A Balanced Approach to Positive Leadership

Duality + Balance by H.Koppdelaney

Earlier this year, I taught my first semester of a new online course on Positive Leadership in Spas and Hospitality for the UC Irvine Extension certification program in Spa and Hospitality Management.  Because it was an online course, it attracted an incredible diversity of students from all over the world.  There was a good mix of students from Asia, Europe and North America.  And the experience of the students varied greatly from massage therapists and estheticians who were interested in growing into management positions (or someday opening their own spas,) to spa directors of varying backgrounds and experience levels all the way up to the CEO and COO of a hospitality management company.  I am proud of the fact that all of the students, regardless of geography or stage of their career, seemed to get a lot out of the course.

I think I have a unique approach to teaching positive leadership because, while I emphasize the importance of the positive (which is often neglected in business) I really teach a balanced approach to management.  Rather than learning how to focus on positivity and avoid negativity, I teach them the importance of developing a leadership style that recognizes and learns from both sides of the coin.

Here are a few tips for a balanced approach to positive leadership:

1. Learning from strengths and weaknesses.  I teach Appreciative Inquiry, David Cooperrider from Case Western Reserve University’s response to the more typical “Deficit Based” approach to management.  Most businesses focus almost exclusively on fixing problems and overcoming obstacles.  Appreciative Inquiry teaches us to analyze our strengths and learn how to do more of what we do best.  But unlike Cooperrider, I don’t teach leaders to ignore their weaknesses.  We still need to analyze our mistakes and tackle our biggest challenges, but we should learn from our strengths too.

Seagull Out of Balance by Fisserman

2. The negativity bias goes both ways.  Human beings have a bias towards the negative.  We notice the negative sooner and more often, and it impacts us more deeply than the equivalent experience on the positive side.  For this reason, I teach a variety of positive appreciative approaches to remind us not to neglect the positive that is going on around us.  But I also teach my students that they shouldn’t ignore the negativity bias.  I draw a page from management guru and author of “Good Boss, Bad Boss,” Bob Sutton, who reminds us that our customers and employees also have a negativity bias.  If we don’t notice and fix the problems that they are facing, this is what they will remember about us.

Positive Leadership by Kim Cameron

3. Stop trying to motivate employees.  I do teach a slew of research from psychology on how to create the right conditions for intrinsic motivation (eg. self-determination theory) and a variety of other research-based tips for driving accomplishment and goal achievement.  But I also teach that most employees are already motivated when they join your team.  Managers think their role is to “motivate” their employees, but I think leaders would be better off by thinking about how to stop doing the things that strip away motivation.  Humans have an inherent drive to do well.  A good leader facilitates this in their team.  It’s less about creating motivation and more about learning how not to demotivate the people who work with you.

4. Avoid the negativity witch hunt.  I teach a variety of ways to create a more positive, more engaged work force.  But I surprise my students when I tell them that they should create space for negativity in their organization.  Managers who try to squelch negativity may be inadvertently closing off channels of communication.  Sometimes negativity comes from passionate employees who are frustrated when things aren’t going well.  A good leader needs to hear what’s not working from those who are passionate enough to care and speak up.  Rather than suppress negativity, a positive leader should create a culture that allows for appropriate expression of negative feelings.

5. It’s not about creating happiness at work.  I use a lot of positive psychology in my course, much of which is geared towards creating a workplace that people will enjoy working in and feel more fulfilled by.  But I also teach that a happy workforce is not the end goal.  Great work is often marked by great challenge and great sacrifice.  Meaningful work is about accomplishing things that you passionately believe in, even when it doesn’t feel good.  Happiness, if you find it, is just the icing on the cake.

If you are interested in learning more about a balanced approach to positive leadership, the course will be starting up again in June.  I hope to see you there!

References and recommended reading (and the required text for my course:)

Cameron, K. (2008).  Positive Leadership: Strategies for Extraordinary Performance.  Berrett-Koehler Publishers.

by Jeremy McCarthy

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15 Responses to A Balanced Approach to Positive Leadership

  1. Marie-Josee Shaar May 1, 2012 at 12:00 pm #

    Hummm! #3 and #5 – interesting, fresh perspective! I like it!


  2. Kathleen F. May 1, 2012 at 7:44 pm #

    I sometimes have a hard time with this at work (as a manager). Not being “established” enough to have my own assistants, I share two with other professors. I try to encourage positivity and productivity together, but sometimes I find that the assistants think I’m soft and prioritize their other bosses’ work over mine, because the other bosses are hard-asses! I try to help them understand the importance of being engaged and responsible at work. It’s a tough balance sometimes…..

  3. Lisa Sansom May 1, 2012 at 9:21 pm #

    Oh thank goodness for #5! I feel like banging my head against a wall when I see anyone equate positive psychology with happiness. Happiness is such a small part of what the entire field is about. It’s one of many positive emotions, and positive emotions is one of many pillars of well-being. Thank you for tackling this head-on in your course!

