When business leaders think of the term “positivity,” too many envision a kind of squishy, touchy-feely happiology that seems out of place in today’s fast-moving workplace. But positivity should not be dismissed so easily.
Leaders that do so are robbing themselves, their employees — and their customers — of a quite serious leadership tool that can dramatically improve a company’s culture and its performance. A growing body of research has now established the link between positive leadership practices and outcomes like productivity, customer satisfaction, and employee retention. And for some companies, positive leadership has meant the difference between failure and success.
Consider the case of Prudential Retirement — which began adopting positive leadership practices in conjunction with its contentious merger with Cigna in 2003. Cynicism about the merger was high, and morale was low. There was a serious culture clash between the two groups. John Kim, who became CEO of Prudential Retirement at the time, believed that positive leadership was necessary if the two teams were ever going to come together. He likened the dynamic to the New York Yankees trying to merge with the Boston Red Sox.
“Implementing positive leadership practices was initially seen as just being positive — smiles,” Kim later said. “It became clear, however, that this was a significant change.” After undergoing positive leadership training with his executive team, Prudential successfully navigated the complex merger, and saw a 20% increase in annual growth.
One of Kim’s senior team members, Jim Mallozzi, took what he learned at Prudential Retirement and applied it to the company’s real estate arm as its new CEO. Mallozzi saw dramatic results, reducing turnover, increasing stock value, and moving from $70 million in losses to $20 million in profits in just one year. But how, exactly, does a company demonstrate positive leadership?
For Kim and Mallozzi, it was about looking at what the company has, as opposed to what it does not have. It was about looking at what the company can do, as opposed to what it can’t do. Positive leadership is about focusing on positive practices rather than problems alone. It starts with emphasizing positive opportunities rather than negativity, and it’s about practicing open and honest communication rather than secrecy.
During the heyday of the Cigna merger, Kim encouraged employees to ask themselves how they would achieve “something that is truly great and never seen before” in the industry. However, positive leadership can take many forms even assigning employees to “positively embarrass someone every day.” This means complimenting someone in front of somebody else who cares.
Organizations with positive leadership institutionalize forgiveness, compassion and kindness.They energize their employees. Indeed, research shows that high-performing companies have three times more positively energizing leaders than normal organizations — implying that anyone can be a positive energizer for others. As an example, there are CEOs who write at least one personal thank-you or recognition card to an employee every single day. One CEO, upon his retirement, was presented with copies of 7,000 notes he had written to employees over his 17-year tenure.
Leaders of this ilk fixate on inputs (how they can help teams thrive) as well as outputs (how can they measure, or reward performance). They focus on removing impediments to the success of employees and colleagues. And they obsess over not just the “what” and “how” but also the “why” to inspire and activate the workforce.
At the core of positive leadership is trust. It tempers new or audacious challenges with trust and humility. While they may set high standards, positive leaders are quick to forgive.They do not hold grudges or induce shame and guilt in their employees, and they create opportunities for employees to be recognized when they succeed.
A quote attributed to Dolly Parton says, “ If your actions create a legacy that inspires others to dream more, learn more, do more and become more, then, you are an excellent leader.” Positive leadership is strong leadership. When leaders strive to create a kind and virtuous organization, their employees flourish — and so do their businesses.
Alan Todd, founder and CEO of CorpU, is regarded as one of the world’s pre-eminent authorities on strategy and leadership. A former Inc. Magazine/Ernst & Young Entrepreneur of the Year, Todd’s writing and commentary have appeared in Forbes, Fortune, Fast Company and Wired, and his insights are routinely solicited from Fortune 1000 companies like Walmart, Coca-Cola, Boeing, and Johnson & Johnson.
Kim Cameron is professor emeritus of management and organizations in the Ross School of Business at the University of Michigan. Recognized as one of the top ten organizational scholars in the world, his research on organizational effectiveness, corporate culture, and the development of leadership excellence has been published in more than 130 academic articles and 15 scholarly books.