Strong organizations need positive leadership. The development of a strong, positive organizational culture begins with strengths-based, positive leadership.
Positive Leadership & Employee Engagement
How do you create a positive and vital organizational culture in which people are given the opportunity to flourish, to use and develop their talents optimally? How do you get the best out of yourself and others? “Both managers and employees believe that you can get more out of talent by focusing on the strengths and not on the weaknesses” (Boerman, 2016). Strengths-based leadership or positive leadership puts people first. It implies believing in the potential, in the power of people and encouraging employee engagement and self-direction.
Positive leadership works much better to increase motivation, self-management and performance. And also fits in with the current paradigm shifts. Organizational forms and leadership styles are increasingly distancing themselves from hierarchy, micro management, power and control. The directive style of management is outdated; other demands are placed on managers. Nowadays we need leaders that are good at personal leadership and lead from authenticity and strength instead of power. Leadership with ‘head and heart’; In addition to hard skills and IQ, soft skills and emotional intelligence are becoming increasingly important.
Positive leadership is based on positive psychology. As a manager you want to get the best out of yourself and let others thrive, and you treat people as the unique person they are, with their personal aspirations, values and qualities. Positive leaders work from authenticity, their goals, strengths, values and vision and know how to share this with their people in an effective and inspiring way.
This style of leadership results in more trust, well-being, connectedness, involvement and higher performance, less turnover, less negative stress and higher customer satisfaction.
Autonomy, mastery and purpose
Motivation is of great importance for organizations; unmotivated employees can cost the organization much more than they deliver. People get moving, deliver better performance and get positive energy when they are intrinsically motivated. By recognizing and utilizing their strengths, they are more involved in the organization and experience a sense of belonging and meaning and they are more inclined to be extra commited and loyal to the organization. Pink (2009) states that people are driven by “autonomy, mastery and meaning.”
This corresponds to a trend in psychology to no longer focus primarily on negative aspects – what does not work, what is not going well, what should we improve; the deficiency approach – but to pay more attention to positive aspects. Positive psychology (Seligman & Csikszentmihalyi, 2000), psychology of work and health (Luthans & Youssef, 2004; Schaufeli & Bakker, 2001), for example, is focused on work-related well-being (enthusiasm, flow), people’s strengths (for more involvement, better performance, well-being) and positive leadership (inspiring, connecting, coaching, focused on strength, development).
Leaving potential and the power of people untapped results in less motivation, engagement, energy, commitment and growth, with all the negative consequences that this entails. Organizations where people can thrive are more powerful and successful; they score higher on productivity, customer satisfaction, employee involvement and talent retention.
Strong leaders, strong organizations
Executives have by far the greatest influence on productivity, commitment and job satisfaction of the team. This is increasingly apparent from research, including research agency Gallup and long-term research at Google (Duhigg, 2016). An effective, strong leader is a good coach, gives confidence and is not managing at a micro level, has a genuine interest in and attention to the success and well-being of employees, is helpful in the development of employees, is result-oriented, has a clear vision and strategy, has crucial technical skills, listens well and shares information. “Anyone who manages to create the right environment for the greatest talents will automatically attract them” (Bock, 2015).
According to the Gallup research agency, the best managers assume that the talents of every employee are unique and sustainable, and that the strengths of every employee offer the most room for growth. Many organizations still have untapped potential; “Latent talent”. Talents must be made productive within the organizational context, but due to limiting environmental factors, people cannot fully unleash their potential. And getting the best out of yourself and others may sound a bit soft, but it results in hard (business) results. Hard skills and task-oriented management still too often prevail over people-oriented management.
Good leaders acknowledge the importance of soft skills, play an exemplary role and are able to inspire and stimulate others, thereby increasing involvement, performance and productivity. Poor leadership on the other hand can do a lot of damage. The directive, authoritarian style of management depletes energy and can cause negative feelings and stress for employees. Lack of autonomy and development opportunities, being monitored a lot and not being trusted, causes stress and can lead to low engagement, reduced performance or even to burnout. There is a correlation between stress and having little control, while stress and the risk of burnout decrease when people gain more confidence and autonomy.
Trust and connectedness
Positive leaders ensure a safe environment, give and receive trust and bring out the positive energy of employees. “Leadership means giving direction and stimulating emotional involvement. And without trust you have no open, honest communication and no emotional involvement” (Haijtema, 2001).
Positive leaders emphasize and build on employees’ strengths rather than focus on their weaknesses, and this emphasis creates an attraction to forming strong interpersonal ties. The orientation is toward enabling thriving and flourishing at least as much as addressing obstacles and impediments. It is not the same as merely being nice, charismatic, trustworthy, or a servant leader. Rather, it incorporates these attributes and supplements them with a focus on strategies that provide strengths-based, positive energy to individuals and organizations (Cameron, 2012).
