Positive Leadership Strategies

{Cameron, 2008. Positive Leadership. Strategies for Extraordinary Performance}

Positive Climate 

A positive climate is when positive emotions outweigh negative ones at work, characterized by optimistic and cheerful employees, as opposed to those feeling stressed, anxious, or distrustful. In addition, positive interpretations are more common than negative ones.

Positive emotions lead to optimal functioning and positive deviance. Positive outcomes occur immediately and in the long term. As a result, a positive climate improves organizational performance.

Leaders significantly affect the climate and people’s interpretations of their circumstances and subjective wellbeing. Thus, they can create a positive climate through their approach. How?

Leaders strongly influence organizational climate by displaying positive emotions that induce the “broaden and build” phenomenon. Positivity expands thoughts and resources, while negativity limits coping skills.

Positive emotions expand cognitive perspectives, allowing individuals to perceive more information and increase creativity and productivity. This fosters personal growth, including intellectual complexity, knowledge, curiosity, and the ability to try new things. In addition, it spurs creativity and exploration.

Positive emotions reduce negative emotions and their effects. Positivity cancels out negativity’s harm.

Positive emotions lead to a positive climate, which boosts performance and productivity, decision-making, creativity, social integration, and prosocial behaviors.

In short, individuals and organizations thrive in a positive work environment.


Baumeister et al. (2001) found that negative experiences have a greater and longer-lasting impact on individuals than positive experiences.

Even one negative occurrence among several positive events can have a disproportionately negative effect. Adverse events have a stronger impact than positive ones, leading to increased coping, longer reactions, and stronger memories. Even if someone receives three compliments and one negative comment, the negative one carries more weight.

Negativity grabs more attention for survival reasons. Ignoring negative feedback can be dangerous or fatal, as it may include warning signs.

We’re wired to focus on the negative rather than the positive, but ignoring good experiences leads to regret. Still, life-altering events rarely result from ignored positive feedback.

Leaders, in particular, often focus on negatives due to frequent encounters with problems, threats, and obstacles. Leaders and authority figures are trained to resolve problems, defeat competition, and protect the innocent.

Organizations need top leaders in tough times, so negatives get more spotlight.

This aligns with Walsh’s (1999) study, showing that optimistic language, e.g., words like virtue, caring, compassion, and goodness, rarely appear in business articles.


Positive leaders highlight the positive aspects of organizational life even when faced with challenges.

They don’t ignore the negative but focus on positivity to counteract negativity. Without emphasizing positivity, negativity takes over and becomes the default in the organization.

Leaders must intentionally implement strategies to establish a positive climate.


Enabling A Positive Climate

Leaders prioritizing positive phenomena such as emotions, opportunities, and relationships cultivate a positive work environment.

Research shows that this positivity leads to better performance.

Compassion, forgiveness, and gratitude are essential for a positive work environment. High scores in these activities lead to better performance among organizations across various industries. 

When leaders promoted compassion, forgiveness, and gratitude, organizations experienced higher profitability, productivity, innovation, quality, customer satisfaction, and employee retention.



Dutton et al. (2002) found strategies for organizational compassion after a significant tragedy.

MBA students lost their belongings in a fire. The organization demonstrated exceptional compassion as fellow students provided necessary items for the victims to complete their final exams. In addition, the school offered free housing, and leaders donated funds for students in need.

Dutton et al. (2002) found that a strong community, efficient coordinators, preexisting routines in the school operations, group events, and supportive organizational values led to the organized compassion demonstrated.

To complement this research, Kanov et al. (2004) pinpointed three actionable steps for fostering organizational compassion: collective noticing, feeling, and responding.

Initially, individuals must become aware of any challenging situations they face.

To promote mutual support among colleagues, positive leaders encourage sharing personal concerns at work while respecting privacy.

By doing so, colleagues can be aware of each other’s struggles, and performance management interviews can address personal as well as professional issues.

Close-knit communities detect one another’s issues and express collective emotions in organized forums.

Dutton et al. (2002) described how public forums and email facilitated compassion after the apartment fire. The school’s dean supported expressing compassion publicly by sharing his personal feelings and providing financial assistance.

Powley (2005) discovered similar factors that encouraged expressing compassion in another institution’s shooting and hostage crisis.

Public events shared personal feelings and reactions. Leaders held public gatherings, and groups met formally and informally for weeks after the tragedy. Ceremonial activities and symbols fostered compassionate feelings.

Vigils mourned victims, and necklaces were distributed for remembrance while leaders initiated personal contact with vulnerable members. Leaders visited homes, shared meals, and minimized hierarchy. They fostered healing through collective action.

Dutton and Powley researched how organizations foster compassion in traumatic situations and found a leader’s actions to be crucial.

Leaders inspired action, shared caring stories, and emphasized core values such as “we care for our own” and “the whole person matters.”



Forgiveness in organizations is needed when harmful events, such as downsizing, union conflicts, or embarrassing mistakes occur.

