How to Be a Positive Leader: Small Actions, Big Impact

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Positive leaders are able to dramatically expand their people’s—and their own—capacity for excellence. And they accomplish this without enormous expenditures or huge heroic gestures. Here leading scholars—including Adam Grant, author of the bestselling Give and Take; positive organizational scholarship movement cofounders Kim Cameron and Robert Quinn; and thirteen more—describe how this is being done at companies such as Wells Fargo, Ford, Kelly Services, Burt’s Bees, Connecticut’s Griffin Hospital, the Michigan-based Zingerman’s Community of Businesses, and many others. They show that, like the butterfly in Brazil whose flapping wings create a typhoon in Texas, you can create profound positive change in your organization through simple actions and attitude shifts. 

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1 Build High-Quality Connections

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Jane E. Dutton

Think of the last time an interaction at work literally lit you up. Before the interaction, you may have felt depleted, tired, or simply neutral. After the interaction, even if it was brief, you had greater energy and capability for action. This sense of heightened energy is real, and it is an important indicator that you are engaged in a high-quality connection (HQC). Other signs include a sense of mutuality and positive regard. In HQCs, people feel attuned to one another and experience a sense of worth and value. HQCs are critical building blocks for bringing out the best in people and organizations. The seed for this chapter is that leaders can bring out the best in themselves and others by building more high-quality connections at work. They also can design and implement practices, structures, and cultures fostering high-quality connection building throughout the organization and beyond.

High-quality connections contribute to individual flourishing and to team and organizational effectiveness. These forms of connecting call forth positive emotions that are literally life-giving. Barbara Fredrickson, who studies the power of positive emotions in connection, suggests these moments of connection start people on an upward spiral of growth and fulfillment.1 For leaders, tapping into the power of high-quality connections means taking seriously the evidence that this form of person-to-person interrelating is at the root of critical individual and collective capabilities. The following are just some of the benefits of high-quality connections:

 

2 Outsource Inspiration

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Adam M. Grant

When employee motivation is lacking, many leaders grab the loudspeaker. They stand up, deliver an inspiring speech, and hope for the best. There is reason to believe, though, that it is often more effective for leaders to take a backseat. Leaders can accomplish more by outsourcing inspiration to end users—the people who benefit from the organization’s products and services. It is a different way of motivating and engaging employees, one that recognizes the power of leaders’ actions to speak louder than their words. By making connections to end users, leaders can enable employees to identify their past and potential contributions, injecting greater meaning into work.

Meaningful work is a cornerstone of motivation.1 For many years, researchers have recognized the motivating potential of task significance—doing work that affects the well-being of others.2 But all too often, employees do work that makes a difference but never have the chance to see or to meet the people affected by their work.

 

3 Negotiate Mindfully

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Shirli Kopelman and Ramaswami Mahalingam

When you negotiate with people inside or outside your organization, are you able to align your emotions with your strategy? Are you able to engage in productive conversations, leading you and others toward desired positive outcomes? Many conversations you lead at work constitute a negotiation over resources. Sometimes the resource is money, but more frequently, leaders negotiate timelines, roles, responsibilities, or ideas on how to move forward. Because negotiations inherently involve both a common goal, such as joint value creation, as well as personal agendas, such as individual value claiming, they can be emotionally challenging. How do you manage the emotions that surface in such conversations? In this chapter, we offer strategies for mindful emotion management and explore relationship capacities enabling leaders to negotiate mindfully1 and cocreate extraordinary value for all.

Research suggests that emotions can challenge or facilitate negotiation processes and outcomes.2 Positive emotions, such as happiness, or negative ones, such as anger, can be helpful in a negotiation, but can also be counterproductive. The key is to align emotions with strategic goals, which requires displaying your emotions strategically and responding strategically to the emotions displayed by others. Such emotion management is especially challenging in complex, mixed-motive tasks such as negotiations. Although many wrongly assume negotiation contexts are purely competitive,3 negotiations are both a cooperative and competitive social interaction.4 Negotiations provide opportunities for synergistic value to be created, but this value is distributed between negotiators. Functioning within this tension of simultaneously being motivated to create and to claim value necessitates sophisticated cooperative and competitive strategies that are well established in negotiation literature.5 But less frequently examined are the emotional dynamics resulting from engaging in both cooperation and competition. When you negotiate, you might feel happy about cooperating to explore synergies and at the same time feel anxious about how much of this value you will be able to secure for your team.6

 

4 Enable Thriving at Work

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Gretchen M. Spreitzer and Christine Porath

Reflect on a time when you felt most alive at work. What were you doing? Why does the experience stand out? More than likely, it was an experience marked not only by vitality but also by learning and growth—what we term “thriving at work.” People experience growth and momentum marked by a sense of vitality while thriving at work; it is literally a feeling of energy, passion, and excitement—a spark.1 In this chapter, we draw on the growing body of evidence to demonstrate why individuals and organizations should care about thriving. We also highlight strategies for individuals and leaders to enable more thriving at work.

