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Cast sunlight at work, not shade

How can you as a leader use this notion to create a more positive working environment? Here are 10 phrases than can help.

3 min read




My kids went back to school last month, and my preteen daughter has been regaling us at dinner with tales of middle school.

As is often the case in seventh grade, some of her stories center on classmates “throwing shade” at one another. That’s teen speak for talking trash about someone. We’ve had important conversations at the dinner table about the effects that this type of “shade” has on people. My husband I and reinforce with our kids that no matter how witty or clever the comment, if it cuts someone down, it’s damaging.

If throwing shade harms people, sunlight (metaphorically speaking) has the ability to reverse that damage. Think back to high-school biology class and the term “heliotropic,” which refers to a plant’s ability to move or grow toward the direction of sunlight. Social scientists have drawn from this aspect of nature the phrase “heliotropic effect.” Kim Cameron is a professor of management and organizations at the University of Michigan’s Ross School of Business. In his paper that explores how leaders can mimic this positive element of nature, Cameron writes that there is a “tendency in all living systems toward that which gives life and away from that which depletes life — toward positive energy and away from negative energy.”

In his paper, Cameron acknowledge that people often dismiss this positive outlook as “naïve” or “saccharine.” To counteract that reaction, he points to case studies of dozens of leaders who have used this positive focus to generate extraordinary business results. Just as plants lean towards the positive effects of sunlight, Cameron’s research has shown that “human brains are activated more by positivity than by negativity—leaders that capitalize on the positive similarly tend to produce life-giving, flourishing outcomes in organizations.”

How can you as a leader use this notion to create a more positive working environment? Sunlight is cast in the simplest of ways, one of which is how you talk with people. Here are 10 phrases that will draw people into positive emotional territory. And there’s not a sugary-sweet sentence in the bunch.

  1. “I trust you.”
  2. “How can I help?”
  3. “What’s your take on this situation?”
  4. “I appreciate the effort you put into this last project.”
  5. “What are your thoughts?”
  6. “How did it turn out?”
  7. “Thank you.”
  8. “That must have been a tough decision. You handled it well.”
  9. “You can do this.”
  10. “You’re on the right track. Keep going.”

How much light (or shade) are you throwing your team’s way? Being positive doesn’t mean you have to turn into Sammy or Sally Sunshine. But it might not hurt to dial down the snarkiness a bit. See if it makes a difference in the reaction of others. Plants don’t thrive without proper sunshine; neither can the people who work for you.


Jennifer V. Miller is a freelance writer and leadership development consultant. She helps business professionals lead themselves and others towards greater career success. Join her Facebook community The People Equation and sign up for her free tip sheet: “Why is it So Hard to Shut Up? 18 Ways to THINK before you Speak.”

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