In management we may too often associate positivity and optimism with excessive sweetness, starry-eyed idealism or naivety. We may tend to instinctively prefer a certain dose of pessimism. This is exemplified by the old saying “hope for the best, plan for the worst”, which implies that the only actions worth taking are those that deal with the problem, since hoping often corresponds to inactivity. Said in other words, we are fully prepared to welcome “the best” if and when it happens, but we do not actively work on making it happen, we prefer to work on preventing or tackling the worst. It is as if we believe that we are ill equipped to make “best” happen, but are we?
This “belief” is a widely spread assumption in traditional management, which is both understandable and potentially deleterious.
It is understandable, because we all have a healthy genetic skew towards finding the fault, the odd, or the problem, as a protective mechanism of survival, against “the worst”. Further, when everything looks good and safe on the surface, those who can quickly spot the hidden problem before it is too late, and have the guts to swiftly correct the course of action, can save the day. The ability to anticipate and prevent risks (i.e. the ability to identify and expose problems, to focus, and to promptly tackle them) is therefore a highly desirable skill in managing complex situations, where faults might be well hidden and not easily identifiable at first glance.
What is potentially deleterious is to be excessively complacent towards this important “Problem Spotting” skill and let it override all the other social skills that can lead to a healthier and more successful life for the individuals and for the organisation.
When we only, or primarily, focus on problems, we not only decrease focus on positive actions, we might also significantly reinforce the belief that the infamous “planning for the worst” is the only way; as demonstrated by numerous studies, this pessimistic approach can only bring us to average success and status quo.
Extraordinary and innovative results only come from what we can call “fierce positivity” that we can also described as courageous and active dedication to positive thinking, which includes tackling problems with realistic and forceful optimism.
Let us, for a moment, look at the medical and psychological sciences, which have historically been driven by the protective desire to correct problems: medicine science used to be mainly focused on curing diseases and psychologist were mainly studying deviant behaviours. In more recent times, we have witnessed a true revolution in both fields: preventive medicine and positive psychology focus on physically and mentally healthy individuals and advocate not only ways to stay healthy, but also to be healthier. As our understanding of human physiology progresses, we further see a strong connection between the two aspects, of being both physically and mentally healthy; and we learn more of a third essential dimension: social health. That is, for the well being of any given individual, positive social connections (e.g. involving generosity, respect, honesty and tolerance) are as important as positive physical habits (e.g. diet and exercise) and a positive mental state (e.g. self-awareness, emotional management and happiness).
How is this relevant in management?
The last two decades have seen an exponential increase of studies about the effect that positivity has on organisational performance, all of them uncovering a revolutionary conclusion: POSITIVITY IS AN ACTIVE CHOICE, REQUIRING FOCUSED EFFORTS, THAT HAS THE POWER TO SIGNIFICANTLY INCREASE SUCCESS FOR BOTH INDIVIDUALS AND ORGANISATIONS.
Just to quote one of the many studies, consider this table below (source: Losada & Heaphy, 2004; as reported by Kim Cameron in his book “Positive Leadership”): the most important difference between senior teams of high performance and teams of lower performance (pre-categorised in the study) was found to be the very frequent use of positive statements (like appreciation, support and encouragement); up to 5 times more than negative statements (like corrections and criticism). FIVE TIMES MORE! WOW.
These findings are consistent with a wealth of other studies and yet they are making the case for positivity in one of the most synthetic and compelling forms.
This is truly thought-provoking. It indicates that managers – and not only mangers, actually every employee and team member – have a simple, available to all, yet dramatically under-utilised tool, which can dramatically affect the performance of our teams: increase the ratio of positive vs. negative communication.
This is of course a very different thing than to say: “be positive at all costs”; or “ignore problems”. What this really means is that we can learn not to take good things for granted; we can learn to celebrate success, develop trust, encourage an active search for positivity; all this as a foundation for striving ahead with courage, optimism, gratitude and joy. And thus, improve productivity and engagement at the same time!
In the book Positive Leadership, Professor Kim Cameron indicates FOUR INTERDEPENDENT STRATEGIES to foster positivity in a way that ENABLES POSITIVE DEVIANCE (i.e. able to create outstanding performance)
A complete strategic plan derived from the combination of these strategies would involve the following list of intentional activities:
For POSITIVE CLIMATE
- Encourage Empathy/Compassion (notice and share information; express emotionsand feelings; enable appropriate compassionate responses)
- Encourage Forgiveness (Acknowledge harm; Identify a positive purpose; Maintain High Standards; Provide personal support; Use forgiving language)
- Encourage Gratitude (Conduct gratitude visits; Write gratitude letters; Keep a gratitude journal)
For POSITIVE RELATIONSHIPS
- Foster Positive Energy (Provide opportunities for serving others; Personally model positive energy; Diagnose the unit´s energy network; Recognize and reinforce positive energizers; Manage negative energizers in stages)
- Capitalise on Others´ Strengths (Spend time with strongest performers; Provide opportunities for others to do what they do best; Frequently celebrate positive outcomes)
For POSITIVE COMMUNICATION
- Provide Best-Self Feedback (Obtain information from associates on unique personal contributions; Hel others develop a best-self portrait, when they are at their best; Utilize strengths recognition cards)
- Use Supportive Communication (Provide five positive statements for every negative piece of feedback; Habitually use supportive communication; Use descriptive statements in providing negative feedback – observational and non judgmental; Remain problem- and not person-focused in providing corrective or negative feedback)
For POSITIVE MEANING:
- Enhance the Meaningfulness of the Work (Identify the work´s direct impact on other people; Associate the work with a core personal value; Clarify the long-term effects of what is being accomplished; Reinforce contribution goals more than achievement goals)
- Implement Personal Management Interviews (Hold a role-negotiation meeting with direct reports; Hold regularly scheduled, one-on-one meetings with direct reports; Provide regular personal-development opportunities for direct reports; Ensure accountability for continuous improvement)
To note: these strategies are interdependent, so there is both overlapping and synergy!
As for every plan, in order to be effective, one must start with no more than two or three action goals at a time. One must start with what is most important in the specific situation; for example, in a moment of change or crisis, Encouraging Forgiveness and Empathy might be the way to start, whereas in more normal conditions it might be useful to start from Positive Communication, as when launching a new program it might be more appropriate and useful to start with Positive Meaning.
It is not so important where to stats though, but that we do start; and of course, the always valid mantra is “change starts from me”, so let me here congratulate you for reading until here and encourage you to bring more positivity to your business and private life; I know you will find the journey rewarding 🙂
Laura Lozza is a coaching consultant who works with European based international clients to help them integrate positive leadership skills in their strategic processes, for increased productivity and engagement, using an approach called Leading with a Smile.