Positive Leadership: Strategies for Extraordinary Performance

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NEW EDITION, REVISED AND UPDATED This is the bestselling and leading introduction to the new field of positive leadership, which helps leaders in all types of organizations reach beyond ordinary success to achieve extraordinary effectiveness, spectacular results, and positively deviant performance.

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1 Positive Leadership

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As of this writing, more than 70,000 books on leadership are currently in print. Why would anyone want to produce one more? It is because the vast majority of these leadership books are based on the prescriptions of celebrated leaders recounting their own experiences, convenience samples of people’s opinions, or storytellers’ recitations of inspirational examples. This book is different. It relies wholly on strategies that have been validated by empirical research. It explains the practical approaches to leadership that have emerged from social science research. Because these strategies are not commonly practiced, this book provides some unusual but pragmatic strategies for leaders who want to markedly improve their effectiveness.

This book introduces the concept of positive leadership, or the ways in which leaders enable positively deviant performance, foster an affirmative orientation in organizations, and engender a focus on virtuousness and the best of the human condition. Positive leadership applies positive principles arising from the newly emerging fields of positive organizational scholarship (Cameron, Dutton, & Quinn, 2003; Cameron & Spreitzer, 2012), positive psychology (Seligman, 1999), and positive change (Cooperrider & Sriv-astva, 1987). It helps answer the question “So what can I do if I want to become a more positive leader?”

 

2 Positive Climate

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The term positive climate refers to a work environment in which positive emotions predominate over negative emotions (Denison, 1996; Smidts, Pruyin, & Van Riel, 2001). Employees with optimistic attitudes and cheerful outlooks are typical of a positive climate, for example, compared to employees experiencing stress, anxiety, or distrust. Well-being predominates over distress and dissatisfaction. Positive interpretations predominate over negative interpretations. Fredrickson (1998, 2001, 2002, 2003) and Bagozzi (2003) found in their research that conditions that foster positive emotions lead to optimal individual and organizational functioning; in other words, to positively deviant performance. Positive outcomes are produced in the immediate term as well as over the long run. In other words, organizational performance is substantially and positively affected by a positive climate (Mathieu & Zajac, 1990).

A positive climate is especially affected by the approach the leader adopts. Leaders have an extraordinary degree of impact on the organization’s climate, on the way others interpret their circumstances, and on their definitions of subjective well-being (Diener, 1995; Fredrickson, 2003). Consequently, leaders significantly affect organizational climate as they personally induce, develop, and display positive emotions (George, 1998). The truism is common that “people don’t leave companies, they leave bosses.” That is, the company may be great, but if the boss is a jerk, the reputation of the firm is largely irrelevant. Conversely, if the leader creates a positive climate, employees flourish and increase their commitment.

 

3 Positive Relationships

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Positive relationships are those that are “a generative source of enrichment, vitality, and learning” for both individuals and organizations (Dutton & Ragins, 2007: 5). This implies more than people merely getting along with one another or avoiding toxicity in their interactions. It means that positive relationships promote positively deviant outcomes physiologically, psychologically, emotionally, and organizationally. It is commonly understood that positive relationships are satisfying and preferred by people, but the benefits extend well beyond just providing a pleasant experience. Flourishing individuals are a prerequisite to flourishing organizations.

For example, Heaphy and Dutton (2008) reviewed the literature on the association between positive relationships and physiological health. They reported abundant evidence that links the positive effects of social relationships with social phenomena such as career mobility (Burt, 1992), mentoring and resource acquisition (Kram, 1985), power (Ibarra, 1993), and social capital (Baker, 2000). Studies also have shown that social relationships have positive effects on longevity and recovery from illness (Ryff & Singer, 2001). That is, positive social relationships—the uplifting connections associated with individuals’ interpersonal interactions—have beneficial effects on a variety of aspects of human behavior and health.

 

4 Positive Communication

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Positive communication occurs in organizations when affirmative and supportive language replaces negative and critical language. The power of positive communication is illustrated in a study of 60 top-management teams, who were engaged in annual strategic-planning, problem-solving, and budget-setting activities (Losada & Heaphy, 2004) that investigated why some management teams performed better than others.