Moving forward requires forgiveness to prevent animosity and grudges.

When faced with plant closures, layoffs, unethical decisions, trust violations, or personal offenses, individuals can either hold a grudge and retaliate, abandon hostility, or replace negative responses with positive ones for a positive climate and deviance.

Desmond Tutu states that forgiving doesn’t mean forgetting. On the contrary, it is crucial to remember to prevent future atrocities.

Forgiveness acknowledges the seriousness of what happened, without condoning it or minimizing it, to remove the poisonous sting from our memories.

It’s about understanding perpetrators and empathizing by considering their pressures and influences.

Forgiving frees the victim by letting go of the desire for revenge.

We need forgiveness and reconciliation for human relationship breaches. We can’t fix the past with punishment. There is no point in seeking revenge as it will lead to future vengeance. Vengeance destroys both its victims and its holders.

Forgiveness is essential for human existence.

Studies show that five leadership activities can lead to organizational forgiveness, including acknowledging trauma and defining it as an opportunity for a new goal.


Connect your organization (products, services, relationships) to a higher purpose with personal significance for members. This purpose supersedes self-focus.


Shift from negative emotions (retribution, self-pity) to a positive objective by replacing selfishness and victimization with the opportunity to contribute value.


Maintain high standards and communicate that forgiveness doesn’t mean accepting mistakes or lowered expectations.

Forgiveness promotes excellence by focusing on the positive. It encourages focusing on a higher standard rather than dwelling on mistakes and problems, leading to competency. Focus on forgiveness and high standards to become positively deviant.


Support human development and welfare alongside financial goals.

Instead of abandoning offenders or victims, offer social support to humanize the harmful event and help them move forward.


Use language that includes words like reconciliation, compassion, humility, courage, and love in your organization. This creates an environment that values forgiveness as a valid response to harm. Forgiveness involves caring, humility, reconciliation, and love.


Successful turnarounds of downsized organizations resulted from implementing these five strategies. Most organizations deteriorate after downsizing, but institutionalized forgiveness enables the rare flourishing ones.



Compassion and forgiveness foster gratitude, shown to improve performance.

In 2003, Emmons assigned students to keep gratitude journals as part of a semester-long task to induce gratitude feelings.

Some students had to keep journals daily or weekly. Students recorded grateful, frustrating, or neutral events or incidents for the day and the week.

Students who kept gratitude journals had better physical and mental health, higher energy and optimism, reported fewer hassles, showed more helpful behavior toward others, and had better academic performance.

Gratitude leads to a healthier heart rhythm compared to frustration. Gratitude improves health, cognition, and work performance.

It creates a positive cycle of motivation among individuals. 

Gratitude leads to positive behavior from others. People who receive kindness are more likely to reciprocate, as shown by increased loaning of money and emotional support. When shown appreciation, such as a simple “thank you,” there is a significant increase in tipping and visits by workers.

Practices include gratitude visits, e.g., visiting or writing gratitude letters to express thanks.

Writing down daily gratitude positively impacts individual and organizational performance and is easily implemented.



Leadership strategies that help engender a positive climate in organizations include modeling and encouraging acts of compassion, collective forgiveness, and expressions of gratitude.

These activities have positive physiological, mental, emotional, and organizational effects.

Demonstrating compassion, forgiveness, and gratitude produce a positive climate, and people demonstrate significantly higher performance at work when a positive climate exists.

To assess practical leadership activities that enable a positive climate, the following diagnostic questions may be helpful.


Use the following scale to respond.


1 — Never 2 — Seldom 3 — Sometimes 4 — Frequently 5 — Always


As a leader, to what extent do you:

_____ Foster information sharing so people become aware of colleagues’ difficulties and, therefore, can express compassion?

_____ Encourage the public expression of compassion by sponsoring formal events to communicate emotional support?

_____ Demonstrate forgiveness for mistakes and errors rather than punish perpetrators or hold grudges?

_____ Provide support and development as an indicator of forgiveness for individuals who have blundered?

_____ Express gratitude to multiple employees each day?

_____ Make gratitude visits and the distribution of gratitude notes a daily practice?

Positive Relationships

Positive relationships provide individuals and organizations enrichment, vitality, and learning. They benefit various aspects of human behavior and health.

Studies have also shown that social relationships positively affect longevity and recovery from illness.

Positive social relationships affect the body’s hormonal, cardiovascular, and immune systems, thus enhancing health, wellbeing, and the relationships’ nature.

Oxytocin (a health-enhancing hormone) is released when people experience positive relationships, leading to lower blood pressure and heart rate and an enhanced ability to handle stress calmly.

The hormonal effects of positive relationships also have a long-term impact on marriages. Positive relationships have been found to significantly predict marital status 10 years later, with those with elevated stress-hormone levels less likely to still be married.

Positive relationships have been found to have a variety of psychological, emotional, and organizational benefits.

