What Positive Leadership is Not

It drives me nuts.

Few things make me crazier than when people misunderstand what it means to be “positive” in the workplace, and then project that misunderstanding onto others. Many people interpret positive leaders as being “nice” or “happy” all the time. While this may be true, being nice and happy all the time is not the goal of being a positive leader. My purpose in this blog post is to dispel three of the most common misconceptions about what it means to be a positive leader or to build a positive organization. By doing so, perhaps we can become better leaders, too.

I may experience uncomfortable misunderstandings about the nature of positive leadership and positive organizations more often than most (as managing director of the Center for Positive Organizations). Here are some interactions from a typical day in my life:

  • I get into an elevator, and someone says to his neighbor “uh oh, better be happy now!” Cue awkward laughter, and then silence.
  • A student is outraged when I give her a suggestion for improvement. “I thought you were meant to be ‘positive,’” she complains angrily. Cue difficult conversation.
  • A meeting participant apologizes to me — “I’m sorry, I know this isn’t very positive, but…” — before sharing his important concerns about a project. Cue concern about how many other people are holding back their good ideas because of this inaccurate interpretation of the word “positive.”

These minor situations reflect dangerous misunderstandings of what it means to be a positive leader, or to attempt to build a positive team or organization. Here are three of the most common misconceptions about people aspiring to be positive leaders:

1. “You have an overly optimistic view of the world (or yourself)”

Wrong. Positive leaders are actually trying to have a more accurate view of the world and ourselves than occurs naturally for most of us.

We are naturally wired to dwell on negative feedback longer than positive feedback. Indeed, studies suggest that our memories weight negative feedback more than three times stronger than positive feedback. As such, most people have an unreasonably pessimistic view of themselves. Think about the last time you received a combination of negative and positive feedback points. Which kind of feedback did you dwell on more? By consciously noticing, savoring, and celebrating positive experiences, we are actually just bringing things back into more of a realistic (and healthy) equilibrium.

2. “You are okay with poor performance, effort, or behavior”

Wrong. Positive leaders are committed to applying an affirmative bias, and to achieving extraordinary outcomes.

A foundational piece of research by founders of Positive Organizational Scholarship addressed the need for both/and attributes throughout organizational culture. We need to be both competitive and collaborative. We need to be both creative and have strong controls in our processes where necessary. And of course we need to be both supportive and challenging to help people grow. Bob Quinn has used the metaphor of a positive leader having one hand on her teammate’s back to push her along faster than she thought possible; the other is under her arm to break her fall if needed. Giving someone endless free passes for sub-par performance is not being a positive leader. In fact, it is not being a leader at all.

3. “You should be happy all the time”

Wrong. Positive leaders experience the same range of emotions as everyone else.

Unless you have truly achieved enlightenment, most of us experience a range of emotions. We are happy, sad, angry, curious, perplexed, excited, and much more over the course of any given day or week. Trying to force ourselves to be happy all the time, or pretend we are happy when we are not, is inauthentic. This lays the seeds for unsatisfying relationships with others, and sets people on a slippery slope toward depression.

We can choose to cultivate gratitude in our lives though. We can appreciate our good qualities and experiences. We can appreciate the contributions of others. We can deliberately try to notice and celebrate these things with sincerity and enthusiasm. Like a muscle, our ability to experience and express gratitude gets stronger with use. The more grateful we are, the more genuinely happy we are – and the better we will be as leaders.

Positive leaders are committed to finding and amplifying what works well in their organizations. They help to create elevated purpose for the whole, and help individuals find meaning in their work. They foster energizing relationships. They act with integrity and compassion. If they happen to be nice or happy from time to time as well; hopefully, the rest of the world will welcome that, too!

Chris White (@leadpositively, leadpositively.com) is managing director of the Center for Positive Organizations (@PositiveOrg) at the University of Michigan’s Stephen M. Ross School of Business.

Everyday Courage in Organizations

When you think about courage at work, what comes to mind? Maybe it is fire fighters going into a crumbling, burning building to rescue people. Or our armed services deployed overseas, facing the threat of injury or death every day. Or even a pilot safely landing a plane on the Hudson River in critical conditions.

For me, the first image that comes to mind is taking one of the first flights back from New York to home in San Francisco after 9/11/2001. For a few days, no flights had taken off from New York as experts raced to understand and adapt to a new threat of items in our day to day experiences being weaponized. Throughout the flight, all passengers were told to stay in their seats. This wasn’t a recommendation, as it sometimes feels today. We were being closely watched by the multiple air marshals on the flight. After the plane safely landed, the flight crew hugged each other, the tension and relief evident on their faces.

These are examples of physical courage. Although most of us do not have working conditions that place us in harm’s way on a daily basis, we can recognize and appreciate the courage of those who do.

