Josh Vaisman is a Positive Change Ninja and Co-Founder at Flourish Veterinary Consulting. He has dedicated his professional trajectory to promoting workplaces in which people may be their best selves at work.
Your alarm rudely jolts you from the comfort of slumber. As you wipe the sleep from your eyes and stretch your arms to the sky, a smirk creeps its way onto your face. In your best Dr. Evil voice you murmur aloud:
“Yesss… today I get to go to work and make life miserable for the people I lead!” 😈
I’m gonna take a wild guess here and assume this does not describe your morning routine.
Quite the contrary, you’re probably the kind of leader who hopes to energize and motivate your team toward their full potential.
However, that can be frustrating and lonely at times. Despite all your managerial acumen and operational training, you look around and see a team that feels a bit, “Meh.”
Or, maybe your team is doing well, but you can’t shake the feeling they could do even better if only you knew how to help them get there.
If you’re a leader who cares about the success of the people you lead, the team as a whole, and the contributions you can make together, this article is for you!
I’d like to introduce you to the science of Positive Leadership.
There are several human beings I have an odd, nerdy sort of “fan-boy” admiration for. Dr. Kim Cameron is definitely one of these people.
Dr. Cameron is a professor at the prestigious University of Michigan Ross School of Business and one of the founding members of a field of research called Positive Organizational Scholarship. He and his cohorts have this wild idea that businesses can succeed while supporting the thriving of the people within the organization, at the same time.
Backed up by research, they posit that by supporting the wellbeing of its people, organizations are actually more likely to succeed.
This led him to champion an approach to leadership he calls, “Positive Leadership”. Research shows that when Positive Leadership is applied, it contributes to “positively deviant” performance in people, teams, and entire organizations.
Why Does Positive Leadership Work?
In a world full of leadership approaches, why Positive Leadership?
In the work I do through my firm, Flourish Veterinary Consulting, leaders routinely ask me, “How do I motivate my people?”
Although folks rarely say it, what I often hear is, “How do I bring enthusiasm to my team?”
Screaming can motivate people. Throwing large solid objects may work as well. Threatening employees with punishment—even termination—might get their engines moving.
But none of these tactics motivate people in a sustainable, energetic way.
Richard Ryan and Edward Deci, two more super-smart fellas I completely fan-boy over, have spent decades researching human motivation. In particular, they are interested in the kind of motivation that elicits what psychologists call “subjective vitality”.
Imagine a kid who spent the whole night tossing and turning, unable to sleep in anticipation of what Santa’s bringing this year. She finally dozes off around 4 am. Just an hour later her brother shakes her awake.
Physically, she is exhausted. But the moment she realizes it’s Christmas morning her body comes alive and she bolts down the stairs to the awaiting pile of holiday joy.
That is what subjective vitality feels like. And we all have the capacity to experience it, even in the face of physical exhaustion.
Ryan and Deci’s research shows that when people have a meaningful sense of control over their activities, experience some level of connectedness and can relate the activity to a contribution or connection, and enjoy the level of competence and resources needed to take the task on, they tend to internalize motivation.
Internalized motivation ➡️ subjective vitality = enthusiastic motivation.
Positive Leaders don’t just motivate people. They create an environment in which it is far more likely people will motivate themselves in enthusiastic ways.
In my experience, they do this by ensuring four qualities are nurtured in the work environment: psychological safety, purpose, path, and progress.
You might think of these as the 4 P’s of Positive Leadership.
The 4 Ps of Positive Leadership
A cultural phenomenon experienced in a team environment, I like to think of psychological safety as the belief that, “In this team, it is safe to”:
- Ask for help
- Admit shortcomings
- Openly share mistakes
- Challenge each other and the status quo
- Suggest new ideas
- Be “authentically me”
- Feel aligned with the values of the people and organization around them.
- Believe that they, and their work, matter.
- See the positive impact of their contributions through the routine experience of meaningfulness.
