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Management The manager’s dilemma: dwell on the negative, or focus on the positive?

Managers spend much of their time focused on the negative: seeking out problems and trying to fix them. But in an era where positive psychology has become an important approach, might we be better to focus on the positive – positive organizational leadership, as consultant Marcella Bremer calls it?

“Though it might not feel natural, looking for what is going well can be learned. The effects may be stunning," she says on her blog.

Toronto consultant Craig Dowden in his book Do Good to Lead Well delved into the research literature and found it, well, positive. Leaders in the U.S. Navy – an organization that we think of as even more stoic than corporations – get the most out of their teams when they have a positive approach. Annual prizes for efficiency and preparedness are far more frequently awarded to squadrons whose commanding officers are openly encouraging. By contrast, the lowest marks went to units generally led by commanders who have a negative, controlling or aloof demeanour. He also found research suggesting focusing on the positive leads to improved physical health, greater creativity and a positive group attitude.

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This doesn’t mean you have to ignore everything bad that occurs. “Focusing on the positive is not an all-or-none proposition – it is not about eliminating the negative altogether. Instead, it is deciding where we are going to invest the majority of our energy and attention,” he writes.

But how much of the negative each day could we ignore instead of feast on?

Ms. Bremer makes the point that some problems might go away if you don’t feed them with too much attention, some issues aren’t all that important and some threats could be bypassed with just a little adjustment. But we do feast on the negative – what does a manager do all day but deal with what’s wrong? We go home and moan about all the bad stuff the day brought our way.

Given that management tradition, how do we focus on the positive?

A first step might be praise – appreciating others. Mr. Dowden suggests making it descriptive rather than evaluative. Although saying “great job” or “fabulous idea” will help a colleague feel good temporarily, he says it offers no guidance for the future. It may even be viewed as a brush-off or false praise. Be specific about what you are praising and why.

Like me, you may have found it feels awkward to give compliments. Kurt Smith, a counsellor and coach based in California, says that’s because it can trigger our own insecurities – you may not match up to the person you are praising. Or we might worry that giving the other person a compliment will make that individual squirm. But it’s worth doing. “Not only will these little acts of recognition benefit the receiver, but they will also benefit the giver as well. A sincere compliment can create a feeling of appreciation and positivity that both parties will enjoy,” he writes on the Dumb Little Man blog.

Mr. Dowden also encourages you to see the opportunity in a failure and focus on the strengths of your team. Have your team’s strengths assessed and then discuss with each individual how they can leverage those talents better.

Above all, you need a mindset makeover. In The Power of Positive Coaching, consultants Lee Conlan and Julie David-Colan offer these examples of the positive versus negative approach as we consider subordinates:

  • She can change and grow versus she is stuck in her ways.
  • He has not mastered this yet versus he just doesn’t get it.
  • He really wants to succeed versus he just wants a paycheque.
  • He wants to do the right thing versus he will probably cheat and steal for his own benefit.
  • She wants to help versus she just cares about herself.
  • She has several natural gifts versus she has several weaknesses.

They note that research has shown that a positive view of abilities – the strength-based approach – helped to improve employee performance by 36.4 per cent. Managers who focused on their employee’s weaknesses helped to decrease employee performance by 26.8 per cent.

Which side of that ledger are you on – positive or negative? Can you change, tilting the balance? I’ll be positive and assume you want to and can.

Cannonballs

  • Executive coach Ira Chaleff suggests leaders should learn from guide dogs, who are taught “intelligent disobedience”: After the dog learns how to obey all the commands it needs to support the individual, it is taught how to disobey if obeying would result in harm to the person or dog. He told Leadership Now that leaders need to create a climate of intelligent disobedience. One trick is to present ideas as first drafts rather than immutable orders.
  • Consultant Thomas Boyle says a common mistake organizations make is waiting too long to tell job applicants they aren’t being considered any longer for the position. Candidates want transparency, so be respectful of their time and communicate as often as you can.
  • Many intranets lack a name. Consultant Kara Pernice says it should have a name that indicates its goal and gives it an identity so people can refer to it.

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