    Re: motivation – I saw Marshall Goldsmith talk sometime last year and his attitude about employee engagement was, why wait for the employer to do something? Can’t employees engage themselves? I thought this was hugely refreshing and, in my mind, links to what you are saying about employees (and any individuals really) can motivate themselves. If you have the mindset that people want to do a good job, and approach your team accordingly, it’s amazing how many people will do a good job all on their own!

    Wonderful article – I’m sure it was an excellent course! All the best for your next offering!

  4. Leona May 2, 2012 at 11:09 am #

    Jeremy, thank you thank you for this amazing blog. I fully resonated with each of your points here – the word I often use with my clients and execs is creating an ‘evenhanded’ approach to our work, rather than a deficit- or asset-based approach. Strengths are wonderful, and yes, there are some weaknesses you can ignore, but others that can bite you if not remediated or addressed.
    I especially like #4 – squelching negativity just forces it underground and it ends up poisoning the culture because employees feel like their employer doesn’t care about their real experience…inevitably leads to a culture where everyone nods in the meeting, and then gathers at the watercooler to commiserate and complain 5 minutes later.
    Again, thanks for this “evenhanded” approach. 🙂

  5. Jeremy McCarthy May 2, 2012 at 11:13 pm #

    Hi Kathleen, Nobody likes a pushover. I think there is research showing that managers who try to be the “nice guy” are not very highly respected. People need to be pushed and sometimes tough love is respected. It’s all about finding the right balance. When I was in high school I was on the swim team and the coach had a reputation for being cruel. Years later when I was a swim coach I tried to be the nice guy and quickly learned that my athletes did not respect me and did not appreciate the niceness. Maybe you should try toughening up!

  6. Jeremy McCarthy May 2, 2012 at 11:15 pm #

    Hi Lisa, I agree with you on the Marshall Goldsmith comment. I think a strong culture comes from giving a certain amount of autonomy to the employees which also means they hold some accountability for how things are. I think this is a major problem with government. Everyone wants to blame the government for everything but nobody takes action or accountability for how things are on an individual level. Society doesn’t work that way.

  7. Jeremy McCarthy May 2, 2012 at 11:18 pm #

    Thanks Leona, I like the word “evenhanded” for this approach (I may have to use that.) In my current job I am working with different cultures internationally, some of which are more accustomed to sweeping difficulties under the rug. I’m a big believer that you have to talk about your problems or they will never go away. I’m having to learn how to manage this with cultures where the norm is to only show positives. Tricky!

  8. Charlie Wills May 6, 2012 at 2:58 pm #

    Nice work Jeremy, that of being of service to others is the Highest Order in life! Did you charge a fee?

    The 5 or 6 GM’s I had the pleasure of seeing first hand would do well to take your course as they led from Fear and Anger.

    The past GM at the Ritz as being by far the Worst, screaming and yeling at everyone including his wife 24/7

    After 24 months the Owner Kicked him out…Thank Godness, The Local employees held a huge party the day he left…

  9. Kathleen F. May 6, 2012 at 4:43 pm #

    @Jeremy, yes, that’s been my latest strategy, to toughen up! 🙂 Too soon to see if it is working!

  10. Chris Griffin May 7, 2012 at 6:11 pm #

    I took this class last semester, and really enjoyed it. It backed up my personal management philosophy, and gave me a lot of ideas to explore. It also gave me the idea to create a coaching series based on several of the core concepts of the course. All in all, it is well worth the time, and Jeremy is a very engaging instructor. I highly recommend it!

  11. Jeremy McCarthy May 7, 2012 at 9:18 pm #

    Thanks Chris, Great to hear from you. Keep me posted on the coaching series!

  12. Adel Gazar September 7, 2012 at 7:29 pm #

    Hi Jeremy, about point 3 (Stop trying to motivate employees), I’m not sure I get it. Do you mean get out of the way and just let them work their magic?

    I manage a staff of 5 and at the beginning of our project there was lots of energy and ideas. Then people kept falling behind on their milestones. I know it’s not because of ability, so it must be motivation. How can I be proactive about this if your suggestion is to just let them be?

  13. Jeremy McCarthy September 10, 2012 at 10:02 am #

    Thanks “adelgazar”, It’s a good question. My point is not simply to let them be but to consider how you as the boss might be a part of the problem. A colleague of mine just launched a new website (http://www.tell-your-boss.com/) which says that 3 out of 4 employees say their boss is the most stressful part of the job. So rather than thinking about what new programs and incentives you will create to motivate your employees, try to think about your existing management style and programs that might be killing their motivation and see if you can make changes that way. The reality is it’s about doing both, but most people don’t think about how they could be contributing to the lack of motivation of their teams. I hope that helps . . . keep me posted!

    Thanks, J

  14. Jeremy McCarthy September 18, 2012 at 5:36 pm #

    A good article from Fast Company this week on “making your employees superheroes” by getting out of their way: http://www.fastcompany.com/3001328/how-make-your-employees-feel-superheroes.


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