The Transformative Power of Positive Leadership

by Maren Fox

May 30, 2019

High turnover. Ineffective recruiting. Micromanagement. Bad or nonexistent communication. Distrust. Siloed, isolated teams. Fear. Middling productivity. Mediocre results.

We could continue this list of the key defining features of toxic and negative work environments for another few paragraphs if we wanted to. Not every organization displays all of these shortcomings, but even just a few can hold companies back. And unfortunately, there’s often a snowball effect; when one of these themes shows up, more are likely to follow …

Transforming a toxic work culture into something that is dynamic, profitable, and the envy of other organizations is possible with due diligence, intention, and thoughtful leadership. Even businesses that were already moderately successful have taken their operations to the next level by embracing change via positive frameworks and leadership.

Positive leadership encompasses the idea that focusing on growth potential and shifting  away from becoming distracted by constraints empowers people to do and be their best. We can see a noteworthy example of the power of positive leadership by looking at the success of tech giant Microsoft, led by CEO Satya Nadella. If a positive business philosophy can take hold in an organization as large as Microsoft, it can take hold anywhere.

However, leaders aren’t the only ones who can practice positive change. Positive leadership is the mindset that outlines the steps that can be taken to grow to unprecedented heights, rather than fear limitations.  

Positivity at the Personal/Individual Level

Positive employees—not to be confused with idealistic and/or hubristic employees—inspire in both directions: Subordinates are more likely to be enthusiastic with a positive boss, and managers can’t help but like someone who is a shining light when circumstances aren’t so bright. Moreover, positivity makes an impression on customers, who enjoy a better experience when employees offer excellent service. Emphasize the positive mindset each person brings to the job, whether they are a strategic visionary in a leadership position or a front-line or entry-level team member. Solving complex problems with positive emotions inevitably increases productivity and the bottom line.

Kim Cameron writes in Positive Leadership: Strategies for Extraordinary Performance, “Demonstrating compassion, forgiveness, and gratitude produces a positive climate, and people demonstrate significantly higher performance at work when a positive climate exists.” One person may not be able to achieve this climate on his or her own, but it’s a start. And when enough people start, real, transforming positivity compounds throughout the entire organization.

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Positivity at the Group/Team Level

Positive leadership really takes hold in team and department settings, driven by managers who give employees opportunities and confidence as well as the tools to succeed. This approach is born from a can-do attitude that believes people achieve great things when they have the support of others. In a group environment, positive leadership delivers this support to team members, who in turn deliver eager support to each other. Employees are allowed to take reasonable risks and are counseled through failures. Motivation within this framework emerges not from fear, but from opportunity.

In How to Be a Positive Leader: Small Actions, Big Impact, authors Jane Dutton and Gretchen Spreitzer write, “A positive leader expects that capacities for excellence can always be expanded. In graphical terms, a positive leader believes in enlarging the zone of possibility for excellence, where today’s small actions can change the amount of capacity for excellence inherent in a person or collective over time.” Although grand plans are important within a positive framework, every interaction, decision, and reaction also drives experiences—ideally, successful experiences—for the team.

Positivity in the Organization

Organizations that adopt positive frameworks not only embrace the philosophy in their mission and long-term strategies, but also hire positive leaders and employees to execute the vision, creating a culture that is fueled by reinforcing positive behaviors and development. In this way, every decision made, every product manufactured, every service rendered, and every communication with customers focuses on what can be accomplished rather than what is merely settled upon.

In his book The Positive Organization: Breaking Free from Conventional Structures, Constraints, and Beliefs, author Robert Quinn describes the beauty of this infinite stream of connections and empowerment: “People everywhere need only to have someone link them to their own excellence so that they can see the possibilities, and then support them in exploring the present.” Positive organizations center and elevate the importance of purpose, foster trust, excel at communication, and impress customers.  

A Positive Path

So, does a positive framework better work upward from employees to the entire organization, or downward from executive leadership to the rank and file? No definitive answer exists for that question, but positivity is infectious no matter where it manifests itself or how it spreads. Arguably, positive relationships and culture thrive most when adopted holistically by everyone in an organization or team. However, positive leaders have the highest potential for setting the tone of positivity for their employees, teams, and companies.

At every level of an organization, the potential of positive leadership is great and the benefits are far-reaching. As Quinn writes in The Positive Organization, “Deep learning can occur when both challenge and support are present. As you begin to conceptualize new practices and to see things from a more complex mental map, you will be able to transform yourself, your unit, and even your organization. If that happens, you and your people will never be the same.”

Topics: Leadership, Positive Leadership, Leadership and Management

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