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How To Use Positivity As A Leadership Tool

24/03/2015 8:02 AM IST | Updated 15/07/2016 8:25 AM IST
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Positivity is the least researched topic in management. There are two key reasons for this -- firstly, positivity is believed to be the jurisdiction of idealistic self-help gurus; secondly, most business leaders dismiss positivity as a fad. However, there is ample evidence in medicine, psychophysiology and positive psychology which confirms that positivity works in relationships, healing and leading people. Researchers at UC Berkeley Haas School of Business found that managers who were more positive made decisions more carefully and accurately and were more effective inter-personally.

The spirit or attitude of a leader impacts business outcomes both positively and negatively. Taking an example from medicine, recent research reveals that the placebo effect can sometimes be induced simply by the words or attitudes of doctors or other authority figures. It can enhance or subdue the effects of medication. This finding has a huge implication for leaders -- a leader's outlook and emotional states has an impact on staff morale and productivity.

Despite lip service given to positivity, our workplaces are chocked with negativity, mistrust and toxicity. Negativity at work is rarely discussed. This is partially because we are nervous to talk about it openly; secondly, it is difficult to pinpoint and measure positivity. Human evolution also plays a role -- our brains are wired to notice negative events effortlessly and to detect errors and direct energy where things are getting out of control. This is why we are so problem-focussed: problems energize us. The media always seems to focus on bad news because it gets our attention.

"Leaders can practice positivity by changing the way they interpret events, not by pasting on a happy face in every situation."

Nevertheless, the truth is that positivity can be amplified. Positivity changes how our mind works. A positive approach by leaders broadens possibilities and heightens team morale. This brings us to a crucial point -- operating from the positive frame of mind is not identical to "being positive" no matter what is going on. Martin Seligman, the founder of Positive Psychology reasons that success comes from the faith that we will prevail in the face of difficulties as well as our readiness to deal realistically with difficulties. Leaders can practice positivity by changing the way they interpret events, not by pasting on a happy face in every situation.

Here are three simple tools for leaders to enhance positivity at work.

1. Ask the right questions

Carefully crafted questions create possibilities. The question "How might we do XYZ...?" will open up more possibilities than merely asking whether XYZ can be done or not. Similarly, "what if" questions have the power to generate new ideas. Most questions we ask are deficit-based questions. "What is wrong?" is the question most leaders ask habitually. This question limits possibilities and makes people self-protective. Carefully crafted questions have transformative power -- good questions shift our perspective and open up our minds. Before flying machines became a reality, someone asked a powerful question -- "how can humans fly?" Please note that if the question asked was "Can humans fly?" the answer would have been pessimistic. "A question not asked is a door not opened" says Marilee Adams, an author and the President of the Inquiry Institute.

"Carefully crafted questions have transformative power -- good questions shift our perspective and open up our minds."

The art and science of asking questions is dampened in schools and punished in business. We tend to approve of questions only if they are asked by bosses or teachers. But the questions we ask determine our destiny, cautions David Cooperrider, the pioneer of the Appreciative Inquiry technique. Cooperrider says that "organizations gravitate towards the questions they ask". If the question from leaders is "Who is to blame?" then the organization is more likely to end up with culture of turf-guarding and finger pointing. Conversely, if the questions are more expansive and optimistic, the results will be more promising.

2. Establish trust

The second tool in the positivity toolkit is simple but hard to practice. Leaders can boost positivity by establishing trust. Positivity is directly related to leader's ability to inspire trust. Leaders create trust through uncompromising integrity. Stephen Covey defined trust as "both character (who you are) and your competence (your strengths and the results you produce)". Leaders must communicate honestly to inspire trust. Positivity and trust feed on each other.

3. Be authentic

Authentic leaders build honest relationships. They use candid communication and fairness as primary tools to act authentically. Authentic leaders show their real selves to their followers. They do not hide their mistakes for the fear of looking inept and clumsy. In addition to knowing and managing themselves well, authentic leaders build strong, trusting relationships. They surround themselves with competent people and empower them. The followers of authentic leaders value them for their abilities and forgive their limitations.

Dr Barbara Fredrickson, Professor Psychology at the University of North Carolina, asks us to watch our positivity ratio -- your frequency of positive thoughts divided by your frequency of negative thoughts over any given time span. Researchers have found that high-performing teams operate at the ratio of 6:1 and low performing teams below 1:1.

"The followers of authentic leaders value them for their abilities and forgive their limitations. "

In conclusion, positivity helps in leading people, generating solutions and creating a better work environment. The relationship between the emotional states of people and their performance is beyond doubt. Positivity is magical and good leaders accentuate positivity to create great business and people results.

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