people, they get great results. If I look at one client we’ve been working with, a global energy company, over the last three years they’ve been rolling out this learning around the way the brain is wired, building on positive leadership as far as positive relationships, communication, climate and meaning, we’ve seen a shift in the culture of that organisation.

They’re one of ten companies worldwide that are now included in the UN Diversity Program. They’re coming up with more innovative ideas, and they have an innovation program that’s really working to build on what they do well and take them streets ahead of the competition. They’ve incorporated people’s desire for meaning and purpose into their innovations in that they’ve designed these really cool little solar-panelled lights and water… I don’t know the technical term, water ‘things’ they give to villages in Africa to purify water and provide electrical lighting through the sun.

So they’re doing really great things for the environment, and I’ve seen the culture shift when I go into the offices. I’ve seen people that have been through some of the programs really start to change the way that they lead. When you see that happen, the energy in the place is just fantastic. Literally if you could harness that and measure it, you would see the absolute shift that happens in the organisation when we move from the deficit space, into the positive, intimate, strength space.

So why are people not doing this more?

Well I think it’s because the positive psychology research is fairly new, and generally, certainly in Western society, we like to have things proved before we’ll try things. There’s always going to be a backlash because some people believe it is all happy-clappy and about telling people to be happy all the time and whatever, which it’s not. It is starting to happen; it’s starting to happen in schools, it’s starting to happen in organisations.

One of the things for me that I just love is a piece of research done by the Corporate Leadership Council, with 20,000 employees across a range of organisations, that shows if you take performance review processes to a strength-based approach, the increase in performance every year is 36.4%.

Oh my!

I know!

That’s a lot.

Yes, in the traditional deficit approach of ‘these are your strengths, these are your development opportunities, let’s fix those’, which is the standard approach, the actual change in performance over 12 months was a 27% drop. So if we keep doing what we’ve always done we’re actually creating negative performance, rather than increasing performance. When I cite that to leaders and they can see the research, and it makes common sense that if I get to do what I love every day, or at least 70% of the time, then I’m probably going to be better at it and probably going to be more productive. So it’s logic, and it’s being backed up by science now, which is why it’s changing.

So what is a positive approach to a performance appraisal? Do I say what you’ve done well over the year? Can you just elaborate for those who don’t know?

Absolutely. It’s not just about what you’ve done well, it’s also about taking a strength-based approach. The strength-based approach is where I sit down with you as my boss, you say: “Hi Sue, these are your strengths, these are your weaknesses”. If we need to fix my weaknesses to a certain level in order for me to be able to do my job, we will. If we can offload them to another team member or whatever, then we will. So for the next 12 months we’re going to focus on my strengths, the things that I am good at, the things that I love to do. They’re the real development opportunities!

Interestingly, if you take the research around that, if you get me to focus on my strengths for the next year, what you’ll find is my weaknesses actually improve as well. I often use the example that Finance 101 would be my weakness, and you would very quickly identify that. If you send me on a Finance 101 course every month for the next 12 months to try and get me better at it, you’re probably going to end up with me feeling useless, me feeling anxious, me feeing that I’m not really performing very well and so-on and so-on.

Whereas you get me to focus on my strengths, which is being out there doing keynotes and leadership programs, facilitating and developing people. I know I need to develop my Finance 101, and to do that I sit down with a colleague who is really good at it, and have lunch and sit and chat about it. If I’m in a positive emotional space I’ll actually learn more, take more in, and probably still develop better than on a stupid course you were going to send me on.

(Laughs) So what about if you’ve got a narrower job role, if you don’t have the flexibility? I’m just thinking, say more at the coalface of the organisation… even if you’re just doing all the bookkeeping or something, you can’t not do the bookkeeping. So how can I build on my strengths when my task is so narrowly defined, there’s not much flexibility?

That’s a really good question, and that will absolutely happen. We can’t just offload everything we don’t like to do. Yet again you see, if you think about this yourself, if you’ve got something that you’re not so good at… well let’s take being competitive for a moment. I have Competitive as a weakness, and if you as my boss tried to get me more competitive I’m probably going to go into my client meetings quite anxious thinking ‘Okay, who am I up against? I’ve got to win, I’ve got to try and beat them’, which I’m not very good at and actually have never been very good at. So I’m probably going to be stressed going into that potential client meeting. I’m probably going to be anxious, I’m going to be hearing your voice in my head “I’ve got to be more competitive” and so on. And I’m probably not going to be very natural in my meeting.

I’ve still got to have those meetings and I’ve still got to try and win business. Yet if you look at my strengths and see I have Mission, Legacy and Relationship Building, you’re probably going to say to me, “Okay, what I want you to do is to go into this meeting with the idea of exactly what we stand for as an organisation. I want you to make sure that you leave the message behind of what it is that we do, and what we’re about, and I want you to build the relationship.”

