Leadership & Professional Development

How leaders can deploy the power of positivity to uplift their teams and their organizations

April 16, 2021 5:00 pm


To boost morale and improve productivity, it’s important for leaders to go beyond words of praise and consider how they can connect with employees on a deeper level.

When spring arrives, there’s a sense of renewal. We’re sunnier, greener. Let’s keep things bright as we look at your leadership toolkit.

To be specific, let’s focus on the positive “power tools” that leaders have, if they choose to use them.

People at the top often underestimate their power to make someone’s day. They don’t fully appreciate the everyday opportunities they have to make people feel valued, respected and that they truly belong.

It’s not that most managers intentionally withhold this gift. But some bosses may presume that good people know they’re good, or they may stay busy with products and processes and miss opportunities to make those uplifting personal connections.

And some people who are humble by nature don’t think their words could have all that much clout.

Let’s spring-clean away that notion.

When you move into management, your voice carries. You get an invisible megaphone that amplifies your messages. Just ask any manager who offhandedly criticized something, only to learn that the one-off comment rippled throughout the team and turned into a rule the boss never knew she had made.

It’s the same with the good stuff. It resonates, motivates and elevates morale. Furthermore, it becomes normative behavior for the team. There’s research that says on high-performing teams, the ratio of positive-to-negative feedback is 5.6 to 1.

That doesn’t happen by accident. Leaders set the tone.

6 ways to offer positive reinforcement

By good stuff, I don’t just mean praise. That’s a fine start, but there’s so much more.

Here are some opportunities for you to super-charge employee engagement and morale.

1. Give a staff member a “stretch assignment.” This refers to a big, hairy challenge that might seem scary to the employee until you tell them: “You have the talent to step up and tackle this. I wouldn’t give this to you if I had any doubt, and I won’t set you up to fail. I believe in you.”

2. Convey a staff member’s value. Say an employee applies for a course or a project and needs a recommendation letter from the boss. That letter is your chance to articulate the staffer’s value to the organization.

Please never respond, as I’ve discovered some managers do, by saying, “Just write something up for me and I’ll sign it.” The employees who’ve told me about that were genuinely disappointed. Do you blame them?

3. Provide personal touches on appropriate occasions. Consider a staffer — or someone dear to them — who is experiencing life’s joys. Your employee gets a degree or certification, joins the board of a not-for-profit or welcomes a new baby to the family. Take the time to share a heartfelt note or congratulatory call. That shows you value them as a whole person, not just for what they produce at work.

4. Welcome new employees to your team. Call them to offer a personal welcome before they start the job. If they’re leaving a place they’ve loved and people they’ll miss, that’s all the more reason to touch base.

I learned that from a leader who recruited me and called me on my very last day at the old job. He said he knew how emotional last days could be, how he’d experienced that too, and how happy he was that I was joining his organization. That was more than 20 years ago, and I still remember feeling that leader’s empathy and embrace.

5. Single out “unsung heroes.” Say your team has done a really good job on a project. Think about going out of your way to find out the names of the people in support roles who don’t always get recognition. Make certain their work is highlighted as you send out the kudos. In fact, it’s worth thinking of how to embed that kind of inclusivity in all your positive feedback because you never want to miss a chance to make everyone feel they’re valuable to the team.

6. Take opportunities to be engaging. When you talk with staff members, especially those you may not interact with frequently, don’t just ask what they’re doing. Ask how they’re doing. People notice the difference.

How to be judicious with positivity

Now, here’s the point where the skeptics ask: “Can’t there be too much of a good thing?” In other words, can positivity become trite, patronizing, saccharine and counterproductive?

Sure — if you let it. If you’re not specific in your messages, if you use inauthentic and stilted management-speak, if you let problems fester and think you can use compliments to resolve issues rather than have tough conversations, you’ll drain the power right out of your positivity.

But I have confidence that you won’t go that route. You’re smarter than that, and you understand that employee engagement isn’t just a nice way to work — it’s good for business. (See, that was positive reinforcement right there.) Gallup research underscores the power of engagement to affect productivity, profitability and more.

Questions to ask to determine your positive-power quotient

How do you know whether you’re using your positive powers to their fullest? Think of a person you’ve worked with who always seems to make any room a bit brighter and warmer by their very presence. Someone who is encouraging, appreciative and optimistic. The one whom other employees want to have in the mix on big projects.

Ask yourself: What is that person doing right? Am I doing those things? Or, as a leader who sets the tone for others to follow, could I do more?

If the answer to the last question is yes, you know what to do. Capture the spirit of the season and spring into action — positively.


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