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

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How to motivate people? Don’t do it yourself.

How do you motivate employees to greater levels of engagement and productivity? Maybe you shouldn’t try to do it yourself.

For many people, the popular TV show The Office strikes just a little too close to the reality of their day-to-day experience. It is funny because it is true. Consider this example: manager Michael Scott often gives “motivational” pep talks to his team. Just about every time, the effort backfires. Michael’s efforts to pump up his colleagues are greeted with rolled eyes and cynicism. Whether sincere or not, his words and deeds are viewed as inauthentic and superficial. By contrast: seldom if ever do we actually see or hear from fictional company Dunder Mifflin’s customers in the show.

There are specific, research-based steps toward an alternative possibility: a world of engaged workers who are happier, healthier, and more productive. Employees are more likely to be motivated and engaged when they feel their work is meaningful (which researchers Brent Rosso, Katherine Dekas, and Amy Wrzesniewski define as “significant, challenging, and complete”). It seems logical: people who feel that their work is “making a difference” are more likely to engage in it. Usually, when we think of “meaningful work,” we think of teachers, nurses, physicians, social workers: people whose jobs directly impact the lives of others. However, many employees in other kinds of roles are doing work that indirectly impacts the lives of others but are unable to see the effects of their work. These employees may hear about how their work affects others, but are otherwise unaware of their impact and therefore remain unmotivated and unengaged.

Take telefund callers, for instance. Many of us receive calls regularly from our alma maters, asking for donations. These calls are often placed by young students, paying their way through school by making fundraising calls to alumni. The work is repetitive, and the callers have to stay motivated and persistent even in the face of frequent (and not always very polite) rejection. Not necessarily a job that comes to mind when we think “meaningful work.” However, in How To Be A Positive Leader, Adam Grant shares a study of how outsourcing inspiration contributed to a more engaged workplace.

In 2007, University of Michigan Telefund experimented with inviting a scholarship recipient to help motivate its employees. Telefund callers are often students without much work experience, and face frequent rejection as they try to raise money for the university. In the experiment (since widely replicated), a scholarship recipient shared her story with some of the callers before their phone shift—how her scholarship helped ease a financial burden. In the month after hearing her story, those callers obtained on average 215 more pledges and $1670 more in donations per week than a control group that didn’t receive a motivational talk from a scholarship student. The kicker? Both groups of callers used the exact same script.

Outsourcing inspiration can and will look different in each organization. Here are three helpful strategies from Grant’s study that organizations can use to get started:

1. Make the face-to-face connection. Hearing first-hand from the beneficiaries of their work is the most direct (and most effective) way to connect employees to the impact of their work. In the case of Michigan Telefund, a 5-minute story from a scholarship student measurably boosted employee engagement.

2. Encourage employees to swap stories. It might be the case at an organization that some employees are very connected to their impact, while others are not. When employees are given the opportunity to share their contributions with each other, they can make connections about impact that they may not have been able to make otherwise.

3. Become a linking pin. What good is an inspiring story if not connected to the mission of the organization? Connecting employees’ contributions with the mission or vision of the organization can be even more engaging for employees than simply hearing the story of an end-user.

With these ideas as a starting point, you can start outsourcing inspiration quickly. Today at lunch, encourage employees to share stories of contributions they’ve made toward your mission. Reach out to one of your team’s beneficiaries to see if they would be willing to share the impact your organization had on them. Make your mission known and connect it to the day-to-day work of your employees. Perhaps an added bonus will be a boost to your own motivation, as well as that of your team!


Chris White (@leadpositively, is managing director of theCenter for Positive Organizations (@PositiveOrg) at the University of Michigan’sStephen M. Ross School of Business. The Center is the convener of the Positive Organizations Consortium, a catalytic co-learning community of leaders actively building high-performing organizations where people thrive.

4 Leverage Points for Being a Positive Leader

Originally at

When meeting with leaders interested in building positive organizations, one question recurs more often than the others: “where do we start?” As a manager myself, I can certainly relate to this. Good advice is seemingly limitless. Help to put it all together, however, is in short supply.

Followers of the Center for Positive Organizations, based at the University of Michigan’s Ross School of Business, might find this challenge more acute than most. For the last fifteen years, over 300 scholars around the world have been working under a broad umbrella of Positive Organizational Scholarship. Topics include transformational leadership, compassion at work, meaning and purpose in organizational life, ethics, forgiveness, energy, negotiations, generosity, and more.

Being a positive leader does not mean being perfect. We are all human beings, and will often fall short of our own personal expectations. Being a positive leader, however, does mean aspiring to build relationships and teams that are both high performing and enable people to thrive. It does mean choosing to focus on what is working well, and on peoples’ strengths, more than addressing their weaknesses.