All of these things are important for at least two critical reasons:
- People who work in teams lacking in psychological safety tend to withhold things. The result is repeated mistakes and shortcomings, missed opportunities for learning and innovation, and the high risk of “group-think.”
- When we feel unsafe being our authentic selves at work we spend psychological and emotional capital on being what we think is expected of us. That has a cost, often resulting in the mild anxiety that comes with protecting our image.
This protectionism puts people in a state that makes internalizing motivation extremely difficult to achieve. Team members might feel “motivated” to do what is expected of them, but the chances of that motivation becoming the subjective vitality we are after as Positive Leaders are incredibly small.
Learn about the advantages of working agreements in fostering psychological safety in Working Agreements: A Starting Guide + Template.
This is a team phenomenon so everyone plays a part in cultivating it. Research suggests, though, that leaders have the most influence over its presence or absence, which is why it is the 1st of the 4 P’s.
At its core, psychological safety is about creating a culture of learning. One way leaders can, well, lead the charge is with the power of vulnerability.
POSITIVE LEADERSHIP TIP: Think of a mistake you have made in your career. Try and consider one you learned something from. Share this with your team, both the mistake and what you learned. This sends two important messages: mistakes will not be punished and we all can learn from them.
Externalized motivation—like the kind that comes from an overbearing boss—feels like a pushing force. And no one likes to be pushed around.
There are times, however, when being pulled feels really good. Like when the cute person you’ve been stealing glances of during your friend’s wedding comes over and pulls you onto the dance floor.
Purpose is like that—a feel-good force that pulls us toward a brighter future.
And what a powerful one it is. The tug of purpose improves our physical and psychological health, contributes to longer lifespans, boosts job satisfaction and workplace performance, and elevates business performance.
Positive Leaders activate purpose and the experiences that contribute to it.
When purpose is alive, team members tend to:
I can think of nothing more demotivating than a sense that I and what I do doesn’t matter at all.
POSITIVE LEADERSHIP TIP: Every day the people you lead are doing things that matter. Sometimes that occurs in profound ways, though more often it happens in routine contributions that advance the bigger picture. Make it a goal to notice all the meaningful mattering happening around you, and share your appreciation with your team.
Imagine I tell you to meet me at my home for dinner tonight. I do not give you my address and refuse to take any calls, texts, or emails from you after. In fact, I haven’t even told you what time dinner will be served.
A short while later, realizing how silly my request is, I send you a map to my home. Only, it’s not a typical map. Rather, it’s a 17-page document, in size-7 font, in which I have written explicit, overly-detailed instructions on how to get to me.
The first line reads, “Read every word of this document before starting your journey.”
It is followed by, “Step 1 – turn on the light in your room. Step 2 – position yourself for the best lighting. Step 3 – place yourself in an ergonomically appropriate seat. Step 4 – begin reading, but slowly.”
On and on it goes. Were you to read it all, you might get to me by next spring.
A bit perturbed, you scan the document and find my address. GPS in hand, you head my way.
You arrive at 6 PM to find a note on my front door labeled for you. It reads, “Use the key I gave you.”
Only, I haven’t given you a key.
Thoroughly perturbed, you tear up the “map” and toss the bits on my front stoop as you storm off. Suddenly, a fast food burger sounds much better than dinner with me.
And if that was the kind of person I really was, I’d not want to ever sit for dinner with myself either!
This rendezvous was doomed from the start. At first, I failed to Clarify the expectations (no address or time). Then I tried to take full control, removing your sense of Autonomy (the overly-detailed instructions). Finally, I withheld the Resources you needed to succeed (the key).
For the Path to be effective, team members need Role Clarity so they understand what is expected of them, Autonomy so they have meaningful control over how to achieve those expectations, and the Resources they need to succeed.
Positive Leaders consistently tend to these needs so the people they lead feel empowered and supported in achieving the great things they are setting out to do.
