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The Impact of Positive Leadership
Business Journal

The Impact of Positive Leadership

How seemingly small interactions can dramatically boost your team's productivity

by Tom Rath

This could be a typical morning in the life of one of your star employees:

Suzie walks into the office at 8:00 a.m. The affable receptionist greets her with a smile, calls her by the name she prefers ("Suzie," not "Susan"), and strikes up some small talk. Suzie's Positive-to-Negative Ratio: Positive 1, Negative 0.

As Suzie rounds the corner, she notices that the elevator door is beginning to close. So she speeds up, knowing there is usually a wait for the elevator first thing in the morning. It looks like she will miss the elevator, but at the last moment, an arm shoots out and stops the door from closing. As the door reopens, Suzie thanks the unknown woman who held the elevator for her. Suzie's Ratio: Positive 2, Negative 0.

A few minutes later, Suzie settles in at her desk and starts to read her e-mail. One of the first messages is from her least favorite coworker, Greg. Even before opening the message, she knows what to expect: relentless complaining. As if on cue, Greg's note starts with a one-liner about how bad traffic was coming in to work. Then he breaks into a tirade about having to "pick up the slack" for the rest of the team. "Yeah right," Suzie mutters to herself. She knows that Greg's constant negativity is the real drag on her workgroup's productivity. And reading his note is a lousy way to start her day. Suzie's Ratio: Positive 2, Negative 1.

Instead of venting her frustration to others, Suzie decides to grab a cup of coffee and settle down. In the break room, she sees Amy, one of her closest friends. Amy smiles and immediately tells Suzie that she "loves the new shoes." They end up chatting for about 10 minutes, and Suzie feels much better. Suzie's Ratio: Positive 3, Negative 1.

Suzie loses track of time while she happily chats with Amy. But then she discovers that she's running late for her 8:30 meeting. As Suzie rushes down the hall to the conference room, she feels guilty. She is rarely, if ever, late to meetings. Suzie finally makes it to the conference room -- about seven minutes behind schedule, according to her wristwatch.

Meanwhile, you -- Suzie's boss -- are sitting in the conference room, along with five other people who report to you. Everyone else had arrived on time and was ready to go by 8:30. By the time Suzie walks in, your patience is running thin.

The first thing Suzie does -- before even taking her seat -- is to apologize to the group for wasting their time. Then you decide to kick off the meeting by saying, "Well, now we can get started, albeit ten minutes behind schedule." This jab hits Suzie like a brick. She already felt guilty and had apologized to everyone. Your comment only exacerbated her bad feelings. Suzie's Ratio: Positive 3, Negative 2.

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In the span of just over 30 minutes, Suzie, your best performer, had three interactions that were positive and two that were negative. Put another way, her positive-to-negative ratio, or PNR, was 3:2.

Sound good? Well, it's not good enough for her -- nor for anyone else you lead. And beware, manager: Unless you are actively working, today and every day, to make sure Suzie has more positive interactions, you may soon have a disengaged employee on your hands -- or worse, you could lose one of your best people.

"The magic ratio"

Over the past decade, scientists have explored the impact of positive-to-negative interaction ratios in our work and personal life. And they have found that this ratio can be used to predict -- with remarkable accuracy -- everything from workplace performance to divorce. This work began with noted psychologist John Gottman's exploration of positive-to-negative ratios in marriages. Using a 5:1 ratio, which Gottman dubbed "the magic ratio," he and his colleagues predicted whether 700 newlywed couples would stay together or divorce by scoring their positive and negative interactions in one 15-minute conversation between each husband and wife. Ten years later, the follow-up revealed that they had predicted divorce with 94% accuracy.

So what is the optimal positive-to-negative ratio in organizations? A recent study by psychologist Barbara Fredrickson and mathematician Marcial Losada found that work teams with a PNR greater than 3:1 were significantly more productive than workgroups that did not reach this ratio. Positive emotions, however, need to be grounded in reality: Their research also uncovered an upper limit for positive-to-negative ratios of 13:1. When workgroups exceed that PNR, things are likely to worsen; completely blind optimism can be counterproductive -- and downright annoying -- in some cases.

But managers shouldn't worry about breaking the upper limit. The levels of positive emotions in most organizations are woefully inadequate and leave substantial room for improvement.

Consider the effect your comments had when Suzie walked in late. Had you simply told her "It's OK" -- or maybe even offered a few encouraging words -- her PNR would have been a healthy 4:1. (She is a top producer who's never late -- you could have cut her some slack.) And instead of sitting through the meeting feeling guilty and disengaged, Suzie might have added a few more ideas to the discussion. Perhaps she would have inspired or praised someone else -- thereby passing her positive energy along to others. Had you decided to handle Suzie's tardiness differently, it could have had a ripple effect.

When leaders display positive emotions, others take note -- and take action. Positive leaders don't sit back and wait for things to get better on their own. Instead, as they walk around the office, make calls, or write e-mails, they are always trying to catch excellence in action. When they spot a job well done, they call attention to what is right. This in turn raises the entire organization's PNR and its productivity.

Ken, the CEO of a large organization, calls positive emotion his secret weapon as a leader. As Ken travels around the globe, he stops by his company's local offices. And he doesn't visit to spy on his employees or check in with top brass. Instead, his goal is to energize every employee in each office.

Before arriving at a location, Ken recalls the successes and achievements he has heard over the past few months involving people in that office. As soon as he arrives, Ken casually visits with these individuals and congratulates them. He may offer kudos to an employee who recently got married or had a child, or praise someone who delivered stellar customer service. His favorite line is: "I've been hearing a lot of good talk behind your back."

Ken just loves to "watch the energy move through the network" once he sets it in motion. He realizes that he can light up an entire office building with a few brief -- but very energizing -- conversations. As a result of this approach, thousands look to him for motivation and guidance.

What positive leaders accomplish

Indeed, the litmus test of a positive leader is the esprit de corps he creates with his troops. Positive leaders deliberately increase the flow of positive emotions within their organization. They choose to do this not just because it is a "nice" thing to do for the sake of improving morale, but because it leads to a measurable increase in performance. Studies show that organizational leaders who share positive emotions have workgroups with:

  • a more positive mood
  • enhanced job satisfaction
  • greater engagement
  • improved performance

What differentiates positive leaders from the rest? Instead of being concerned with what they can get out of their employees, positive leaders search for opportunities to invest in everyone who works for them. They view each interaction with another person as an opportunity to increase his or her positive emotions.

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