What Do Positive Leaders Actually Do?

In 2005, results of a Gallup research study concluded managers play a crucial role in employee well-being and engagement.

Six years later, most of the leaders I talk with are acutely aware of the costs and benefits of engaging their workforce at all levels. Active employee engagement has strong linkages to key business outcomes, including:

  • Retention
  • Productivity and performance
  • Profitability
  • Customer satisfaction and retention
  • Safety

But the previous Gallup research didn’t study what managers actually did (their specific behaviors) to elicit positive responses from employees.

That’s why Margaret Greenberg and Dana Arakawa put the theory of positive leadership to the test. Both are graduates of the Master of Applied Positive Psychology program at the University of Pennsylvania.

Greenberg and Arakawa wanted to know if managers who apply positive leadership practices have teams with higher project performance and employee engagement, as compared to teams led by managers who don’t apply these practices. They reported their results in a May 2007 Gallup Management Journal article, The Business Benefits of Positive Leadership.

Based on a great deal of previous research, they focused on three leadership behaviors that positive managers practice:

  1. Use a strengths-based approach
  2. Provide frequent recognition and encouragement
  3. Maintain a positive perspective when difficulties arise

Past studies have shown these practices have a direct effect on employee engagement, and each is an observable and testable behavior. None of these characteristics are innate, but all can be learned.

In other words, very few executives intuitively know:

  1. How to work with people’s strengths
  2. How to automatically give frequent credit where due
  3. How to respond with your best game face when the going gets rough

Positive managers focus on the areas in which an employee excels and how his or her strengths can be leveraged to benefit the employee, team and organization.

Greenberg and Arakawa measured the degree to which managers used strength-based behaviors by asking employees to rate their level of agreement with a series of statements, such as:

  • “My project manager matches my talents to the tasks that need to be accomplished.”
  • “My project manager encourages high performance by building on my strengths.”

Using the employee responses, Greenberg and Arakawa ranked the extent to which managers focused on strengths and found that those in the top quartile had much higher project performance results.

Based on retrospective project performance results from 2005, managers in the top quartile achieved an average project performance score of 10.6 on a 20-point scale, while managers in the bottom quartile achieved an average score of 7.09. In 2006, the average score for top-quartile managers was 17.91, compared to an average score of 11.55 for managers in the bottom quartile.

It’s not really surprising to find a correlation between managers’ behavior and employee performance. But these leader who were in this study were surprised at how much the two factors correlated, how much their attention to strengths mattered.

It’s something to think about when you’re looking at your team’s results. What can you do as a manager do to bring out the best in people? Focus on what they do well rather than wrong. That’s what positive leaders do. What do you think about this?

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