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The Impact of Positive Leadership

Rather than simply "being nice," positive leadership means driving accountability, engagement, and productivity

by
Michael J. O'Brien

Michael J. O’Brien is the founder and co-creator of The BluePrint Toolset. Michael is married with three adult children. He was raised in Canada and now resides in Houston, TX,...

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You have heard it before: “You need to be more positive.” But what does it really mean to be a positive leader? And does that really matter? With deadlines and workflow pressures, do you really have the time? And can you be too positive?

Being a positive leader is not about being nice. It is an approach to leadership that drives job satisfaction, employee engagement, and productivity. This approach creates psychological safety and clear goals for all team members. This enables them to be aligned around what needs to be achieved while willingly providing ideas and innovation to improve the process. “Traditional” leadership focuses on the problems, the failures, and is quick to apply the finger-pointing process when it comes to blame. Traditional leaders think they are being effective because fear works so well, right? Let’s look at the differences between the two approaches and how they play out in the real world.

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Traditional vs positive leadership

The first difference between these two approaches is the underlying assumption of where great performance comes from. In the typical management approach, the assumption is that if you can identify and correct all the mistakes that occur, everything will be fixed. This approach assumes that it is more efficient to focus attention where performance is down, as it would be a waste of time to look at when the team was more successful. This approach to fixing why the team is not at standard will only help the team get to standard—it will not drive above-standard performance. Also, there is no such thing as a problem-free environment, so eliminating all problems is an impossible goal. 

The second difference is the team climate that each approach creates. The focus on identifying the mistakes and errors that prevent standard performance creates a climate of fear. This means team members are reluctant to speak up and fearful of being blamed for the mistakes. This fear creates disengagement and can lead to “quiet quitting.” When there is this type of fear in the team, people work to avoid making mistakes or, at least, make sure they are not the ones blamed for them. This can lead to distrust between members, laying the groundwork for continued productivity decline.

Why positive leadership is superior

Despite it seeming more efficient on the surface, focusing on eliminating problems is ineffective from a leadership approach. It limits performance to the average, disengages the team members, and it creates an oppressive climate of fear and distrust.

Practicing positive leadership by focusing on what is working when the team is highly productive engages the team members more effectively. It encourages them to work together to improve performance in a climate of cooperation and engagement. This creates a lab team that is continuously improving, learning from the past, and applying that learning going forward.

'Traditional' leadership focuses on the problems, the failures, and is quick to apply the finger-pointing process when it comes to blame.

This effective team starts with the underlying assumption that understanding and identifying where the performance is great is the best path for optimal growth. While the focus is on what is working, it eliminates many of the errors of the past as a byproduct of doing what is successful more often. By focusing on what great performance looks like, the positive leader is creating a strong image of what success looks like for each team member. It takes the guesswork out of desired performance.

The clarity of what great performance looks like creates a climate of engagement toward the achievement of superior performance. Since the review is on positive outcomes, team members are much more willing to participate and provide feedback on what worked and why. With the focus on what is working and not on blame, the team members take more accountability for their individual performance and how their actions impact the overall performance of the team. This accountability creates a greater sense of their effort making a difference, which drives energy and engagement. This also creates better workflow and energy in the lab. It’s what psychological safety looks like: an absence of fear so that people can fully engage, ensuring that team goals are met and exceeded. 

Positive leadership in action

To illustrate, let’s look at an example of an ineffective team, and how the two methods address performance issues. Our sample team’s performance has been inconsistent. Last month, the team had two weeks where critical deadlines were not met, and productivity was well below standard. The other three weeks, they met the deadlines and productivity was above standard.

In a typical management approach, a root cause analysis would be done on the two weeks where performance slipped, looking for the gaps between actual and desired performance. The focus on the activity is to determine the mistakes and who made them, so it doesn’t happen again.

In contrast, the positive leader approach looks at the three weeks where the deadlines were met and productivity was above standard. The focus here is to determine what is in place when the team is at its best. How are they operating? How are they communicating? What are the keys to their success as a team? Once the key to their success has been established, the team then institutes clear methods to ensure they leverage these behaviors every week to keep performance above standard.

The key difference between the two approaches is that a positive leader is focused on what the team needs to accomplish. This is achieved by identifying where this is already happening, creating a sense of accomplishment and energy to drive further innovation and performance. 

So, if you thought being a positive leader was about being nice, it’s reasonable to worry about being too kind, which could mean a reluctance to hold team members accountable for their performance. In practice, the positive leader approach actually creates a climate of increased accountability, engagement, and productivity.

Michael J. O'Brien will expand on this topic during his keynote session at the 2023 Lab Manager Leadership Summit.