What does positive psychology tell us about leadership?

What we know from the science behind positive psychology is that there are skills you can learn that can help you feel more positive about what you do, the way you do it, and who you do it with. That’s not to say if everyone learns these skills we’ll all be more positive – life is never that black and white, and never that easy. Especially when it comes to learning and development for individuals.

When it comes to the field of leadership, there are a lot of theories, models, consultants, and suppliers willing to peddle their latest development and thinking to advance what’s happening. I’m kind of less interested in that and more interested in the meta-development of the skills that we’re advocating.

So here are the things that we can take from the field of positive psychology that we know can lead to more positive leadership. Important caveat – we don’t know the impact of what a more positive leader can enable in terms of business outcomes. Currently, the best we can do is suggest possible outcomes. So that’s my caution with any of what we do in this field of leadership.

There is a ratio for more healthy relationships.

In the workplace, you need to have a ratio of at least 3:1 positive to negative interactions for there to be a healthy relationship. As a leader, that means you need to be aware of how often you do things like:

  • praise your people on a regular basis
  • share good outcomes from your people with others
  • express your appreciation for people’s efforts
  • rewarding good outcomes

What the ratio also helps us to understand is that people at work do expect some level of criticism or feedback that they might find challenging.

What you need to be mindful of as a leader is to not think this means you can say good things regularly and then have a big shouty outburst. This ratio is about genuine statements / interactions which applies equally to expressing positive sentiments as it does to giving feedback well.

Also, some of you may think – but if someone is doing their job, and they’re doing it well, why do I need to praise them for it? Well, you don’t have to. If you don’t, then people very easily become resentful about the lack of appreciation and only end up doing what’s necessary. If you do, you’re more likely to have a team of people who enjoy being at work, and are more likely to produce good outcomes.

The focus of your questions create different behaviours.

Often as leaders we ask questions that are around problem solving, getting to the heart of the matter, and seeking to understand a situation to provide a response. Those things should happen – don’t stop doing those things. What we often don’t realise is that the focus of those questions also drives behaviour to happen in certain ways. For example asking the question: “How did this happen” or “Why did this happen” when something bad happens can create an environment where people feel they have to justify their behaviour or that they may be being blamed. Those questions can be helpful for investigative purposes, so I’m not discouraging their use. What can create a different set of behaviours is asking questions like “What did you learn from what happened?” and “How can we avoid something similar happening again?”. Also, although I’ve presented it as such, these aren’t exclusive sets of questions. You can combine them – it just takes practice and care in how you do that so the person you’re talking to doesn’t feel lost with the questions being asked of them.

If you’re seeking to be operational effective then the first set of questions make sense. They’ll help you get to the heart of the matter, and you’ll quite likely be able to sort out whatever happened fairly quickly. What the second set of questions help enable is an environment where people understand that they have personal responsibility for learning from the situation and coming up with a solution that mitigates something similar happening again. Appreciative questions as a leader help cultivate an environment of trust and personal ownership.

Your language influences what people think of you.

I’m one for straight talking. If something needs to be said, say it clearly and directly. Don’t try ‘sandwich’ the message, and don’t use metaphors or analogies unnecessarily. When leaders can do this well, they help their people know exactly what’s required of them, or are clearly informed about different messages. In the workplace, we are mostly dealing with adults, and most adults are capable of being great at what they do when they have clarity on what’s being asked of them. If your language as a leader doesn’t help provide that, your people are likely to be working in ways which are confused, lack consistency and may negatively impact the way they work with others.

What is equally important about how we deliver messages, is how they are phrased, and how we use language. The English language helps us to be wonderfully articulate, and at the same time there is a reserve many of us have in expressing things in the positive. We’ve just not really been brought up in that way, many of our insitutions don’t use language like this and much of our media doesn’t talk about things in the positive. Arguably one of the few ways we experience things expressed positively is either from the spin of politicians / business leaders or in marketing / advertising / PR.

Research into how to help leaders develop a ‘Growth Mindset’ helps us to know that it’s in the positive quality of the writing that helps environments where people feel like they like being at work, they have a good experience, and feel included. This can be hard for many leaders as it demands taking the time to write messages which have a different focus.

There are clearly more skills that can be developed as a leader to help enable positive work environments where people feel valued, appreciated and included. Again, much of this can feel like – but why should we bother when people are paid to do a good job? Yes, people are paid to do a good job, and what we see time and again is that a person’s salary just isn’t enough to motivate good performance. Starting to cultivate leadership behaviours like: increasing and improving the positive interactions you have with your people, using more positive questioning techniques and using language in your daily interactions which are more purposefully positive help to create environments where people are motivated to achieve good outcomes as well as creating positive working environments are all skills that leaders can learn.

2 thoughts on “What does positive psychology tell us about leadership?

  1. Hi Sukh, I really like this post as I advocated for the same thing in my previous workplace. Do you elaborate these positive interactions and questioning techniques in another article?

    Sam Kristen

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