Creative Leadership: John R. Ryan

Four Ideas for a Positive Workforce


I've been privileged to work for many great organizations over the years, so it's always been a pleasure to show up at the office early and work late. "Thank God it's Friday" isn't a phrase I've ever really used. Indeed, Friday always seems to come up too fast.

"It's easy for you to say that," my late, wise father once said. "You've had a lot of senior leadership positions. It wasn't so easy for me to stay positive when I was a young, lowly sergeant in the Army." Yet my father did manage to keep his attitude positive even though he suffered a serious leg injury during World War II that never fully healed. He raised five children with my mother and enjoyed a very successful career in the civil service. His positive outlook helped him overcome some major challenges. Some intriguing research by Dr. Barbara Fredrickson reminds us why his good attitude mattered so much.

Fredrickson, Kenan Distinguished Professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, is the author of Positivity: Groundbreaking Research Reveals How to Embrace the Hidden Strength of Positive Emotions, Overcome Negativity, and Thrive (Crown, 2009). The book captures the highlights of her 20 years of pioneering research on positive emotions. The bottom line, according to Fredrickson: People who think positively are more self-aware, innovative, and strategic. They can see the big picture more clearly than others.

Those are precisely the kinds of leaders we need in our organizations, especially in today's turbulent economy. In my own experience, I've found some people are just naturally positive. Others remain so insistently negative there's almost no point in trying to talk them out of it. But most of us fall somewhere in the middle, and we could benefit immensely from cultivating positivity in ourselves and others.

Attitude Changes

For those of us who believe we're too set in our ways to change our attitudes, there's some good news. As consultant David Rock wrote in the journal Strategy + Business, recent neuroscience research has found that "the human brain is highly plastic. Neural connections can be reformed, new behaviors can be learned, and even the most entrenched behaviors can be modified at any age." This is consistent with our own research and practical experience at the Center for Creative Leadership, where we've found that leaders are in fact made, rather than born, and that they can keep improving throughout their entire careers, provided they're willing to make the effort.

So it's very possible for people to change and become more effective professionals in the process. But, as leaders, how do we encourage them to do it? We should, of course, start with ourselves. Based on her research, Fredrickson recommends we try to experience positive emotions in a 3-to-1 ratio with negative ones. That's the tipping point, she says, at which our overall ability to see new possibilities and overcome challenges starts to grow exponentially. Her research shows that only 20 percent of Americans actually achieve that ratio on a regular basis. (You can take her quick test to see if you're one of them.)

As someone who has been fortunate to lead several large organizations, I'm particularly interested in how to cultivate positivity throughout entire workforces. A few key actions stand out in advice from experts and the lessons of my own career:

1) Express appreciation. Many years ago, I was a junior U.S. Navy pilot in the Mediterranean, serving on our newest nuclear aircraft carrier with the most modern aircraft in the U.S. Navy. The other aircraft carrier in the same area was our oldest conventional carrier with our oldest aircraft. But it outperformed ours in almost every way. We had a technically competent captain who was not a good communicator and rarely offered a compliment. When I visited the older carrier for a few days, it was immediately obvious that the captain there was a great communicator. Several times a day he used the ship's speaker system to tell the entire 5,000-member crew what specifically they were doing well, often recognizing teams and individuals. The entire ship hummed with energy and high performance. What kinds of captains are we in our own organizations?

2) Encourage fitness. It's hard to feel positive about much of anything when you don't feel well, and leaders are prone to the exhaustion that comes from long hours, lots of travel, and hectic schedules. Eating well and exercising regularly can make a huge difference in our mood and energy level. Indeed, it's hard to enjoy success over the long term as a leader if we disregard personal fitness. And in addition to making us feel better about ourselves, staying in shape will make other people feel positive about us as well. In working with executives from around the world at CCL, we've found that leaders who exercise regularly receive significantly higher ratings on leadership effectiveness from their bosses, peers, and direct reports than men and women who exercised only sporadically or not at all. In other words, fit leaders give off vibes and get the job done better. We can do our colleagues a real service by setting up voluntary classes on weight loss, exercise, nutrition, and wellness. As leaders, we need to set the tone by taking part in them ourselves.

3) Focus on teams. There's a tendency in many organizations to reward individual performance. Certainly, high performers deserve recognition. But as my CCL colleague Chris Ernst found in his research on leadership across boundaries, many of the biggest challenges that companies face today, from global competition to natural disasters, can only be solved by groups working collaboratively. Having spent much of my life in environments that depend on teamwork, I've learned that team success can generate tremendous positivity. The level of goodwill that comes from a group accomplishment is often greater and more meaningful than that of strictly personal achievements because of the relationships we build and the larger scope of the outcome. Cisco Systems (CSCO), under the leadership of Chief Executive Officer John Chambers, saved itself from possible ruin a decade ago by building a collaborative culture in which groups, rather than individual stars, drive key decisions and products. People felt empowered, and more innovative ideas surfaced. What better way to build positivity at work?

4) Give skepticism its due. It's hard to overstate the importance of positivity in personal and organizational success. Still, we all have colleagues who will tell us "Everything's great!" even when it's not. That doesn't serve us well either. Just a few years ago, many so-called experts were talking up the wonderful state of the U.S. economy as the Dow crossed 14,000. New York University economist Nouriel Roubini, on the other hand, refused to join the crowd. He spoke ominously of mortgage defaults, housing bubbles, and a financial crisis of global proportions. As it turned out, "Dr. Doom" accurately predicted the severe recession from which we're just now beginning to recover. Let's remember the lesson: Skepticism is a crucial counterpoint to positivity, and it's not the same thing as negativity, which destroys rather than nurtures. We all need Roubinis in our organizations who challenge us to revisit our assumptions.

As leaders, we spend a lot of time hiring and retaining talent, reviewing metrics, examining competitors, setting strategy, and ensuring execution. These tasks are essential to success. But what's even more crucial is the attitude we bring to them. Negative mindsets limit possibilities from the very start. Positivity opens up a world of options and opportunities.

John_ryan
John R. Ryan is president of the Center for Creative Leadership, a global provider of executive education. He was previously chancellor of the State University of New York and superintendent of the U.S. Naval Academy at Annapolis, Md. He was a pilot during a 35-year career in the Navy, retiring as a vice-admiral.

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