A simple working definition of courage is “the ability to do something that frightens one”. If we are being honest (or self-aware), what scares us goes well beyond the threat of physical harm. Indeed, psychological fear is probably much more prevalent for most of us than fear for our physical safety. Let’s call managing this fear and moving ahead anyway “Everyday Courage”.

One of the ways that we have the opportunity to experience and enact Everyday Courage is in standing up for our values. Bullying is all too prevalent in our organizations, as it is too in other parts of our society. In fact, 20 years of studies by Christine Porath and others suggest that 99% of people have either experienced or witnessed incivility in the workplace. Taking a stand against toxic behaviors – whether toward ourselves or others  – is an important and inspiring form of Everyday Courage.

We also express Everyday Courage in what we stand for, not just what we stand against. When we take action to create change without authority, we can often be entering into psychologically threatening territory. It is likely that all of us have experienced being excited about an idea we have had, that we think will really help a colleague, our team or organization, or other stakeholders. It is equally likely that we have experienced our idea being rejected. In some cases, we may also have had our wrists slapped for making the effort. Stepping on invisible landmines in organizational politics can be treacherous!

It is not pleasant to experience these mini (and sometimes not-so-mini) electric shocks from the organizational system. It is tempting to internalize them as a message to stop trying to make a difference. After all, as any parent or leader knows, we humans respond to pleasure and pain as we learn behaviors. We learn to do what earns us pleasure (or praise, or a bonus, or intrinsic satisfaction), and we learn to avoid what brings us pain (or criticism, or rejection).  I believe that this cycle is a significant contributor to so many people checking out at work. Sure, they show up, but they stop trying to make a difference. Or, worse still, they ally with those knocking down the folks who are still trying. Because it is so much easier (i.e. Requires much less psychological courage) to be a Monday morning quarterback than the guy (or girl) on the field trying make plays.

So what can you do to bolster Everyday Courage in your organization?

  1. Give yourself – and others who try to make a positive difference – credit for your efforts. This is an act of Everyday Courage. By giving this behavior this label you are narrating a positive identity for yourself and others. In doing so you are bolstering the resilience needed to keep going even when you run into resistance.
  2. Prepare yourself psychologically for the interaction. The father-son team of Robert and Ryan Quinn suggest asking yourself four questions to help enter the “fundamental state of leadership”. What is the result you want to create? What do other people think about this? Who would I be in this situation if I lived up to the standards I expect of others? What are 3-5 strategies I could employ here?
  3. Build your skills at creating change without authority. When plotting how to advance your idea, my co-author Jerry Davis and I recommend you consider four factors: When to move ahead? Who are the allies I need on board? Why is this a good idea for the people (and organization) affected? How should we organize around this?

Thank you for everyday courage in making a positive difference in your organization and the world. You inspire me!

Chris White (@leadpositivelyleadpositively.com) is managing director of the Center for Positive Organizations (@PositiveOrg) at the University of Michigan’s Stephen M. Ross School of Business.
Post originally appeared here: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/entry/58767913e4b0f8a72544843d?timestamp=1484162172876

Can You Create Change From the Bottom Up?

An interview with the awesome Michelle McQuaid. Originally at http://www.michellemcquaid.com

 

Do you lack the authority to create the kind of positive changes you’d love to see in your workplace? Have you tried to get leaders on board and had no luck? What if there was a formula that helped you fly under-the-radar and create the kind of changes that would really help people flourish?

Be it helping our organizations to become more responsive to customers’ experiences, supportive of the needs of employees, environmentally sustainable, or community minded, it is clear that businesses can truly benefit from the social and environmental passions of their employees.  But let’s be honest, convincing business leaders that this is the case is easier in some workplaces than others.

So how do you get leaders on board with these approaches?

“Trying to create positive changes in an organization when you don’t have authority, is like trying to create change in society so there is a lot we can learn from social movement activists and apply it workplaces,”explained Chris White the Managing Director of the Center for Positive Organizations at the University of Michigan’s Ross School of Business, and the co-author of Changing Your Company from the Inside Out, when I interviewed him recently. “For example, successful social activitists look for the right opportunities at the right time to harness and mobilize support to get the traction they need to push from the bottom up and turn their radical ideas into action.”

Chris suggests that social intrapreneurs – those who create positive change in organizations even when they don’t have formal authority – are most successful when they follow the social activists formula of when, why, who and how in workplaces. It is how employees at IBM created the corporate Peace Corps, how a team at eBay developed a fair trade marketplace, and how people convinced Ford to embrace an ambitious global human rights code.

“Like a martial arts master, intrapreneurs are able to achieve their objectives by aligning their movements with the momentum of their organization, and acting without causing serious harm to the system,” Chris explained.

But do organizations really want social intrapreneurs?