These include enhanced emotional carrying capacity, greater resiliency, stronger self-identity, greater creativity, trust, and openness to new ideas, higher levels of mutual benefit, healthier team functioning, raised levels of commitment to the organization, higher levels of energy, learning, cooperation, resource utilization, cost reduction, time savings, and human capital development, and higher levels of project performance in organizations.

Leaders who enable positive deviation in organizations invest in forming positive relationships at work to engender exceptionally high levels of collective performance in teams and organizations.


Enabling Positive Relationships

Fostering the formation of positive relationships in organizations is a topic that has been well-examined.

Research has found that what people give to a relationship rather than what they receive from it accounts for the positive effects.

In one study, widows who provided mental support to others had no depression six months after losing a spouse compared to substantial and lasting depression among those who merely received support but did not provide it.

In another study, employees who participated in programs that supported fellow employees rather than receiving support substantially increased their commitment to the organization and their inclination to ward prosocial behaviors.

Two vital activities that have emerged from research on positively deviant performance include building positive energy networks and reinforcing individuals’ strengths.


Positive-energy networks

Individuals can be identified as “positive energizers” or “negative energizers,” and the difference has important implications.

Positive energizers create and support vitality in others, uplift and boost people, build energy in people, and are an inspiring experience.

Negative energizers deplete the good feelings and enthusiasm of others, sap strength from and weaken people, and leave others feeling exhausted and diminished.

Positive energizers benefit their organizations by enabling others to perform better.

Leaders affect interpersonal relationships in their organizations by facilitating positive energy, modeling positive energy, and diagnosing and building positive-energy networks, among others.

Positive energizers can be placed in tasks and roles that affect the performance of others.

Four steps can be taken to address negative energizers in an organization.

The first step is to provide direct and honest feedback regarding the de-energizing behaviors demonstrated and their effects on the organization.

The second step is to provide development for the person. The third step is to place the individual in a noncentral position or technical role that minimizes the energy-depleting effects on others.

If none of these steps work, the person may need to be given a chance to flourish elsewhere.

Diagnosing the positive-energy network in an organization helps identify positive-energy hubs, black holes, and peripheral members who may need development.

This diagnosis can be done comprehensively and rigorously by formal network analysis (Baker, 2000) in which all employees are rated on a one-to-five scale, with one representing “very de-energizing” and five representing “very energizing.”

A more simplistic but practical diagnosis is to ask employees to write down the names of the organization’s two or three most energizing people.



Leaders can promote positive relationships by reinforcing individual and organizational strengths.

Studies have shown that managers who spent more time with their strongest performers, as compared to spending it with their weakest performers, achieved double the productivity in their units.

This difference in performance lies in the way that people learn.

Individuals learn more readily and completely from positive than negative demonstrations.

Leaders should emphasize strengths, small victories, and positive imagery with organization members instead of errors, mistakes, or problematic behaviors.

A study of bowlers’ performance illustrates the impact of leaders who reinforce strengths among those with whom they work.

The results of a study conducted by Kirschenbaum (1984) found that those who watched themselves succeed had improved significantly more than those who watched themselves in a nonsuccess condition.

People learn from and model positive imagery more effectively and efficiently than they follow negative imagery.

Leaders who enable positive deviation, therefore, emphasize successes, build on strengths, and celebrate the positive much more than spending time correcting the negative.

They begin interactions and meetings with a celebration of what is going right, role-model positive energy, provide opportunities for other positive energizers to infuse members with their enthusiasm, emphasize strengths more than weaknesses, and highlight positive images more than disturbing images.

Changing the workforce’s attitude requires listening to them and unleashing their energy to do good work.



Relationships that help people contribute to the benefit of others are the most valuable.

Fostering positive energy and managing positive energizers are essential in enabling these relationships.

Helping individuals and organizations to become aware of and capitalize on their strengths predicts positive deviation in performance.

To assess practical leadership activities that enable positive relationships, the following diagnostic questions may be helpful.


Use the following scale to respond.


1 — Never 2 — Seldom 3 — Sometimes 4 — Frequently 5 — Always


As a leader, to what extent do you:

_____ Ensure that employees have an opportunity to provide emotional, intellectual, or physical support to others in addition to receiving support from the organization?

_____ Model positive energy yourself, and also recognize and encourage other positive energizers in your organization?

_____ Diagnose your organization’s energy networks so that you support and utilize individuals in energy hubs as well as help develop peripheral members?

_____ Provide more feedback to individuals on their strengths than on their weaknesses?

_____ Spend more time with your strongest performers than with your weakest performers?

Positive Communication

Positive communication in organizations is crucial for success.

A study examined 60 top-management teams and found that the most crucial factor in predicting organizational performance was the ratio of positive to negative statements.

High-performing teams had a ratio of 5.6 positive statements to 1 negative statement. In contrast, low-performing teams had a ratio of 0.36 to 1.

Additionally, high-performing teams balanced inquiry and advocacy statements focused on both self and others and had higher connectivity compared to low-performing teams.