Organizations seek thriving employees. They report less burnout,2 because the way in which they work generates, rather than depletes, resources.3 In a thriving state, people exhibit better health, including fewer days of missed work and fewer visits to the doctor.4 When people are thriving at work, they report more job satisfaction and organizational commitment.5 Thriving individuals are apt to have a learning orientation—experimenting with new ideas to propel their own learning. Thriving employees take initiative in developing their careers. Their supervisors rate them as high performers. And thriving employees exhibit more innovative work behavior, generating creative ideas, championing new ideas, and seeking out new ways of working.

 

5 Cultivate Positive Identities

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Laura Morgan Roberts

We spend a great deal of time doing “identity work” in organizations. As we introduce and explain ourselves during job interviews, meetings with clients, networking functions, public presentations, and team-building activities, we confront identity questions that are central to our work roles, relationships, and outcomes. Identity questions ask, Who am I? Who are we? How might our identities impact our capability to work together? Positive leadership involves shaping, building, and sustaining positive identities for organizational leaders, members, and the organization itself. Leaders are able to unleash resources through the way in which they construct who they are as leaders and also how they help others construct positive identities.

Individuals and groups use images, stories, and descriptions of their key characteristics to define their identities. For example, individuals may define themselves in terms of their physical features, education, friendships, employer, title, accomplishments, and failures. Identities help to explain how an individual or a group relates to other individuals and groups, highlighting differences, similarities, and power/status dynamics.

 

6 Engage in Job Crafting

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Amy Wrzesniewski

The chances are good that at some point, you have changed an aspect of your job so that it better suited you. Whether you took a different approach to a task you were responsible for, changed an interaction pattern, or refined how you thought about the job in a more general sense, you were engaged in crafting your job. Job crafting is defined as “the physical and cognitive changes individuals make in the task or relational boundaries of their work” and encompasses a vast range of bottom-up moves made by employees to create a more optimal design of their jobs.1 For example, job crafting occurs when a marketing manager decides to bring her passion for social media into the design of a product launch.2 It also occurs when an executive takes responsibility for understanding the life and work goals of his team and helping them to reach these goals.3 This chapter explores the benefits of job crafting for employees and their organizations and suggests ways that leaders can support job-crafting efforts.

 

7 Activate Virtuousness

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Kim Cameron

Consider two different business organizations. One is characterized by a single-minded focus on creating profitability and shareholder value as key indicators of success. Competition, productivity, carrot-and-stick incentives, and high pressure for performance characterize the culture. This organization frequently leads employees to demonstrate selfishness, manipulation, secrecy, and distrust of their colleagues.

Another business organization is characterized by a focus on creating abundance and human well-being as key indicators of success. The work culture emphasizes appreciation, collaboration, positive energy, and meaningfulness. This organization produces social relationships typified by compassion, loyalty, trustworthiness, respect, and forgiveness.

The first business is common and one with which we are all familiar. The second is less common, but describes more closely what we mean by a virtuous organization. These organizations help members achieve their very best and reach extraordinarily positive outcomes. They implement universally valued ennobling attributes, such as forgiveness, gratitude, honesty, compassion, and love. When organizations engender these characteristics, they are labeled as virtuous.

 

8 Lead an Ethical Organization

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David M. Mayer

Consider your own work experience for a moment: Have you ever had a boss that you considered unethical, unfair, rude, or sleazy? Likely most of us have had to deal with the difficulties of working for this type of boss. But equally likely, many bosses have also been people we admire, respect, and view as ethical role models. In this chapter, I focus on what it means to be an ethical leader, why it matters, as well as personal strategies and organizational practices that enable bosses to lead ethically.

What is an ethical leader? We typically describe someone as “ethical” if their behavior is consistent with broader societal values and beliefs regarding desired conduct.1 Three key aspects of being an ethical leader are (1) role-modeling ethical and appropriate conduct; (2) treating others in a just, caring, and respectful manner; and (3) actively managing the ethical behavior of employees.2, 3 The first two key aspects are reflected in the moral person component of ethical leadership, as ethical leaders are fair, trustworthy, and consider their employees’ needs a priority. The last key aspect exemplifies the moral manager component, as ethical leaders encourage appropriate and desired ethical behavior. They also discourage unethical employee behavior by communicating about ethics and using rewards—and punishments—to encourage ethical conduct.4 Most people think of the moral person component of ethical leadership when considering leaders who are ethical role models. However, as a leader who wants to influence his/her employees’ behavior, the moral manager component is also critical to help lead an ethical organization.5

 

9 Imbue the Organization with a Higher Purpose

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Robert E. Quinn and Anjan V. Thakor

Many organizations perform below their potential. They are composed of self-interested people playing zero-sum games, pursuing external rewards, engaging in conflicts, and living in alienated relationships. Yet it is possible for those same people to willingly pursue the common good, to value intrinsic rewards, and to live in trust and experience high collaboration. This transformation occurs when a leader helps to imbue the organization with a higher purpose. Yet few executives understand how to do so. In this chapter we explain the barriers that block them from imbuing their organizations with a higher purpose, and we offer three strategies to help you do so.