POSITIVE LEADERSHIP TIP: Ask your direct reports, “What is one thing you wish you had a little more control over?” Then, ask them to rate their current level of control on a scale of 1-10 where 1 means absolutely no control and 10 means all the control they could ever hope for. Finally, ask them, “What would you need to boost that score by just 1 point?”
Humans are built for connection. In fact, research suggests social isolation (e.g., from being excluded by the group) looks just like physical pain in brain scans.
I like to think of Progress as the connective tissue of leadership. All work is relational. When we work with a team we are constantly navigating relationships with them. As leaders, nurturing these relationships might be the difference between people enthusiastically striving toward common goals and enthusiastically looking for a new place to work.
Instead of holding to the obsolete belief that professionalism dictates a clear boundary between our hierarchical position and the human beings in our charge, Positive Leaders should intentionally develop high-quality relationships with the people they lead.
Positive Leaders get to know their team on a personal level and show an interest in how they are as human beings. You might think of this as Connection.
They show and act on a sincere desire to see the people around them succeed. You might think of this as Support.
They provide meaningful, real-time feedback both when people are excelling, and when they are falling short. You might think of this as Appreciation.
Think of someone you’ve worked your hardest for. I bet this person wasn’t cruel or dictatorial. Rather, I’m guessing they were some who saw the best in you and empathetically challenged you to realize your potential.
That is what a Positive Leader looks like.
POSITIVE LEADERSHIP TIP: Create a spreadsheet with the name of each person on your team in the first column. For the first week or two, make it your mission to learn something meaningful about each one of them. Preferably something you don’t already know. Type out what you learn in column 2. Each week, moving forward, look over your spreadsheet and follow-up with 2-3 people on what you learned about them.
In the past few years, I’ve had the opportunity to meet many leaders. Time and time again, I find the vast majority are not tyrants looking to wreak misery upon their minions. Rather, they’re good people doing the best they can with what they have.
You’re a good person trying to be the best leader for the people you care for.
Now you have a simple framework, backed by science, to help you be the best you can be!
Business leaders spend countless time, money, and energy searching for the secret ingredient of high-performing teams. Conventional wisdom suggests the best teams are those with the smartest, most talented individuals. However, that’s not the case.
Google spent two years studying high-performing teams. Project Aristotle, as it was called, produced findings that challenged the prevailing view of team performance. That begs the question, “what does make for a high-performing team?”
What they found suggests a top ingredient for high-performing teams is psychological safety, an individual’s belief that taking risk won’t lead to punishment. In teams with high psychological safety, members are comfortable trying something new, asking questions, or admitting mistakes, all without the fear of embarrassment or chastisement.
Another key component is meaning, which can be encouraged through positive feedback and public gratitude. Research by Marcial Losada and Emily Heaphy supports this notion, pointing to a special mix of positive to negative emotions in the workplace called the Losada Ratio, aka the Positivity Ratio. The concept of a “Positivity Ratio” comes from the field of positive psychology, the study of human flourishing in all aspects of life. But how can a team use the Positivity Ratio to improve their performance?
Broaden and build
You might say Barbara Fredrickson is in love with feeling good. In fact, she is so passionate about positive emotions that she’s dedicated decades of her career to studying them. The results of her research are nothing short of life-changing. Fredrickson has shown that positive emotions do more than just feel good; they also help us broaden and build our mental and physical abilities.
Let’s begin, though, with negative emotions. It’s important to note that every human, and therefore every employee, experiences negative emotions. And the truth is, that’s not such a bad thing!
From a purely evolutionary perspective, negative emotions are incredibly important. Imagine walking across the savannah with your caveman pals when you spot a saber toothed tiger bounding toward you. You feel fear. That fear prepares your body for a full-on sprint in the other direction. In this case, your fear kicks in just a touch sooner than your least favorite fellow caveman, Odo.
You know the saying, “you don’t have to outrun the saber-toothed tiger, you just have to outrun the slowest guy in the pack.” Sorry, Odo. Here, negative emotions produced a positive outcome in the form of survival.