These findings indicate that high-performing organizations have communication patterns characterized by abundant positive comments and support.

The positive-to-negative statements ratio between 3 and 9 to 1 predicts the highest performance levels.

Similar ratios have been observed in studies on successful marriages and emotional well-being.

Positive communication fosters connectivity, resource flow, and coordinated action within organizations, leading to higher productivity and quality performance.

Connectivity refers to exchanging information, interpersonal interactions, and positive emotions among team members. It serves as a conduit for the flow of resources and enables coordinated action.

In contrast, low-performing organizations tend to have communication patterns characterized by an overload of negative comments and a lack of balance between inquiry and advocacy statements.

These organizations focus more on self rather than others, leading to a diminished sense of collaboration and shared goals.

Positive communication does not imply the absence of correction or criticism. Instead, high-performing organizations strike a balance between positive and negative statements, with a ratio of 3 to 9 positive statements for every negative statement. This ratio has been found to predict the highest performance levels.

The significance of positive communication extends beyond organizational contexts.

Research conducted on successful marriages and emotional well-being has yielded similar findings.

The ratio of positive to negative communication events has been identified as a strong predictor of the sustainability and quality of marital relationships. Couples with a higher ratio of positive interactions tend to have happier and more fulfilling marriages.

Moreover, studies have explored the relationship between emotions and performance, revealing that individuals who experience a ratio of at least three positive emotions for every negative emotion tend to flourish in terms of mental health and individual performance.


In summary, positive communication is vital in organizations, leading to improved performance and outcomes.

High-performing teams and organizations exhibit communication patterns characterized by abundant positive comments, a balance between inquiry and advocacy statements, a focus on self and others, and increased connectivity.

This positive communication fosters resource flow, coordination, and social capital formation, ultimately enhancing productivity and quality performance.

The importance of positive communication extends to other domains, such as successful marriages and individual well-being, where a higher ratio of positive to negative interactions is associated with favorable outcomes.


Enabling Positive Communication

Leaders should use positive talk to enable positive communication. Role modeling has an exponential effect on creating such outcomes in organizations.

Leaders should communicate authentically and sincerely; the appropriate positive-to-negative statement ratio is crucial for maintaining balance and motivation.

Two strategies for facilitating positive organizational communication are the reflected best-self feedback process and supportive communication.

These strategies help minimize criticism and negativity, replace them with abundant positive feedback and expressions of support, and maintain balance and motivation.


Best-self feedback

The reflected best-self feedback process is a technique used to capture positive information, which uncovers and highlights an individual’s talents and highest capabilities.

It was developed at the University of Michigan and is now used in various universities and corporations.

The process works as follows: an individual identifies 20 acquaintances and asks them to write three short anecdotes in response to the question: “When you have seen me make a special or important contribution, what distinctive strengths did I display?”

The 60 stories or anecdotes identify the individual’s key strengths and unique talents.

The feedback comes in the form of retold incidents and stories, not numbers or trend lines, so it is connected directly to behaviors the person has displayed, which can be repeated and enhanced.

Strengths and abilities that people would never mark on a “strengths finder” checklist are often uncovered because such strengths are so natural and readily displayed.

This feedback results in a personal agenda for capitalizing on and expanding positive attributes that are not necessarily conscious or obvious to the individual.

Best-self feedback is a technique used to encourage and enable positive communication between feedback providers and receivers.

It strengthens relationships between feedback providers and receivers, fosters positive interactions and reciprocal feedback, enhances feelings of closeness among individuals, and provides the positive energy needed to embark on personal improvement efforts.

It can also be substituted by regular feedback to others that highlights valuable contributions, unique strengths, and displays of positive qualities on an ongoing basis.

For example, the leader of one business organization in LG (the Korean conglomerate) distributes each day at least five “strength cards,” on which he highlights and praises the person’s unique contribution or success.


Supportive communication

Supportive communication is a valuable tool for leaders to promote positive deviance, even when delivering corrective or negative feedback.

While not all communication can be solely positive, leaders can employ supportive communication techniques to address problematic issues, give negative feedback or convey uncomfortable information without damaging the relationship.

Supportive communication aims to preserve or enhance positive relationships while addressing challenging topics.

It is a prerequisite for positive organizational performance.

Supportive communication encompasses various techniques: congruent, descriptive, problem-centered, validating, conjunctive, specific, owned statements, and reflective listening.

Using descriptive statements instead of evaluative statements is particularly important among these techniques.

Evaluative communication involves making judgments or labels about individuals or their behavior, often leading to defensive responses, diminished communication, and deteriorating relationships.

On the other hand, descriptive communication allows individuals to provide negative information while remaining helpful and authentic.

Descriptive communication involves three steps.

Firstly, objective descriptions of events or behaviors should be provided, focusing on the action rather than the person.

These descriptions should be verifiable, changeable, and based on accepted standards rather than personal opinions.