So what is a higher purpose, and why is it important? According to modern microeconomics, managers running organizations seek to solve the “principal-agent problem.”1 This problem occurs when a manager (principal) seeks to motivate an employee (agent) to work hard in the best interests of the manager.

 

10 Cultivate Hope: Found, Not Lost

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Oana Branzei

Hope is a common, mundane experience, a deep belief that people and situations can and will change—for the better. Everyone hopes, some of the time. However, the consistent and persistent cultivation of hope is a virtuous and noteworthy undertaking.1 At full strength hope can be heroic, even transformational. As President Obama explained, hope is “imagining and then fighting for and struggling for and sometimes dying for what didn’t seem possible before.”2

As a way of seeing, feeling, and being, hope has fundamentally changed the course of human history. Hope has been practiced over space and time, called forth by political leaders such as Mahatma Gandhi and Nelson Mandela, preached by religious leaders like Mother Theresa and Archbishop Desmond Tutu, and harnessed into thriving organizations by modern-day business leaders like Virgin founder Richard Branson or Grameen Bank founder Muhammad Yunus.3 Once they believed that a better future was forthcoming, these leaders actively searched for human potentiality and acted repeatedly and persistently to promote human betterment, even in the midst of adversity.

 

11 Create Micro- moves for Organizational Change

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Karen Golden-Biddle

Recall an organizational change you have personally experienced and considered important to implement. How did you come to see this change as desired and viable? How did people undertake meaningful and collaborative effort? How was energy generated to keep going? Questions such as these direct our attention toward the “how” of change: actions and interactions comprising change processes that, while small and often barely visible, are essential to the successful creation of generative change. We call them “micro-moves.”1

Usually, we pay attention to the “what” of organizational change (e.g., structural reorganization, incentive schemes, leadership turnover) and leave implicit the micro-moves comprising the “how” of change. The press showcases dramatic examples of “what” changes. At the time of this writing, the change to Microsoft’s organization structure is front page news—a change made to encourage collaboration and “move from multiple Microsofts to one Microsoft,” in the words of CEO Steve Ballmer.2 Yet beyond the announcement and commentary on the merits or potential difficulties of this particular structural shift, we learn little about how this large-scale, top-down directed change will be implemented to accomplish the vision of one Microsoft with greater collaboration. Structural change itself does not ensure generative change of the type envisioned in their goal of “collaboration.”

 

12 Treat Employees as Resources, Not Resisters

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Scott Sonenshein

Like most leaders, you have likely participated in and probably helped shape some type of organizational change, whether a reorganization, new information technology system, or compliance with different regulations. Organizations routinely undergo change, but the disappointing reality is they routinely fail to implement change effectively.1 Leaders often blame employees for change unraveling, claiming employees resist change—or even outright sabotage it.2 Such a viewpoint is not grounded in fact. It is also practically dangerous. By treating employees as resisters to change, leaders can create a self-fulfilling prophecy that turns them into resisters. Instead of thinking of employees as change resisters, you need to think of them as valuable resources to help them initiate and implement change. By considering employees as resources, you enlist an often eager group of individuals who recognize that the status quo is more dangerous than an unknown future. Although there is often inevitably a handful of resisters in any organization, you need to be careful not to let these distractions sidetrack you from focusing on the more important task at hand: turning employees into resources for change.

 

13 Create Opportunity from Crisis

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Lynn Perry Wooten and Erika Hayes James

Business crises almost daily dominate the headlines, hitting the information superhighway at warp speed. Reputations are damaged, devastating both small, local companies and international conglomerates. The examples are everywhere. BP and the Deepwater Horizon oil spill. Toyota’s “sticky” gas pedal recall. The Livestrong Foundation and cyclist Lance Armstrong’s doping scandal. The CEO of Abercrombie & Fitch stating he was marketing only to “cool kids,” and not the overweight ones. The Carnival Cruise ship stuck for days without electricity in the Gulf of Mexico. The employees of Specialty Medical Supplies kidnapping their own CEO over plans to take their jobs offshore.

The Institute for Crisis Management defines a business crisis as “any problem or disruption that triggers negative stakeholder reaction that could impact the organization’s financial strength and ability to do what it does.”1 Crises are rare and significant events, challenging leaders beyond a typical “problem” because of the time pressure and the associated public scrutiny. Additional challenges for the crisis leader come from inadequate information for decision making and, in the worst cases, limited resources, including time, money, and know-how. No matter what causes a crisis—human error, natural disaster, or controversial practices—those in leadership positions are responsible for preventing, assessing, mitigating, reacting to, resolving, and learning from a crisis. Of course, those things are hard to do in the face of sudden, urgent, and unpredictable circumstances. Regrettably, the latter step, learning from crisis, is something many leaders skip altogether.

 

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