Leadership development needs more attention and must be high on the agenda, partly due to the changing organizational forms and expectations of stakeholders within the business community. But the development of managers is mainly focused on working on weaknesses and improving competencies. A strengths-based development approach is more focused on unique strengths and qualities of effective leadership behavior. First of all, as a leader you need to know where your own strengths lie and then you also know better how to recognize and optimally use the strengths of employees and how to deploy them.
Insights and techniques that have a proven positive impact on the well-being of people in organizations and – essential – on the performance they deliver are the strengths approach and Appreciative Inquiry. The strengths approach leads to (much) higher motivation and to (much) better results than the traditional approach (Tiggelaar, 2016).
“Are you building on strengths, or are you trying to compensate for your weaknesses? If you focus your energy on compensating for weaknesses, you end up with a large set of strong weaknesses. Make sure that you continue to develop your strengths and dare to trust them,” says professor and leadership coach Bas Kodden (MMC, 2018).
“Developing weaknesses” is often experienced as annoying, demotivating and energy-consuming, while developing strengths makes you stronger, it gives you more energy and confidence.
You have to encourage people and look at their strengths. Not at the weaknesses. At least 80% of your communication as a manager must be positive. (Covey, 2010).
The effective executive makes strength productive. He knows that one cannot build on weakness. To achieve results, one has to use all the available strengths — the strengths of associates, the strengths of the superior, and one's own strengths. (Peter Drucker, The Effective Executive)
Positive leaders therefore look more at strengths than at what needs to be ‘repaired’, a focus on deficits and gaps.
“And they put a lot of emphasis on integrity, self-awareness, authenticity and social intelligence. Social intelligence is needed at the top and in the middle of the organization. Social intelligence is the awareness of your own and other people’s motives and feelings (‘you have a sense of what makes you and others tick’) and you have the agility to adapt behavior to what the situation demands ”(Peterson & Seligman, 2004 ).
The ideal leader does not exist.
As a leader you will have to deal with dualities and with paradoxes. Effective leadership is an art; it is balancing between management and self-management, between controlling and letting go, coaching, trusting and connecting. What does that mean in practice? What qualities and behaviors must an effective manager possess? The ideal, complete leader does not exist. Effective leadership usually depends on the situation and there is no formula for excellent leadership. Leaders who try to become good at everything are ultimately less effective. How effective you are in your leadership role does not only depend on you: it is important to recognize the strengths of others, to compensate for your weaknesses, and to ensure that you use the power of others correctly.
Self-knowledge is essential, first you need to know and cultivate your own strengths. Leaders often find it remarkably difficult to state their own strengths. And discovering strengths is not enough, you also need to know how to use and dose them in practice. It is also important to prevent a one-sided focus on strengths. Knowledge about your pitfalls, limiting beliefs, ineffective behavior and limiting weaknesses is also of great importance for optimal personal and professional development.
A strength can also become a performance risk. Research on derailed leaders, for example, shows that these leaders exaggerated their strengths and were not corrected in this. For example, self-assurance can turn into megalomaniacal behavior, courage can turn into overconfident behavior, with all its negative consequences.
Connecting and talent-oriented leadership
Gallup’s research shows, among other things, that the differences in emotional engagement with work and the organization can be explained by around 70% by the qualities of the leader (Adkins, 2015). And engagement requires an emotionally safe environment in which employees feel seen and heard and where they can and may develop their strengths. The most important points needing attention according to CEOs are creating strong organizational cultures with a focus on inclusive talent management, employee engagement, attracting and developing talent and developing the next generation of effective leaders (Mitchell, Ray & Van Ark, 2017).
There is an increasing need for self-realization, purpose, being connected, a work environment that enables you to use your talents and flourish, and a leadership style that fits in with that. Attracting and retaining talent is becoming increasingly difficult, so avoid “brain drain” and make sure that you keep an eye on existing talent within the organization, by spotting, appreciating and developing talents. Make better use of the available talents of all employees within the organization; professionals also attach great importance to personal development. Successful leaders and organizations encourage the development and performance of employees, with increasing attention for the uniqueness of people and ensuring a culture in which people can thrive.
Kitty Schaap MA, MSc is the owner of CoAchieve. Her consulting and coaching work is anchored in positive psychology and adopts a strengths-based approach.
This article has been written and published in Dutch before. I wrote it for the Magazine Positive Psychology. It was published in August 2018 – ‘Tijdschrift Positieve Psychologie’.
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