Teams of senior managers who worked together on a regular basis were categorized as high, medium, or low performing based on three measures of performance in their organizations: productivity, customer satisfaction, and 360-degree evaluations of the managers’ competency comprising the teams. Combining these criteria in the 60 teams, 15 were rated as high, 26 as medium, and 19 as low in their performance.

To explain differences among the teams, the communication patterns of team members were carefully monitored during the workday and categorized by trained raters who were unaware of the performance level of the teams. Four communication categories were used: the ratio of positive to negative comments, the ratio of inquiry to advocacy comments, the ratio of a focus on others compared to a focus on self, and a measure of connectivity, or the amount of interaction, engagement, and information exchanged in the team.

 

5 Positive Meaning

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The search for positive meaning has been proposed as a universal human need (Baumeister & Vohs, 2002; Frankl, 1959; Grant, 2007), and well-established relationships exist between engaging in meaningful work and positive outcomes. When people feel that they are pursuing a profound purpose or engaging in work that is personally important, significant positive effects are produced, including reductions in stress, depression, turnover, absenteeism, dissatisfaction, and cynicism, as well as increases in commitment, effort, engagement, empowerment, happiness, satisfaction, and a sense of fulfillment (see Chen, 2007).

Wrzesniewski (2003), citing research in sociology (Bellah, et al., 1985) and psychology (Baumeister, 1991; Schwartz, 1994), pointed out that individuals typically associate one of three kinds of meaning with work. They define their work as a job, as a career, or as a calling.

Those who see work as a job do their work primarily for the financial or material rewards it provides. They gain no particular personal satisfaction from the work, and they pursue their interests and passions in nonwork settings. Work is a means for obtaining financial or other resources to engage in some other activity (e.g., “Give me the assignment, and I’ll do it. This job helps me make my car payments”).

 

6 Implementing Positive Strategies

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Some individuals have appropriately questioned whether positive leadership is merely a whitewash of serious leadership challenges. They conclude that positive leadership is too “touchy-feely,” or that positive leadership strategies are not appropriate when serious challenges arise, when people are cynical, or when the environment is not benevolent. Moreover, some conclude that positive leadership is, after all, merely a product of a happy countenance, an optimistic outlook, or a charismatic personality attribute.

The examples of Rocky Flats, Griffin, and Prudential offered at the beginning of this book, however, illustrate that positive leadership is effective even in the face of the most difficult challenges. Positive leadership does not imply that leaders should just smile and that everything will be fine, or only give praise, or avoid competition and beating opponents, or never criticize others, or always avoid the negative, or do not worry about problems and obstacles, or just relax the standards and do not expect too much.

 

7 Developing Positive Leadership

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General Rhonda Cornum, recently retired head of the U.S. Army’s Comprehensive Soldier Fitness program, was on a search-and-rescue flight in Iraq in 1991 when her Blackhawk helicopter was shot down. Five of the eight crew members were killed. Cornum and two others were taken prisoner by the Iraqi army.

“Let me tell you something about my own experience,” she said. “So I got shot down. The next thing I know some Iraqi soldier is dislocating the shoulder in my already broken arm. I thought, ‘Well, I’m not dead. I’m a prisoner of war.’ As we were crashing, I remember thinking that I had two options—either I’d be dead or I’d be captured. Being captured was better. I could still wiggle my fingers, and that was good, because I knew we were really good at doing orthopedics. Then this guy put a gun at the back of my head, and I realized that this was not going to go very well. So I decided to think of something positive. I was really wracking my brain trying to come up with something. I thought, ‘Well, I’ve had a chance to have a great life; I’ve had a great husband and a great kid; I’ve had the chance to do a lot of really great things; and at least it won’t hurt, which is a better end than a lot of people get.’ Then I heard the gun go ‘click,’ and I thought, ‘Well, this really isn’t that bad’” (Horrigan, 2010).

 

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