So where to start: some moments as a leader are more important than others. Here are four leverage points for being a positive leader.

1. It all begins with you

There is no point in aspiring to be a positive leader unless you are sincerely committed to the journey. Indeed, trying this system in the hope of quick fixes or Band-Aid solutions may be counterproductive. If you are insincere, your colleagues will be able to sense it a mile away.

How can you take steps to integrate the identity of positive leadership in your own life? Consider starting with Ryan and Bob Quinn’s practical advice on how to be a transformational leader in their book, Lift 2.0.

2. Hire for energy, not just capability

To have a positively energized team, you need everyone on board to be either positive energizers or at least neutral. The moment you bring a negative energizer onto your team, it can suck the life out of the team. Michigan Ross Professor Wayne Baker, who has done fascinating and important work on energy networks in organizations, calls these people Black Holes.

To find positive energizers and create an upward trajectory for team dynamics, I ask myself three questions during the hiring process:

1. Does this person have the potential to be the best on the team in his or her area of responsibility?
2. Will this person not only fit our culture, but also enhance it with his or her own character?
3. Is this person committed to the same mission and vision as we are, to the extent they will stick around to make it happen, rather than jump at the next shiny opportunity that comes their way?

By only hiring people who meet these criteria, we are giving ourselves a good chance of continually improving our capability and culture.

3. Build high quality relationships

Being a positive leader involves creating and sustaining productive and energizing relationships with those around you. The social fabric you build will not only help in the day to day course of creating a great workplace, but will create a reserve of commitment and resiliency for when times are tough.

To get started, consider reading Energize Your Workplace by Jane Dutton, and then continuing with the Task Enabling Exercise. These resources will help you identify the most important relationships you have in the workplace, and how to strengthen them to make them even more meaningful and productive.

4. Unlock potential in the group

Many people view meetings as the bane of organizational existence. However, meetings also provide a great way to build alignment and work toward a defined culture. Work at a more collective level is a key step in becoming a positive leader. How can you create processes and systems to enable people to support and unlock potential in each other, even when you are not around?

One tool to help build this capacity in your team is the Positive Leadership Game. This exercise helps teams understand what it means to lead using the positive lens, and get into the habit of asking for and offering help to each other.

These are four leverage points you can prioritize in order to be a positive leader. How else might you make a positive difference in your organization?

Chris White (@leadpositively, is managing director of the Center for Positive Organizations (@PositiveOrg) at the University of Michigan’s Stephen M. Ross School of Business (@MichiganRoss). The Center is the convener of the Positive Organizations Consortium, a catalytic co-learning community of leaders actively building high-performing organizations where people thrive.

How to help your new hire get off to a great start

Originally at

The sun was shining as Katie set off for her first day at work on her dream job. Heading to the office with a brisk walk, a little smile, and the flutter of butterflies in the stomach, everything seemed bright about the day to come.

As managers, we know that there are many things to be coordinated to help Katie start off on the right foot. Generally, I find that these fall into four main categories: logistics (computer, phone, payroll, etc.), information (understanding the strategy and systems of the organization, for example), relationships (the people with whom Katie will be working most closely), and projects (the areas for which Katie will be responsible, prioritized in order of importance and urgency).

One special ingredient that most managers tend to overlook when helping new hires make a running start is Identity. We know what Katie’s resume looks like, how she came across in an interview, and what her references say about her. Yet we do not really know her deeply. Who is this person? What is she like when at her best? How can we help her bring her best self to work as often as possible?

According to recent research, understanding and reinforcing Katie’s positive sense of self will make a big difference to how she performs and how happy she is at work. In the series of experiments by Dan Cable, Julia Lee, Francesca Gino, and Bradley Staats, two findings are particularly relevant. First, when individuals are given feedback on how they are at their best before individuals start their team task, they outperformed the teams that did not do this. Second, when this positive identity-boost was given as part of corporate onboarding procedure, newcomers who went through this exercise felt that their relationship with the company is less transactional, felt less emotionally exhausted, and less likely to quit, as compared to those who did not do this exercise. These findings suggest that learning about one’s reflected best-self can help teams to work better together and improve employment relationships.

What actions could you do right now to put this research into practice?

    • Provide opportunities to give and receive best-self feedback

In the study, the researchers implemented a tool called the Reflected Best Self Exercise, which was developed by the scholars at the University of Michigan’s Center for Positive Organizations. This powerful exercise allows employees to learn about their positive impact and contribution to others through the eyes of their social network (family, friends, colleagues, etc.). Over the last ten years, the exercise has been implemented at business schools including HBS and the Michigan Ross, and in leading companies such as KPMG.