Secondly, communicators should describe their reactions or the consequences of the behavior, using one-word descriptions for feelings and pointing out objective consequences.

By framing the problem in terms of their own feelings or objective outcomes, communicators reduce defensiveness and enable a shift toward problem-solving.

Finally, communicators should suggest more acceptable alternatives, directing the discussion toward potential solutions rather than personal criticism.

This approach preserves self-esteem by emphasizing behavior modification rather than criticizing the person.


In short, three steps are essential when delivering negative messages: describing the situation, identifying objective consequences or personal feelings, and suggesting acceptable alternatives.

Implementing these steps fosters a constructive conversation, focusing on collaboration and commonalities rather than arguments or blame.

The goal is to support the recipient while still conveying negative messages, with any disagreements centered on determining the most acceptable alternative.

Other supportive communication strategies include maintaining congruence among words, thoughts, and feelings, remaining problem-focused rather than person-focused, using validating, specific, and conjunctive statements, personally owning the communication, and demonstrating active listening and appropriate response types.



It is vital to use supportive strategies and provide feedback on strengths, unique contributions, and best-self demonstrations to enable positive organizational communication.

Communication patterns of leaders are an influential factor in enabling positively deviant performance.

To assess practical leadership activities that enable positive communication, the following diagnostic questions can be helpful.


Use the following scale to respond.


1 — Never 2 — Seldom 3 — Sometimes 4 — Frequently 5 — Always


As a leader, to what extent do you:

_____ Communicate a ratio of approximately five positive messages for every negative message to those with whom you interact?

_____ Provide opportunities for employees to receive best-self feedback and develop best-self portraits?

_____ Consistently distribute notes or cards to your employees complimenting their performance?

_____ Provide negative feedback in supportive ways— especially using descriptive rather than evaluative statements—so that the relationship is strengthened?

_____ Focus on the detrimental behavior and its consequences, not the person, when correcting people or providing negative feedback?

Positive Meaning

The search for positive meaning has been proposed as a universal human need, and well-established relationships exist between engaging in meaningful work and positive outcomes.

Wrzesniewski (2003) found that individuals typically associate one of three kinds of meaning with work: a job, a career, or as a calling.

Those who see work as a job do their work primarily for the financial or material rewards it provides, while those with a career orientation are motivated by success.

The third orientation, the sense of work as a calling, characterizes individuals who work for the sake of the work itself and seek a greater good, regardless of the material rewards offered by the work.

Paralleling these work orientations are three types of relationships between members and their organizations: compliance, identification, and internalization.

Compliance relationships produce desired behaviors through punishments and rewards. At the same time, individuals who feel a strong sense of identification with an organization are motivated to actively participate and contribute, seeking satisfaction and reinforcing their sense of belonging.

Internalization involves a complete adoption of organizational goals, as individuals who internalize the culture and mission strongly believe in the rightness of their actions, aligning their purposes and priorities with the organization’s and embodying its values, resulting in unwavering loyalty and commitment.


High levels of meaningfulness in work are associated with positive outcomes and extraordinary individual and organizational performance.

For example, workers with a calling orientation reported higher job and life satisfaction scores compared to those with career or job orientations, as well as higher levels of trust and confidence in management, higher levels of commitment to the organization, less conflict, more satisfactory relationships with coworkers, and higher levels of satisfaction with the tasks themselves.

Grant et al. (2007) found that workers whose meaningfulness was enhanced through personal interaction had higher levels of organizational performance.

A sense of calling is not dependent on the type of work performed but rather on interpreting the positive meaning inherent in the work. Even the most noxious and unpleasant tasks can be reinterpreted as a calling with a profound purpose.


Enabling Positive Meaning

Early management theorists believed that the primary responsibility of the leader was to infuse purpose and meaning into the work lives of organization members.

However, in subsequent decades, less emphasis has been placed on the leader’s role in clarifying and enhancing meaningfulness.

Work is associated with meaningfulness when it has a significant positive impact on the well-being of human beings, an important virtue or personal value, an impact that extends beyond the immediate time frame, or creates a ripple effect.

Studies of job design by Hackman and Oldham (1980) found that workers who could see the effects of their work on others had a significantly higher sense of meaningfulness and their subsequent performance and engagement in the organization were substantially higher.

Ensuring that individuals are given opportunities to interact directly with those receiving their output or service, and to receive feedback regarding the impact of what they do, has proven to be an effective leadership strategy for fostering a sense of meaningfulness in work.

For example, companies such as Medtronic regularly invite patients whose lives have been transformed by the medical devices the company manufactures to give speeches at employee gatherings. 

The second attribute of associating work with core individual values is to highlight the connections between what is most meaningful to individuals and the benefits produced by the organization.

For example, Mark Schwartz, CEO at Timberland, decided to increase the percentage of organically grown cotton in the clothes the company manufactures to reduce exposure to carcinogens by migrant workers who pick corporately grown cotton.