The negative emotion fear saved you. Ever kick yourself into high gear as an important work deadline approached? This kind of stress can give you superhuman spreadsheet writing powers!
What Fredrickson’s research has taught us is that positive emotions also prepare the body and brain, but in different ways. When we experience positive emotions, our ability to think, create, innovate, and produce improves. This results in an enhanced capacity to build skills, promote health, and boost social connection. Feeling good makes us better at creative and prosocial behavior, activities like ideating, cooperating, and sharing.
Finding the positivity ratio
As mentioned previously, negative emotion serves a purpose, so trying to rid your life of it entirely is a one-way ticket to the cortisol highway of chronic stress. That’s a fancy neuroscientific way of saying it’s impossible.
With that in mind, Fredrickson and Losada posed the question, “what ratio of positive to negative emotional experiences do the happiest people have?”
Work began by observing 60 business teams over countless meetings, scientifically-coding thousands of behaviors. Researchers then divided the behaviors into three categories they called “connectivity ratios”: self vs. other focus, advocacy vs. inquiry, and negativity vs. positivity.
The results showed that the lowest-performing teams expressed positivity at a rate of 0.365 to 1. That’s right, they displayed more negativity than positivity. These teams also showed a significant imbalance toward selfishness and personal advocacy. Middle-of-the-road teams had a Positivity Ratio of 1.875 to 1.
Highest-performing teams blew the other teams out of the water with their Positivity Ratio of 5.625 to 1! That means for every, “Johnny this report is all wrong,” he’s also hearing and feeling almost six, “Good on ya’s.”
So where’s the tipping point? Those of us with the highest levels of happiness, or what researchers call “human flourishing,” report experiencing positive emotions at a ratio of at least three times that of negative emotions.
Translation? For every time you sprint past Odo to avoid a becoming saber-souffle, you’d need at least three good experiences to feel like you’re thriving and not just surviving.
How to improve your workplace positivity ratio
As it turns out, we’re still human beings even after we clock in at work. Shocking, huh? So the Positivity Ratio is just as important on the job as it is outside it. Fredrickson and Losada, our researcher from earlier, proved it.
Here are three recommendations for getting started:
1. Train your managers
At least 75% of employees report leaving their job not because of the job itself, but because of an “unhealthy relationship” with their boss. Training managers to be positive leaders might be the single most effective way to reduce turnover and increase engagement in the workplace.
If you’re reading my mind, you know what I’m going to say next: teach managers about the Positivity Ratio, provide them simple tools for injecting positivity into their daily interactions.
2. Make it specific
I once oversaw a large veterinary hospital with about 30 employees. Every day as I was preparing to leave, I’d walk through the facility and say, “thank you for your work today” to each person.
I thought I was going to win Boss-Of-The-Year hands down! Imagine how shocked I was when I began hearing from the team they felt I didn’t value them and their contributions.
The human brain is incredibly adaptable to repetition. The first time I made the effort to find every person in the hospital and thank them for their work, it meant a lot. On the second day, it meant a little less. And what was I really thanking them for? To my employees it felt like an empty compliment.
Effective praise, the kind that results in positive emotion is, specific, timely, genuine, and relevant. The same rules apply to constructive feedback.
3. Engage the whole team
I can almost hear you groaning.
“Josh, this all sounds good but how is a manager supposed to provide at least three positive experiences to every employee, EVERY DAY?” You can’t. Unless you can speak as fast as an auctioneer. And run as fast as The Flash. And you don’t get any of your own work done.
So what’s a manager to do? Well, here’s some good news: positive experiences feel positive no matter where they come from. Make the Positivity Ratio a team effort!
Educate and empower everyone on your team to find ways to inject positive experiences into the workplace each and every day. Better yet, accelerate it with a tool like Bonusly. A program like Bonusly vastly increases the opportunity to meet (and exceed) the Positivity Ratio by putting the power of recognition and praise in everyone’s hands.
Now go forth and improve your team’s performance through positivity!