THE BLOG

5 Ways to be a More Positive Leader

05/11/2015 03:03 pm ET | Updated May 11, 2016

I have a confession to make. There was a time in my career when I was a horrible boss. When I was 26 years old I was appointed as the General Manager of a boutique public relations firm and while I was technically great at my job and had nothing but good intentions for my team... I had no idea how to bring out the best in others.

Unfortunately I'm not alone. Studies suggest that 63 percent of managers say their leadership skills are average or below.

The problem is most leaders are appointed because they've been technically successful. And while some of us are given training in communication, negotiation, budgeting and legal compliance, we're almost never taught how people's brains and bodies are wired to perform at their best. As a result in an increasingly complex and uncertain business environment many leaders are struggling to bring out the best in themselves and their teams.

So as one CEO recently asked me: "Where's the roadmap to becoming a positive leader?"

It's a great question and at present researchers are still exploring exactly what such a road map might look like. What we do have to guide us in the mean time are a number of well developed theories of wellbeing that focus on how you can help people to feel good and function effectively.

In case you're thinking "wellbeing" may be too soft to build a leadership legacy of exceptional, I recommend taking a look at the growing body of research that suggests employees with higher levels of wellbeing are more engaged, more productive, sell more, have happier customers, make better leaders and are less likely to burn out at the office. There's nothing soft about those kind of bottom-line results.

Of course when it comes to ways to improve wellbeing one of the most popular theories in recent times is that proposed by Professor Martin Seligman who suggests that in order to flourish we need: the right balance of positive emotions, the opportunity to be regularly engaged by using our strengths at work, the presence of good relationships, the feeling our work has meaning and the ability to accomplish goals that matter to us.

But just how is a leader expected to put that all together and still do their job?

Here are five small, practical ways I was able to cultivate these wellbeing pillars much later in my career as one of the leaders in a large organization where I had no budget or permission to be cultivating the wellbeing of my team:

  • Be Mindful of Mood - Dr. Daniel Goleman's research suggests 20 to 30 percent of performance is determined by the mood of employees. How? Studies have found that when we experience positive emotions -- like joy, interest, pride, awe, gratitude for example -- it helps to broaden our minds so we're thinking more creativity and collaboratively and build our resources so we're more resilient to deal with the ups and downs we all experience at work. But do you have a mood strategy for your team?

As a leader I decided to apply these ideas to the way we held our team meetings. To help us start and finish our meetings in the right frame of mind, I injected a little positivity into proceedings with a simple check in about what was working well, a funny video I could relate to our work or by sharing a story of gratitude. It didn't mean we shied away from the difficult conversations we needed to have, it just meant neurologically we were in a better place to deal with these challenges.

  • Build Strengths - The Corporate Leadership Council have found that when a manager has a conversation that focuses primarily on an employee's weaknesses, afterwards that employee's performance declines on average by 36 percent. But if the manager focuses the review primarily on an employee's strengths, afterwards that person's performance improves on average by 27 percent. That's quite a difference given all you're doing is talking.

As a leader, I decided it was worth taking the time to know my teams' strengths - the things they liked doing and were good at -- by asking them to take the free 10 minute survey at viacharacter.org. Then I made sure once a quarter I sat down with them and gave them feedback on how I saw their strengths being applied and asked what support they needed to develop these strengths further. Not surprisingly when we were doing more of what we each did best at work, our performance improved considerably.

  • Cultivate Positive Relationships - Studies suggest our relationships with other people are our best guarantee to lowering our levels of stress and improving our concentration and focus at work. This is because each time we genuinely connect with another person, the pleasure-inducing hormone oxytocin is released into the bloodstream, helping to reduce anxiety and improve our concentration and focus.

For an introverted leader like myself, the good news is that scientists have discovered it takes just a micro-moment to connect by: sharing a positive emotion such as kindness, interest or gratitude; making eye contact or matching body language or vocal tones to synchronise your brain activity; and then investing in the feelings of mutual care that rise up between you. By taking a few minutes at the end of each day to genuinely thank someone in person or by phone for how they'd made my work a little easier or more enjoyable I was able to not only significantly improve my relationships, but found a tidal wave of reciprocated gratitude was returned for my efforts.

  • Find Purpose - For decades, Americans have ranked purpose as their top priority in their jobs, yes even above promotions, income, job security, and hours. But can purpose be found in any job? It seems so. You see a comprehensive analysis of data from more than 11,000 employees across different industries: the single strongest predictor of meaningfulness was the belief that their job had a positive impact on others.

As a leader in a large accounting firm where finding meaning in our work felt like looking for a needle in a haystack, the idea that purpose can be built by helping people see the impact they have on others transformed the way we thought about our roles. I started focusing my team not just on the 'what' we did each day, but on the 'how' we went about it and the positive impact they could have as we interacted with our clients and our colleagues. As a result what had felt like soulless corporate drudgery, started to bring a whole new sense of satisfaction in our work and our lives.

As a leader I tried to make sure that there was at least one project we were pursuing that we were truly excited about, even if it was more passion than priority. I also did my best to knock down obstacles to make it easier for my team to get their work done and brought in high hope people from inside and outside our business to keep us inspired. We found hope was instrumental in our ability to deliver on the goals we'd been set.

Now I'm not claiming any of this was rocket science. But the impact these small changes had on my own performance and that of my team were significant.

Nine months later, for the first time ever, we'd exceeded every internal and external measure that had been set for us and while promotions and bonuses flowed, the most rewarding part of this experience was that to this day people in my team still tell me that working together was one of the highlights of their careers.

So what might be possible if you tried just one of these small steps to be a more positive leader for your team?

For more ideas grab the free podcast series "How To Be A Positive Leader: Small Steps, Big Impact" from the Centre for Positive Organizations at the University of Michigan.