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Pandemics seem to breed analogies and metaphors, as well as one-word management prescriptions. Right now, it feels like we’re on a see-saw – up, down, up down, open, close. But we’ve been repeatedly told over the past year we are in a marathon or a parkour. The finishing line with its mystical new normal keeps getting extended. We are stuck, seemingly forever, in the miserable middle of change. Managers have embraced, successively, guiding watchwords like hope, clarity, openness, authenticity, resilience, and empathy.

If there’s a single one-word prescription for the moment, let it be positivity. That doesn’t come easy for me, to suggest or implement. The traditional managerial mindset is to constantly look for what’s wrong – the negative (albeit to fix it). These are bleak, dispiriting times. Don’t add to it. Find your inner Pollyanna – still be true to yourself, but contain the negative and seek optimism.

That starts with gossip. It’s invariably negative, divisive and demoralizing. It’s easy to join in these days as people rail against government for botching everything. If only our societal leaders were as smart as us! But it adds to hopelessness. Avoid the temptation.

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In the same vein, assume positive intent. Entrepreneur Robert Glazer says that stressed after a year of the pandemic we increasingly expect negative motivation, questioning the intentions or actions of both individuals and organizations more often. But optimism is better. “If you always assume positive intent, it’s true that you’ll likely be disappointed at some point, or suffer a break in trust with an individual or institution. But while people who assume negative intent avoid being disappointed, they carry a far heavier emotional burden as a result,” he notes on his blog

Consultant Steve Keating was told recently that looking for problems is not a healthy outlook. He replied that in business not looking for problems was a fatal outlook. At the same time, he warns managers not to constantly search for problems out of an unconscious desire to have something to complain about – to wallow in negativity, and bring others into your pity party. “When successful people walk into a pity party, they immediately start looking for a door to get themselves back out,” he writes on his blog. Indeed, maintaining a positive attitude, he argues, is step one in solving any problem, since it widens your vision.

It also seeps out to others. Emotions can be contagious. A positive attitude is the healthy contagion you want in your organization, these days if not always.

That’s why many organizations have adopted the concept of appreciative inquiry, with intriguing success. Instead of looking at what’s wrong in your organization look at what’s right and figure out how to extend it. Instead of obsessing about turning around the worst unit in your enterprise study the most exceptional one and apply your findings more broadly. It can pay off dramatically.

“Appreciative leaders hold each and every person in positive regard,” add consultants Diana Whitney, Amanda Trosten-Bloom, and Kae Rider in their 2010 book, Appreciative Leadership. “They look through appreciative eyes to see the best of people. They seek to treat all individuals positively, with respect and dignity, no matter their age, gender, religion or culture – even education or experience. They believe that everyone has a positive potential – a positive core of strengths and a passionate calling to be fulfilled – and they seek to bring that forward and nurture it.”

Expressing praise and gratitude is particularly important for keeping up morale. But we underestimate its power and shun away from it. Erica Boothby, a post-doctoral researcher at the Wharton School, Xuan Zhao, a research scientist at Stanford University, and Cornell University professor Vanessa Bohns found in experiments that compliment-givers tend to believe the other person won’t enjoy their interaction as much as actually happens. They can feel ham-handed giving compliments – most of us, after all, have so little practice – and believe the exchange will make the other person a little uncomfortable.

“One way to overcome this bias is to look at your compliments the same way the recipient does, focusing less on how competently you are conveying them and more on the warmth they convey. Indeed, one experiment found that focusing on the warmth, sincerity and friendliness their compliments convey increases people’s interest in giving compliments to others,” they advise in Harvard Business Review. Consultants Karin Hurt and David Dye suggest making a weekly plan to offer appreciation to three people – colleagues, peers or even your boss.

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But don’t keep the positivity pursuit to yourself. Build a culture of gratitude and appreciation. Create an appreciation wall or a dedicated Slack channel for employees to recognize others and give kudos, University of Central Florida doctoral candidate in management Lauren Locklear and professors Shannon Taylor and Maureen Ambrose recommend managers also start meetings with gratitude “check-ins” for team members to express one thing they’re thankful for.

Positivity extends beyond appreciation and gratitude. Amongst positive emotions examined in a recent study are admiration, amusement, attachment, awe, compassion, contentment, empathy, enthusiasm, happiness, hope, interest, sympathy and tenderness. We need to stoke them all in the workplace as people grapple with this pandemic moment, and managers must lead the way.

Cannonballs

  • Expect a turnover tsunami when the pandemic ends, as burned out employees and others who feel trapped head for the exit, warns Melissa Jezior, CEO of Eagle Hill Consulting.
  • At her workshops, leadership consultant Margaret Wheatley will explain organizational culture by showing a baked cookie. It has characteristics not found in any of the individual elements that comprise it. Flour, sugar, salt, vanilla, and baking soda come together to make a delicious cookie. People, principles, policies and practices come together to make a delectable culture.
  • Three key workplace winners of the pandemic, according to writer Rachel Greenblatt, are the introverted, the highly productive, and Jeff Bezos.

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