Chris suggests that by tapping into the ideas, passions and energy of social intrapreneurs, organizations not only foster more innovation, but in the process they also can increase the engagement and retention of talented employees, improve their bottom line, and help advance social and environmental solutions.

For example, the UK-based Barclays Bank regards social innovation as about ‘doing good’, and at the same time representing real business opportunities. As a result of some persistent intrapreneurial work they have established an innovation fund to address social challenges, and are fostering more initiatives by encouraging their intrapreneurs to apply for financial support, coaching or mentoring.

So what does it take to be a social intrapreneur?

Chris has found there are four levers from the social action moment that are vital to selling ideas within an organization:

  • When? – A great idea pushed at the wrong time is unlikely to get traction. Conversely, a counterintuitive idea can be successful if the timing is right. Look for shifts in leadership priorities, which create an urgent need for new solutions. Your goal, like a skilled dancer, is to position your idea to be carried along by the momentum of the system — not swim against the tide.
  • Why? Make the case for your idea using the language and strategic priorities of your company. In many corporate cultures, making the ideas sound like a natural evolution rather than a radical departure, can reduce resistance to adoption. Your goal is to create a mental image that activates the support of important allies, but does not trigger alarm bells for potential resistors.
  • Who? Take time to map the decision makers for your idea, and the influence system around them. What are their priorities? How will you need to adapt your case to each of them in order to be effective? Your goal is to build support along the way, making the eventual decision a straightforward sign off.
  • How? Look for sensible solutions” to organize your initiative. Maybe it is a smaller pilot program to manage risk smartly. Maybe there is a previously successful program that can be largely replicated. How can you use technology to connect and scale your idea? Your goal is to make this an easy idea to grasp as rollout begins.

Chris suggests that many of us to hold back from originating radical change due to fears our leaders will not be supportive of bottom-up change created without authority. However, in reality he has found senior leaders are often very supportive and welcome their social intrapreneur’s initiatives.

What positive changes could you initiate in your workplace?

This interview was produced in partnership with the Positive Business Conference held each year at the University of Michigan. For more on the conference please visit http://www.positivebusinessconference.com.

How to Make Your Company a Force For Good

A fun interview with Marty Wolff. How can business make a positive difference in the world?

Originally at http://martywolffbusinesssolutions.com/chris-white-can-make-company-force-good/

In Defense of Doers

Leadership experts make it sound easy: “Follow these simple steps and you will have amazing results!”

The typical format is somewhat formulaic. With poise and pithy quotes, we deliver our sticky stories. We boil down thousands of hours of research and experience into a set of snazzy slides and talking points. When they go well, our sessions help people make sense of the chaos around them. At our best, we provide practical tools and approaches that may make people more effective or happier at work.

I say this with some basis in experience: I could probably be perceived as one of these “leadership experts.” I run a research center with a mountain of relevant content. I teach an MBA class at a top business school. I blog regularly throughmainstream media outlets. I give dozens of external talks and workshops a year. I have written a book through a prestigious publishing house. The resume adds up to the picture of a “leadership expert.”

Yet I have also been leading teams and organizations for the last eighteen years. This allows me to say unequivocally: leading and managing people is much, much harder than talking about it.

The reality of organizational life is messy. It doesn’t fit neatly into the two-by-two frameworks, or three step processes that make for compelling 700 word blog articles. The people we work with on a day to day basis have their own baggage from previous jobs. Maybe their previous boss was a tyrant, always looking for what was being done “wrong.” The people we work with have their own lives outside of work. Maybe he or she is exhausted from working a second job, or going to evening classes, or has young children who are not yet sleeping through the night. The people we work with have diverse strengths, weaknesses, and preferences. Maybe a struggling team member could be a superstar in a slightly adjusted role or working environment. The complexity is mind-boggling.

And you know what? The same goes for me. I have my own baggage from previous jobs. I have had a controlling boss. I have experienced a sense of betrayed trust in the workplace. I too have my own life outside of work. I am spending much of my time excitedly preparing for a wedding next year, with all the new challenges and opportunities and growth that weddings and married life bring. I have my own strengths, weaknesses, and preferences. Connecting dots in strategy and networks comes naturally to me; defining and implementing consistent processes does not. I am far from perfect.

So what advice might I share with someone brave enough to show up every day, trying to build a positive organization in the messy, complex real world of work?

Be humble.

When you are wrong, or fall short of what you expect of yourself, admit it. Admit it quickly and unreservedly, to yourself and others. Apologize. Being humble will both manage expectations, and build trust. And try again.

Be gentle with yourself.

Accept, right now, that things will rarely go exactly as planned. Some things you try will not work the way you hoped. You will find some people harder to work with than others. Just do your best, and be kind to yourself about the emotional bumps and bruises along the way. These psychological knocks are simply the cost you pay for caring about your team. Being gentle with yourself will help you sustain yourself and gather up the energy needed to make your organizational change efforts successful. And try again.

