Accentuate the positive when times are difficult

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 15 April, 2010, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 15 April, 2010, 12:00am

Kim Cameron is a William Russell Kelly professor of management and organisations at the University of Michigan's Stephen M. Ross School of Business. He gives us his insights into effective leadership and how important it is for the modern workplace.

In what ways did the onset of the global financial crisis highlight a need for effective leadership in the workplace?

Typically, leaders give more attention to the negative than to the positive in trying times. However, one key finding from my research is that a focus on the positive produces the heliotropic effect. This effect is defined as the tendency in all living systems towards positive energy and away from negative energy. In trying times, this means that focusing on the positive produces far better performance than focusing on problems and deficits.

Of course, downsizing is inevitable in the economic downturn, but my research has found that the way downsizing occurs is more important than the fact that it occurs. In a study of a large number of downsizing firms in 16 different industries, strong and statistically significant relationships were found between virtuous practices and both objective outcomes [such as profitability, productivity and quality] and subjective outcomes [such as morale, customer loyalty and employee engagement]. Therefore, studies have confirmed that the highest-performing organisations are not only led by positive energisers but also have three times the number of positive energisers in the workforce than normal organisations. This is a critical differentiation when the economy is moving downwards.

My research has also shown that 80-85 per cent of organisations that implement downsizing experience significant deterioration in performance, including decreased productivity, curtailed creativity and innovation, low morale and restricted communication. However, I also discovered that the remaining 15-20 per cent of organisations flourished after downsizing. I refer to these flourishing few as 'virtuous organisations' because they are set apart by their virtuous and positive practices.

How does poor leadership manifest itself in the workplace and what effect can it have on performance?

A study was conducted by Marcial Losada of 60 management teams. These teams were formally observed working on their own organisational issues for one day and their communication patterns were coded into several categories. One category was the number of positive statements made relative to the number of negative statements made during the day. Then the performance of these top teams' companies was assessed based on profitability, productivity and leadership competence. Not surprisingly, high-performing companies used five positive statements for every negative statement during the day, whereas low-performing companies used three negative statements for every positive statement.

What can individuals do to assess their own style of leadership and improve on it?

A wide variety of leadership assessment tools are available, but almost all of them lead individuals to focus on deficits, weaknesses and underdeveloped competencies. Whereas these assessments are helpful, they do not help leaders capitalise on their strengths. To that end, Michigan uses the reflected best-self instrument which provides leaders with information on their strengths and on the areas in which they add unique value. This instrument results in a best-self portrait, which is used by leaders to capitalise on their strongest capabilities. Research confirms that higher performance is associated with capitalising on strengths rather than merely overcoming weaknesses.

To what extent can the leadership qualities required by today's managers be taught in the classroom?

Abundant research confirms that leadership competencies can be developed and improved. That is the underlying assumption of all modern education. The key question is not 'can leadership be developed?' but 'what leadership competencies are the most crucial for ensuring successful performance?' Research at the University of Michigan has identified leadership capabilities and practices that predict extraordinarily positive organisational performance. Whereas some of these competencies are commonly prescribed, some are unusual. Fostering compassion, gratitude, forgiveness, profound purpose and positive energy are among the less common competencies facilitated by effective leaders.

Can you explain the methods used by your Positive Leadership programme?

The Positive Leadership programme makes use of cases, video cases, class and group discussions and a pre-programme assessment. Positive energising is a learned behaviour, not a personality attribute. The focus is to help to develop such competencies.

On top of benefiting from the faculty members, participants will also learn and share with their fellow students. On average, students can expect to work with others from at least five to six countries from different functional areas and industries. Though most participants come from Asia [about 70 per cent of participants are from outside Hong Kong], we also have participants coming from the Middle East, Australia, Europe and even the United States on a regular basis. The diversity of our participants has always been very well received by participants and client organisations.