Tom Chappell, the founder of Tom’s of Maine, created products void of dyes, sweeteners, and preservatives two decades before it became the socially accepted thing to do for health-conscious companies and established a policy in his firm in which 10 percent of all profits and 5 percent of employees’ time would be donated annually to charitable organizations. The motive was not public recognition or marketing advantage but “just because it is the right thing to do” (Chappell, 1999).


The three attributes that enable meaningfulness in and of work: highlighting the connections between the organization’s output and the values that employees care deeply about, highlighting the long-term impact of the work, and building a sense of community.

Some authors have claimed that building a sense of community is the fundamental feature of meaningfulness (Rousseau, 1992). Leaders should reinforce and sponsor contribution goals to enable a sense of community.

Crocker and Park (2004) found that the goals individuals pursue can be categorized into two types: self-interest or personal achievement, which focus on obtaining desired outcomes, and contribution goals, which focus on providing benefit to others or making a contribution.

Crocker et al. (2006) found that goals focused on contributing to others produced a growth orientation in individuals. In contrast, self-interest goals produced a proving orientation over time.

Brown and colleagues (2003, 2006) found that the contribution individuals make to a relationship, not what they receive from it, is significant in accounting for meaningfulness and positive outcomes.

Pennebaker (2002) found that a predominance of the word “we” was associated with more meaningfulness and engagement when applied to work than the predominance of the word “I.” In addition, the positive meaning was significantly more associated with contributing to and engaging with others than self-focused activity.



Leaders that enable meaningful work are conscious of individuals’ different orientations regarding their work and the organization itself.

To enhance and capitalize on these orientations, techniques such as reinforcing the benefits produced for others, associating work outcomes with the core values of employees, identifying the long-term impact created by the work, and emphasizing contribution goals more than achievement goals can be used to foster a sense of meaningfulness and higher levels of performance.

Diagnostic questions can be used to assess practical leadership activities that enable positive meaning.


Use the following scale to respond.


1 — Never 2 — Seldom 3 — Sometimes 4 — Frequently 5 — Always


As a leader, to what extent do you:

_____ Establish, recognize, reward, and maintain accountability for goals that contribute to human benefit so that the effects on other people are obvious?

_____ Emphasize and reinforce the core values of the individuals who work in the organization so that congruence between what the organization accomplishes and what people value is transparent?

_____ Tie the outcomes of the work to an extended time frame so that long-term benefits are clear?

_____ Ensure that contribution goals precede acquisition goals for individuals in the Organization?

Implement The Four Strategies Of Positive Leadership

The Personal Management Interview (PMI) program is a technique leaders use to implement the four positive leadership strategies.

It applies in professional settings with leaders and subordinates, families with parents and children, and in volunteer settings such as spiritually based organizations or community-service groups.

In research conducted among entire teams, implementing a PMI program significantly improved the performance of these teams on subjective factors such as morale, trust, and engagement, as well as objective factors such as productivity and goal accomplishment.

Five teams continued to implement PMI and were assessed at 6-month intervals over an 18-month time frame. At the end of the study, the five teams that ceased PMIs the data showed that their performance had fallen to previous levels.

A PMI program appears to have a significant positive impact on team and organizational performance, as well as on the personal work experience of individual employees.

A study comparing performance scores in five healthcare organizations found that organizational performance scores were significantly higher when PMI programs were in place than when they were not.

Additionally, the PMI programs positively affected individuals in the organizations.

Employees were categorized into three groups according to the extent to which they felt burned out, overwhelmed, and highly stressed in their work.

When PMI programs were in place, a majority of employees experienced little, if any, burnout.

When PMI programs were not in place, a larger percentage of employees felt overwhelmed.

The point is that a PMI program appears to have a significant positive impact on team and organizational performance, as well as on the personal work experience of individual employees.


Implementing A Personal Management Interview Program

A PMI program consists of two steps: a role-negotiation session in which expectations, responsibilities, evaluation standards, reporting relationships, culture, and values are clarified.

This is a psychological contract-setting meeting and should be held early in a relationship to establish a foundation of clarity of expectations and a path for moving forward.

In informal surveys, few leaders have reported that they have participated in such a meeting with the person to whom they report. Instead, most leaders merely learn on the job or follow the path of a predecessor.

A role negotiation session clarifies the organization’s mission, goals, and values. The appraisal system, accountability system, and rewards are made clear.

The leader and direct report negotiate all role-related issues not prescribed by policy or mandate. A written record is made of the agreements and responsibilities that result from the meeting.

The goal of a role negotiation session is to clarify between both parties what each expects from the other, what the goals and standards are, and what the ground rules are for the relationship and task accomplishment.

Four positive strategies should characterize the interaction: a positive climate is established, a positive relationship is formed, positive communication is used, and the positive meaning associated with the work is clarified.


Ongoing PMIs

The most important part of a PMI program is a set of ongoing, one-on-one meetings between the leader and each direct report.