Now think about how much more naturally I go into that potential client meeting, and therefore how much better I’m going to be. And I can guarantee you I’m going to win way more business with that approach, than I am by trying to be more competitive.

Isn’t that about finding something that fits comfortably with you however you do it? It’s about being playful and flexible with it to see what you can discover…

Absolutely. And I do need to do financial stuff as part of my job, so I can’t discount that. Yet if I can approach it from a strength-based approach, I ask myself how I would do it from different strengths. So I would do things around order (I have Order as a strength), so that’s about liking things to be organised well. I would approach it in terms of legacy, as in if I don’t do it well I lose my business. I would also take pride into the equation, so how do I still do this task with a sense of pride? And therefore I don’t have to worry about being detail orientated, or using adherence, or the sorts of things that are weaknesses or tiring for me and might be required for finance management, because I’m still going to approach it in the right way.

So that’s really what we’re talking about, and when you see organisations and leaders who do this… I had one gentleman who was very sceptical when we first started talking about some of this emotional intelligence, positive leadership and strengths stuff. He even announced to the whole group that he’d been ‘voluntold’ to attend! I saw him approximately four months later and he was like a different person. He said, “It’s fantastic! I’ve been doing strengths with my team. They’re really transforming and it’s going really well,” and so on. And that’s only his word. A couple of months after that I met another gentleman who’s actually just taken over his team, as he’s been the first guy who’s been promoted and the other gentleman had taken over. I said, “So really, how is it going?” This new leader of the team said, “It’s the best team I’ve ever had the pleasure of leading!” So it does absolutely make a difference when we build all these things together.

And as you know, when we’re talking about cracking the leadership code there’s not one thing that you do that’s simply going to wave a magic wand and cure everything, it is a synergy of things. If we can get that amalgamation of things to work, in line with what psychology is telling us, and the way brains are wired, you will get the results that you want.

Yes, synergy. So I’m just thinking have you defined positive leadership? It’s obviously the building of strengths in people, and telling them to work as best they can, and helping them find the motivation… I don’t know if I’m missing anything?

The other thing is around how do you build a positive climate (or culture), and it’s a climate where people feel that there is a sense of trust, collaboration, openness, and so on. If you think about what that climate looks like, if we have a climate of fear, control, anxiety, or negativity, stress, and pressure, you are not going to do your best work. So you’re trying to create a climate of trust and openness, one where there’s a sense of compassion if people have needs.

We talk about compassion and forgiveness, and people often see them as soft words. Yet if you think about compassion and forgiveness; if you’re in my team and you make a mistake, you’re a human being and I’m hopefully genuinely going to forgive you for that mistake. I’m also going to have the compassion to have the tough conversation that says, “Michelle, this is not acceptable. No more, this is the boundary, nope we can’t keep crossing that”. And if you do it again, if you make that mistake again then I may be more serious. That’s still having a compassionate conversation.

What tends to happen in corporate culture is, you make a mistake and I tell you it’s okay, and yes you’re forgiven, and blah-blah-blah. Three-years later we’re still joking about your mistake at the Christmas party, and it still keeps getting brought up as part of your performance.

I think if we can create a culture where human beings can genuinely take a risk and maybe make a mistake… and if you look at organisations they want people to innovate more. Well in order to be innovative you’ve got to allow people to fail now and again. Yet sometimes there’s such a risk of people feeling that they daren’t fail because they may get fired if they do. One of our clients has actually implemented an innovation program and say, “You’re free to fail, just fail fast”. Because they know that in order to get innovation people are going to have to have failures along the way as well.

The first thing that came into my head when you said ‘Fail fast’, I thought well that’s great but what if there a budget limit where you can’t take risks?

They do obviously think about that. Any organisation is still going to think about the money. This company actually put in an innovation council which is working with people around their innovations to check it out and do a bit of due diligence so that things can be checked along the way without hampering the innovation, the ideas. Previously people were too scared to have a crack at it because they didn’t necessarily have the right support, and the right climate to do that.

I like that idea of setting up an innovation council. That sounds cool.

Yes, it’s working really well. I think because people’s ideas are captured, and the council can then explore them in a safe and supportive way. So if you come up with an idea you’re not just left and abandoned to try and push it through yourself until it becomes too hard so you don’t bother. You’ve actually got people that will help you to do a bit of due diligence to see if it’s feasible, and if it is will actually help you to carry it forward.

As part of our accelerated leadership programs we do some modules on neuroscience and innovation, and people work on projects alongside their learning. Out of all the projects we’ve seen succeed, many of them have actually gone through to be implemented across the organisation or globally, because they have been built around this ethos.

I’m just wondering, how can organisations implement this? Do more of this themselves?

Again, I think it’s a really good question because some organisations have started to do the innovation stuff really well, and others are still failing. You’ve got to think more holistically, you can’t just say to people “Ooh let’s do some design thinking”, “Ooh let’s do some innovation workshops”, and so on. That’s great, and we do run innovation sessions, which are fun for people. They’re innovative and give people clues about how to build innovation. What you also have to do is create a positive climate, where if I fail I’m not going to be destroyed along the way and I don’t have to worry that I dare not try something because otherwise I’ll to get fired.

