Smart organisations can achieve improvement and business benefits by equipping leaders with the capabilities to create a positive culture that leads to thriving performance.
One of my favourite leadership development frameworks, and one I use a lot in accelerated leadership programmes for large organisations, comes from the field of Positive Organisational Scholarship (POS), positive psychology in the workplace. It is particularly relevant when developing future leaders because it guides them to create a positive climate that enhances resilience and wellbeing in themselves and the people they lead while equipping them with skills to inspire high performance and manage people positively every day.
Striving for the exceptional
Kim Cameron designed the Positive Leadership model based on his empirical research on organisations that achieved exceptional success. Much of his work involved companies that thrived in the aftermath of restructure. These were organisations that “positively deviated” from the norm. Their leaders went beyond the everyday problem solving, helpful behaviour and motivational approach expected of every leader, by implementing strategies that brought out the best in people and achieved dramatic improvements.
For example, Cameron worked with an environmental clean-up company charged with winding down operations at the Rocky Flats Nuclear Weapons Facility in the US which had temporarily been closed after violating environmental laws. Conflict and grievances were rife among staff, public demonstrations had marred operations for decades, and the government estimated the clean up would take 70 years and $36 billion to complete. Yet the company finished the work 60 years ahead of schedule, $30 billion under budget, and 13 times cleaner than federal standards! What’s more, the culture among workers had shifted from recalcitrance to enthusiasm; union relations improved; adversaries became advocates and partners; and multiple technical innovations were made to increase productivity and safer performance.
This is a quintessential example of positive deviance—results far exceeding expectations—which Cameron put down to the positive leadership strategies employed by the company during the turnaround. Obviously great obstacles and challenges were experienced, yet somehow they stayed positive, bounced back and grew through them to achieve exceptional performance.
This is similar to a turnaround we witnessed while working with a leading Australian resources producer embarking on comprehensive business improvement that involved major change.
The leaders in charge of reconfiguring the business, a highly unpopular initiative that would result in widespread job losses, needed to work hard to counter negativity and engage people to adopt a new way of working. The team was experienced in managing the process of change so we helped them manage the critical human factors and apply positive leadership strategies to ensure the initiative was successful.
As a result of this training, the change project exceeded expectations and the team won the award for best team in the business. This was a radical turnaround as the change leaders perceived they would be reviled, because of the unpopularity of the change initiative. The key, as with the leaders in charge or turning around Rocky Flats, was to focus on the positive.
Success strategies of positive leaders
Cameron and his colleagues observed that while many of the common strategies recommended in leadership, such as enhancing teamwork, articulating a vision, treating people with respect, encouraging stretch goals, were effective and have some valid foundations, certain less typical leadership strategies helped enable extraordinary performance.
These can be used as a supplement or a powerful set of building blocks to achieve positive outcomes and build resilience in challenging as well as benevolent circumstances.
What do we mean by “positive leadership”? Here are the four positive leadership behaviours that have been shown to be most effective.
1. Foster a positive emotional climate
As engineers of organisational climate, leaders have a significant impact on employee performance and mood. A positive emotional climate is optimal for people to do their best work. In these environments positive emotions predominate over negative emotions, and team members are typically energetic and cheerful in outlook rather than stressed, anxious or distrustful. Even when a leader, company or team is facing struggles or ongoing negative events, finding opportunities to boost positive emotions will help individuals work together to find solutions and stay resilient.
A leader who is aware of his or her emotional impact and can influence the mood of their team can help shape organisational climate, increasing performance. So-called emotional contagion can have a powerful effect within groups – both positive and negative.
2. Build positive relationships
Trust is the glue that binds an effective team, because it provides a sense of safety where people feel comfortable to open up, expose vulnerabilities and take appropriate risks. Without trust, there is less collaboration and people spend more time protecting themselves and their interests—time that is better spent helping the group attain collective goals.
As social animals, our relationships offer a powerful buffer within changing environments. Social support provides opportunities to generate positive emotions and motivates people to make an active contribution to positive change – for themselves, each other and the organisation.
Certain individuals can act as ‘positive energisers’ who create and support vitality and energy in others. Leaders can become those positive energisers or they can recognise and enable individuals who demonstrate those strengths. They can also discover and leverage the positive energy and dynamism in each individual by tapping into their strengths. This helps bring out the best in people in any context and strengthens the relationship between leader and team member.
3. Engage in positive communication
Positive communication, as defined by POS scholars, occurs when affirmative and supportive language is the norm, instead of negative and critical. Expressing appreciation, support, helpfulness, approval, or compliments expands rather than contracts communication, trust and relationships. Even delivering critical feedback or correcting errors can be done in ways that nurture the relationship and the person, by focusing on the event rather than the person.
Active constructive communication is an approach where leaders reinforce the positive, express enthusiasm and interest, and focus on moving toward solutions in every conversation. Adopting this style can shift meetings from unproductive, disengaging or humdrum to creative forums that deliver tangible results that benefit the business.
Another way to do this is to increase the ratio of positive to negative dialogue. In a study of top management teams, those with more positive than negative comments led organisations that performed best.
4. Reinforce meaning
The drive to find a purpose and live a meaningful life is part of human nature and an important factor in our psychological wellbeing and growth. We want to feel like we are engaging in purposeful work and positive outcomes that bring value to our organisation and society.
One way to build meaning into the lives of individuals, organisations and teams is through clearly articulated purpose, vision and values. High levels of engagement and loyalty can be harnessed when a team’s mission aims to achieve social betterment, and long-term impact and personal values are aligned to those of the organisation.
Simon Sinek has a simple and powerful model for discovering an inspiring purpose. Start by asking why: What cause, belief or purpose inspires you to do what you do? Only then, he asserts, will you be able to persuasively answer how and what you do. Not only can this help aspiring and existing leaders craft a compelling value proposition for what they, their team and their organisation can offer, it can also leave them feeling more fulfilled by their work and like they have contributed something greater than themselves.
If leaders maximise these four success factors—positive climate, relationships, communication and meaning—they can create an environment that is more able to support diverse talent and boost performance. Strategies and skills in all four of these areas can be learned. Focussing on them helps promote positive behaviours that enable leaders, their teams and organisations to thrive.