These one-on-one, face-to-face meetings allow leaders to communicate freely, openly, and collaboratively, as well as to coach and develop subordinates and help them improve their skills or job performance.

They also allow leaders to demonstrate and reinforce behaviors that enable positive climates, positive communication, positive relationships, and positive meaning.

Each PMI meeting usually requires 45 to 60 minutes and focuses on problem-solving issues and positive strategies.

It is not just a time to sit and chat. It has two overarching objectives: (1) to foster performance improvement and (2) to strengthen positive climate, positive relationships, positive communication, and positive meaning.

A PMI meeting always leads to identifying action items that must be accomplished before the next meeting, some by the direct report and others by the leader.

These action items are articulated and clarified at the end of the meeting and reviewed again at the beginning of the next meeting.

The purpose of PMIs is not to conduct monthly evaluations or performance appraisals but to provide a chance for individuals to have personal time with their leaders to work out issues, report information, experience a positive environment, develop personal capabilities, and improve performance.

At each subsequent PMI, action items are reviewed from previous meetings to ensure continuous improvement and accountability.

PMIs become an institutionalized continuous improvement activity, a key to building collaboration and teamwork needed in organizations, and an effective mechanism to implement strategies that produce a positive climate, positive relationships, positive communication, and positive meaning.



The primary objection to holding PMI sessions is the lack of time.

Boss (1983) research found that various benefits resulted when a PMI program was instituted. One of the most important was time savings.

Leaders found that more discretionary time became available to them due to holding PMIs than before.

The PMI program reduced interruptions, unscheduled meetings, mistakes, and problem-solving time. It also increased alignment, collaboration, improvement strategies, and positive energy.

Some flexibility may be required in different settings and in different organizations.

One leader found that it was more important for him to hold PMIs with peers—across divisions and functions—than to hold the meetings with direct reports. His coordination requirements were far more significant with colleagues than with individuals.

Examples of how PMIs have been used to improve performance follow.

In one case, a leader with almost 50 direct reports identified a “kitchen cabinet” of eight or nine individuals with whom she scheduled PMI meetings.

Another leader with a similar number of direct reports asked her team to nominate individuals who would serve as representatives of subgroups within the unit.

A regional sales manager in Ethiopia had direct reports in Singapore, Taipei, Tokyo, Seoul, and Manila, making monthly face-to-face meetings impractical.

The benefits of PMIs made the investment in a creative solution worthwhile.

Empirical evidence and practical experience prove that PMIs produce performance improvements and become successful experiences.

They are a means by which individuals experience the positive outcomes associated with the four positive leadership strategies, increase organizational effectiveness, individual accountability, department meeting efficiency, and individual development.

Even when a correction or negative feedback needs to be communicated, obstacles must be overcome, and challenges or crises are faced, a PMI program effectively addresses those issues positively.



Leaders can implement the four positive leadership strategies through a Personal Management Interview program.

This begins with a one-time role negotiation session with each direct report, followed by ongoing, one-on-one, face-to-face, at least monthly meetings to facilitate positive climate, positive relationships, positive communication and to clarify positive meaning.

These ongoing meetings not only help leaders implement the four positive leadership strategies but also accrue additional benefits such as institutionalizing continuous improvement, maintaining accountability, developing personal competencies, and establishing a two-way exchange of feedback.

Empirical investigations have shown a strong positive connection between holding PMIs and significant organizational and individual performance improvement.

As a quick assessment of practical leadership activities that enable a PMI program, the following diagnostic questions may be helpful.


Use the following scale to respond.


1 — Never 2 — Seldom 3 — Sometimes 4 — Frequently 5 — Always


As a leader, to what extent do you:

_____ Clarify for your direct reports the specific expectations and responsibilities associated with their roles, as well as the organization’s mission, values, and culture?

_____ Meet at least monthly in one-on-one meetings with your direct reports?

_____ Consistently and continually emphasize continuous improvement and the development of strong interpersonal relationships among your direct reports?

_____ Have a formalized routine (such as PMIs) where you can regularly demonstrate a positive climate, positive relationships, positive communication, and positive meaning associated with the work?

Developing Positive Leadership

Identifying leadership strategies to enable positive deviance has become a salient topic with the emergence of positive organizational scholarship, positive psychology, and positive change.

Observations of various positively deviant organizations and empirical investigations suggest that specific leadership strategies can help enable extraordinarily positive outcomes in individuals and organizations.

However, it is unlikely to emerge without conscious effort and attention.

Four validated leadership strategies have been described that are associated with positively deviant outcomes, and they tend to overlap and interrelate with one another.

Evidence suggests that implementing a Personal Management Interview (PMI) program can create a setting where the four strategies may be effectively implemented.

Amplifying extraordinary performance is the primary aim of positive leadership.


Positive Leadership Principles

Leaders should use the propositions below to enable positive deviance in their organizations.


Positive leaders enable extraordinary performance by fostering a positive work climate.