Keep learning and improving.

Never fall into the trap of believing that the formulas proposed from most “leadership experts” will work perfectly in your organizations. They will require skilled adaptation. You will need to become comfortable using the tools that they recommend. Ask for feedback often. Look for subtle feedback in what you are told and not told by those around you. Continually learning and improving will make you better and inspire those around you to want to partner with you. And try again.

What is the best advice you have for someone trying to build a positive organization?

Chris White (@leadpositivelyleadpositively.com) is managing director of the Center for Positive Organizations (@PositiveOrg) at the University of Michigan’s Stephen M. Ross School of Business.

Originally appeared at http://www.huffingtonpost.com/great-work-cultures/in-defense-of-doers_b_12441314.html

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Interview with David Burkus

In this interview, we talk about how to make even large, established companies a force for good through social intrapreneurship.

Originally at http://davidburkus.com/2015/04/0608-chris-white/

 

Could your calling be all around you?

Today, students and professionals are hungering for purpose. Rarely a day goes by without experiencing some manifestation of the great search for meaning in work that is currently underway. Sometimes it appears in the frustration of a loved one about her boredom at work; she wants to contribute more — and more meaningfully. Other times it shows up in the emptiness that our best friend feels when he has found himself going through the motions at work, rather than being fully present and engaged; he wants to do things that stretch him and applies his strengths, values and passions in the pursuit of something worthwhile. Often, it can be seen in the relentless job hopping that seems to be so prevalent nowadays in just about every organization; sometimes we just think that the occupational grass here is bland, and it will be greener and tastier elsewhere.

 

Michigan Ross management professor Andy Hoffman thinks that the solution — the biggest calling of our generation — is all around us. “The sustainability challenges we face today are of a completely different order than those of the past”, says Hoffman in his new book. “Business must be the source of the solutions to those issues. The market is the most powerful institution on Earth and business is the most powerful entity within it. If they are not solving these problems, they won’t be solved.” And it appears that many students are heeding the call. Hoffman notes that “students that wanted to make a difference in the world twenty years ago went to graduate schools of government or non-profit management. Today, more and more of them are going into schools of business.”

I will be the first to admit that I am far from perfect. Indeed, I feel more than a twinge of hypocrisy as I write this article. I drive a gas guzzling car! I enjoy a nice steak all too often!

But Hoffman’s point is that none of us are. But that shouldn’t stop us. There are myriad ways that individuals or organizations can make a difference starting today. Some yield small and immediate results. Others will be the work of many people over decades or longer. We do not all need to be Elon Musk and lead the reinvention of the auto sector, but we can aspire to create products and services differently. At the recent Ross Positive Business Conference,Cascade Engineering CEO Mark Miller told us how his company took an environmental challenge to their business and turned it into an extraordinary commercial opportunity. (See the story here, starting at 49.08). He was driven to do this by a deep sense of purpose about both building his business and serving society.

 

Having a calling changes our subjective day-to-day experience of work. Some may not feel the compulsion to make environmental stewardship their calling. They may feel drawn more toward helping their communities or their families, perhaps. One of my colleagues says that her calling is simply “to make each room better than how she found it”. Everyone who experiences the events that she produces knows that this is something that she takes seriously. Her calling energizes her actions on a daily basis.

 

For many people, the challenge is where to begin. Here are two concrete steps to get the ball rolling:

 

1. “Start small”, suggests Hoffman. “Begin to explore what your passions are and where you want to devote your life’s energies”. In order to do this, you may choose to find a mentor or keep an energy journal. For two weeks, simply note down the times when you feel excited and energized by situations you come across. Over time, as you reflect on your notes, you will find common themes across the people you interact with, the issues you consider, and the tasks you do when you find yourself being energized.

2. Connect to something bigger than just your immediate needs and wants. This will give you a purpose beyond yourself and a community with which to connect; both will fuel your energy and excitement for the long run. Many workplaces have Green Teams (grassroots networks to help with environmental initiatives), or diversity councils, or other such groups that fit your energy that welcome new contributors. Outside of work, many attend Green Drinks events or volunteer in environmental work.

Do you feel you have a calling? What is it? How did you find it? Share in the comments!

Chris White (@leadpositively, leadpositively.com) is managing director of theCenter for Positive Organizations (@PositiveOrg) at the University of Michigan’sStephen M. Ross School of Business. Andy Hoffman (@HoffmanAndy) is a professor at the Ross School and his new book Finding Purpose: Environmental Stewardship as Personal Calling is available here.

Originally at http://www.huffingtonpost.com/great-work-cultures/could-your-calling-be-all_b_10839066.html