So it’s actually more holistic. I think people often pay lip service to innovation. They say they want it and they’ll put a program out there to say, “Whoo-hoo! We’re going to do innovation”. If you don’t change the culture to support that, and put some positive processes in place where people feel like they could be supported around their innovative ideas, then it’s probably not going to happen.

I keep on thinking about the old-fashioned suggestion box, that’s what it’s making me think of in some ways!

Yes, that can be great as a starter point. Having some sort of suggestion box is often what many innovation councils and programs create in organisations. What you’ve then got to have is once those suggestions are picked up, somebody does the due diligence and see if it should be carried forward. Also if it isn’t just a suggestion, that some ideas are actually carried forward and implemented.

You talked about the neuroscience of innovation, and you said its kind of fun, so I’m thinking I’d like a little fun! I didn’t quite know what you meant when you said it, so I was wondering could you elaborate a little bit?

Yes, so part of leadership I think is innovation, solutions, ideas. There’s lots of things we now know from neuroscience about how the way the brain is wired that can help us be more creative and innovative.

What we do is teach people a bit of a science, and we teach it through practical activities. We give people a clue of the different types of innovation and creativity. For example, there are certain things that happen in your brain just before that ‘ah-ha!’ moment, when you literally have that burst of ‘Whoo-hoo! I know the answer’. We teach people about the part of the brain that is involved and how we might be able to try to increase the opportunity of that happening. Actually the ‘ah-ha!’ moment is probably less frequent than the solutions, focus and innovation that we achieve when our brain starts to piece things together and see patterns.

We’ve created a series of activities that tap into that part of the brain, and help leaders actually create a climate where that innovation is more likely to happen, where we see those patterns. If you think about some of the innovative ideas out there, if you think about the Apple watch, that came from someone seeing a pattern between a watch and an iPhone, and saying “How do we put those two together?”

If you look at how the brain is wired from a neural perspective, if we can open people up to be able to see patterns and possibilities, that’s when innovation occurs. When we’re in a positive emotional state, when we’re feeling energised, we’re more likely to be innovative. So we do some really fun stuff with paper on walls, scribbling, physical posture and various other things. We try and create an environment over the course of the session that actually gets people into the space where they can be more innovative.

So we ask leaders how can they bring all of the things we know together in order to be able to build a culture where innovation can occur?

There are so many questions, and we are coming to the end of the interview. Oh, it’s so frustrating! We must finish, and I know you have a free giveaway today, would you mind taking a couple of moments to tell our listeners about it?

Of course. One of the key things for me is that positive leadership and creating this environment isn’t just a simple tick-box. So what we’ve done is put a whitepaper together, a positive psychology whitepaper, and it talks you through all the science around positive psychology in a simple easy-to-digest fashion, yet very robust. It links into leadership, strengths, positive emotions and all those things. We’ve had some great feedback so far on this from both academics and leaders out there in the field. So hopefully people will be keen to download our positive psychology whitepaper and learn a little bit more for themselves.

Absolutely, I think if we go and get that then it will help us to be able build our own positive climate, and be more innovated ourselves, all that kind of good stuff. That sounds great, thank you.

And before we go, if there was one practical step that our audience could implement today to improve their leadership skills, what would that be?

One practical step. I always say to people to start by being selfish, which is often not what people expect to hear when you’re talking about positive psychology and leadership. Actually what I mean by that is ‘start with you’. I think that if we start with ourselves and work on our own self as far as what we’re putting out there, and we know that a leader has approximately 70 percent influence on the climate of the team, so…

  • If you are showing up as the best version of yourself.
  • If you are allowing a climate where people can express positive emotions.
  • If you are working to your strengths…

You are considered a more effective leader, you’re building a more positive workplace and you’re making a real difference.

So I always start with saying, be selfish, start with you. Look at work by a researcher called Nicholas Christakis who found there is a ripple effect that when you change something then people who are three degrees outside of your social network are influenced. So my first tip is start with you, and show up as the best version of yourself.

I’m going to leave you with one question, and the question is; do you energise a room more when you enter it, or when you leave it?

(Laughter) That’s provocative, I love that!

It’s a good question to be asking ourselves as leaders, “Do you energise a room more when you enter it, or when you leave it?”

That is fantastic, thank you. Thanks so much Sue it’s been a pleasure as always. I’m learning such a lot from you, and I just loved your last question! That’s brilliant, thanks so much.

You’re welcome.

To learn more join Learn with Sue for eBooks on topics such as 7 Ways to Apply Positive Psychology, 10 Brain Friendly Habits and How to Lead with the Brain at Work. Plus a range of tools to help yourself and others including questionnaires, values cards, posters and more.