Empirical evidence suggests that working in a positive climate substantially affects individual and organizational performance.

Leadership enablers that affect the work climate include fostering compassion, forgiveness, and expressions of gratitude.

Compassion involves noticing that pain has been experienced, expressing care and concern, and organizing systematic action to help support the suffering person.

Forgiveness involves acknowledging the hurt, maintaining high expectations or standards of performance, providing support for harmed persons, letting go of feelings of offense and grudges, and legitimizing the use of language that elevates thought and communicates virtuousness.

Expressions of gratitude can be enhanced as individuals are encouraged to keep gratitude journals, engage in purposeful gratitude visits, or distribute gratitude notes.

Leaders who enable the expression of these virtues create a climate where people are cared for, supported, and encouraged to flourish, associated with positive physical, mental, and organizational performance effects.


Positive leaders enable extraordinary performance by fostering positive relationships among members.

Empirical evidence suggests that experiencing positive interpersonal relationships produces positive physiological, mental, social, and emotional benefits for individuals and increases organizational performance.

Leadership strategies for engendering positive relationships include developing and managing positive energy networks and capitalizing on employees’ strengths and best-self attributes.

Positive leaders identify individuals who contribute positive energy to others around them and facilitate building positive-energy networks, positive mentoring relations, and positive-energy teams.

Additionally, positive leaders emphasize and build on employees’ strengths rather than focus on their weaknesses, creating an attraction to forming solid interpersonal ties.


Positive leaders enable extraordinary performance by fostering positive communication.

Empirical evidence suggests that an abundance of positive communication compared to negative communication is related to higher levels of organizational performance and connectivity among people.

Strategies that may foster positive communication include best-self feedback and supportive communication.

The best-self feedback process builds on the power of positive feedback by helping individuals systematically gather information about their own strengths and unique contributions.

Supportive communication allows leaders to provide corrective or negative feedback that makes it encouraging and helpful, strengthening rather than weakening the relationship and enhancing individual performance.

Positive communication builds on positive energy and respect, which are strongly related to high levels of effectiveness among individuals and organizations.


Positive leaders enable extraordinary performance by associating the work with a positive meaning.

Empirical evidence suggests that when people experience positive meaning in their work, performance is elevated, and individual well-being is enhanced.

Leaders enhance the meaningfulness of the task by identifying the positive impact that the work produces on the wellbeing of people, associating the work with virtue or a significant personal value, identifying the long-term effects of the work beyond immediate outcomes, highlighting the ripple effect that may occur, building supportive relationships and a sense of community among coworkers, and pursuing contribution goals as opposed to self-interest goals.

Building supportive relationships and community among coworkers also enhances positive meaning.


Positive leaders enable extraordinary performance by implementing four strategies through a PMI program.

Empirical evidence suggests that implementing a PMI program significantly increases organizational and individual performance.

PMIs are implemented by holding an initial one-time role-negotiation session followed by an ongoing, regularly scheduled, one-on-one meeting with each direct report.

These meetings provide the formalized process by which a positive climate, positive relationships, positive communication, and positive meaning can be developed and demonstrated.

PMIs have been demonstrated to increase discretionary time so leaders are more efficient and effective.


Leaders who enable positive deviance focus on engendering what is elevating and virtuous in organizations.

Four interrelated strategies for positive leaders have been discussed. Research associated with each has been reviewed to validate the prescriptions.

These four strategies amplify one another, with positive climates tending to foster positive relationships and communication, positive meaning facilitating positive climates and relationships; positive relationships enable positive communication and positive climate, and positive communication fosters positive climates and positive relationships.

The final section provides a tool for identifying two or three positive leadership behaviors that can be initiated immediately.


Implementing Positive Leadership Strategies

Positive leadership strategies should be tailored to the specific circumstances in which leaders lead.

A two-step process is offered to help leaders identify specific behaviors they can implement to become more positive.

The two steps include diagnosing current leadership behaviors and identifying specific actions that help implement the four positive leadership strategies.

Diagnosing current practice involves a consolidated assessment instrument summarizing the behaviors discussed in the preceding chapters.

In reviewing this self-assessment, individuals should identify where they are doing especially well and where they would like to improve.

Planning for implementation involves identifying two or three behaviors that can significantly impact improving positive leadership.

The question is: What one or two actions can I take that will enhance my effectiveness in each of the five positive leadership strategies?


Leaders should prioritize two or three high-priority behaviors that positively impact leadership effectiveness.

These behaviors should be applied first to the relationships about which leaders care most deeply and will have the highest impact.

Positive leadership is an aspiration that all individuals can seek, and the advantages of such an approach can be remarkable.

Nobel laureate Desmond Tutu’s statement highlights why positive leadership is so advantageous in a world in which it is uncommon.

The world is hungry for goodness, recognizes it when it sees it and has incredible responses to the good.

For more information on positive leadership and organizational scholarship, visit the Center for Positive Organizations.