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Where Does the Spotlight of Your Leadership Attention Shine?

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As a leader, where do you focus your attention? If you said something like, "I fix problems" or "I help people improve," you'd be like countless other leaders across the globe, primed to "close the gap" or strive for "relentless improvement." And, according to psychologist Dr. Kathryn Cramer, you're focus is misplaced. In her latest book, Lead Positive: What Highly Effective Leaders See, Say and Do, Dr. Cramer calls on leaders to shift their focus from what is lacking to what is working, and where the potential in a situation lies.

But this isn't just the "power of positive thinking" at work. Cramer cites research in neurobiology that has shown that if leaders want to help people learn, especially "anything that involves dealing with other human beings, you must first move them into positive emotional territory." As she says, leaders must grab the "spotlight of their attention" and shift their focus -- away from where mistakes were made and problems exist to a mindset that sees value in even the toughest of situations.

I recently sat down to interview Dr. Cramer about her book. She elaborated on how this positive mindset, which she calls Asset-Based Thinking, can help leaders make a mental shift internally so that they excel in the external world of work.

JM: For readers not familiar with the concept, what is Asset-Based Thinking?

KC: Asset-Based Thinking ("ABT") for leaders means [focusing on the] strengths, capabilities and contributions that people are making. You can look at any situation and realize that it is full of possibilities and opportunities if only we have the eyes to see them.

JM: So why don't we see them?

KC: Research shows people have a bias toward deficit-based thinking: about 80 percent of the time, we are on the alert for what is not working, what the mistakes are and what course corrections are needed. It's the old 80/20 Rule. And this way of thinking is really a habit, deeply ingrained by nature and nurture. [Leaders] have to be intentional and practice [ABT]; otherwise we all revert back to what Mother Nature programmed us to do and that is look at the negative side of the equation.

JM: Beyond individual leaders, do organizational cultures also have an asset-based or deficit-based element to them?

KC: In our work with corporations across the land there is definitely a cultural habit that we notice. The biggest complaint that I get from leaders of the business, is [that] people go to the negative side of the ledger first. Of course, individuals in a company have individual habits, which then make up the collective [culture]. So whether we are talking about the individual or we are talking about the collective, there really are tried and true ways of getting more in the habit of [seeing the asset.]

JM: How can leaders demonstrate Asset-Based Thinking?

KC: I always say, "People follow people, not just great ideas." So what happens here is that when there is a problem or an opportunity, how does the leader "show up?" -- what does the leader see, say and do? That is the subtitle of my book: what highly effective leaders see, say and do. When leaders demonstrate asset-based thinking, they are role-modeling the behaviors they want to see in their employees. This role-modeling effect really touches people, and that is what makes others want to follow and join forces. That is what inspires others. If the leader can raise the gaze and really help others see the potential in any situation and then talk about it, then there is a greater chance that asset-based thinking will take hold.

JM: Sometimes, things are just truly a "problem." So, how do you address problems with asset-based thinking?

KC: My team uses a concept called the 5-to-1 ratio, which is based on the research of psychologist John Gottman. We counsel leaders to do this: focus five times more interest and effort on the upside than the downside. This keeps you pretty balanced. You know, you can't ignore all problems, so you certainly want to pay attention to the most important ones and that is the "one" in the ratio. With the "five," [aspect of the ratio] leaders should ask, what is it that I can work with; even it if is just a glimpse, a glimmer of something that might be in the right direction. That can be expanded and worked with and leveraged.

Food for thought: As a leader, where can you shine the spotlight on what's working, what's possible and where the potential lies?

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