    • End meetings with appreciations 

Saving a few moments at the end of meetings to give room to express gratitude for the contributions of others can be a way to routinize a culture of best-self feedback on an ongoing basis. Zingerman’s co-founder Ari Weinzweig writes:

“Every meeting always ends with a few minutes of Appreciations. Appreciations can be of anything or anyone; in the room or not in the room; work-related or not; past, present or future. No one is required to say anything, but most people usually do. This one small systemic change has made a huge impact over the years. Think of it like ending a meal with a good cup of coffee; because every meeting ends with them, people almost always return to the organizational world with positive feelings. Its regularity disciplines us to devote time and mental energy to positive recognition.”

    • Rethink performance evaluations

“Most corporate performance evaluations (e.g., 360 performance evaluation) tend to focus on identifying weaknesses rather than celebrating strengths, because people tend to focus on limitations and blind spots,” says Julia Lee. “Plus, studies have found that existing performance evaluation tools failed to foster learning and personal development but rather became punitive to employees, increasing a perception of threat and vulnerability.” Lee suggests following in the footsteps of companies such as Adobe and Deloitte by tweaking or even overhauling performance management systems to be based on empowerment, rather than fear and anxiety.

How people see themselves at work makes a big difference to how they perform. How do you help people bring their best selves to work?

Chris White ( is managing director of the Center for Positive Organizations (@PositiveOrg) at the University of Michigan’s Stephen M. Ross School of Business (@MichiganRoss). The Center is the convener of the Consortium of Positive Organizations, a catalytic co-learning community of leaders actively building high-performing organizations where people thrive.

The Opportunity of Management

Originally at

Managers sit at a juncture at which there lies great opportunity for positive contribution in the world. Our managers make a disproportionate difference in our happiness, engagement, and performance at work. As we look back on our careers so far, almost all of us can point to a teacher, mentor, or manager whose skillful commitment to our success made a profoundly positive impact in our lives. Conversely, we can also almost all highlight an experience with a team or a manager that depleted us to almost critical levels.

A few years ago, my friend Michael was a star student in the MBA program here at the Ross School of Business. With a winning personality, an engineering degree, work experience at one of the top internet companies, and now an advanced degree from a prestigious business school, Michael had the pick of employers to choose from upon graduation. He decided to join a prominent West Coast tech company, and was seemingly destined for great things.

Less than a year later, Michael was asking himself – and me – the question of how long he could tough it out before leaving. He was already out in the community, networking and exploring options. The company hadn’t exactly changed from the one he fell in love with in the selection process. But his manager was an archetypal bad boss – controlling, micro-managing, power-hungry, fostering toxic behaviors and distrust among team members.

The saying is true: people join companies and leave managers. Many of us have discovered this to be true at some point in our own careers. Michael saw out the time needed to retain his full signing bonus, and is now very happily working for an up-and-coming startup. I was sad that Michael’s stint there hadn’t worked out, but relieved my friend was heading to greener pastures. I was sad for the company and the manager for missing out on such great talent, especially having done the hard work of attracting him to join them in the first place.

Every year, Gallup rolls out its State of the Global Workforce report. The findings are always fascinating, and understandably slow-changing. Consistently more than 70% of the global workforce, by Gallup’s reckoning, are either disengaged or actively disengaged. This equates to more than $400 billion lost from the US economy on an annual basis. To give some idea of the scale we are talking about, that’s the equivalent of the profits of the ten most profitable companies in the world disappearing from our global balance sheet.

But it is not all doom and gloom. At the Ross School of Business, our mission is to develop leaders who make a positive difference in the world. We define “positive” in this context as creating economic value, building great workplaces, and being good neighbors. While the three are completely interrelated, the work of the Center for Positive Organizations at Ross emphasizes the catalytic importance of architecting places where people can bring their best selves to work. We look primarily at the organizational architecture: how structures, systems, strategies, processes, practices, and culture can all be re-imagined to help people thrive. Financial success and impact on our communities are two other sides of this virtuous triangle of Positive Business.

We are passionate about the role of educators in making a difference, and we view developing skilled, energizing, and compassionate managers as a leverage point for change. Classes taught by our core faculty attracted more than 1500 students. We do not want any of our students to be on the receiving end of what Michael experienced. Furthermore, we are challenging them to be the change we want to see in the world; to be the managers who allow millions of Michaels to thrive, not to trample them down.

Thankfully, we know we are not alone. There are over 200 self-identifying members of the Center for Positive Organizations’ Community of Scholars, drawing from many other top business schools around the US and around the world. These are researchers and professors who are aspiring to the same goal – to help leaders build organizations that bring out the best in people. Collectively, we educate tens of thousands of business students each year. We are grateful that initiatives such as Great Work Cultures is helping to build a big tent for this movement. Together, we can truly build a new world of work.

Chris White is managing director of the Center for Positive Organizations and Adjunct Faculty at the Stephen M. Ross School of Business at the University of Michigan.