How Do Positive Leaders Build Positive Identities?

05/20/2015 09:29 am ET | Updated May 19, 2016

What are the stories your employees tell about who they are and what they're capable of? Are they "high-performers" or "nothing special"? Perhaps they're "valued team members" or "loners"? Maybe they're "great presenters" or "poor public speakers"?

You see our brains are sense-making machines. They love it when all the pieces of the puzzle fit together. And one of the ways we try to make sense of things is to tell ourselves stories about what's happening and what might happen next. What we often overlook however is the power these stories have to shape our beliefs and the way we think, feel and act as we go about our work.

"Unfortunately our natural inclination is to focus on negative rather than positive interpretations of what's happening or being said at work and then use that information as a way of reinforcing a set of stories about our identities that are really based on our deficiencies and our weaknesses causing us to feel anxious and insecure," explained Professor Laura Roberts from the University of Michigan when I interviewed her recently.

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"If leaders can help people interpret events as an opportunity to grow by becoming more capable in their jobs or by becoming better people as a consequence of their work, they are more likely to experience positive emotions, to persist through adversity and to have better relationships with their colleagues," she explained.

Cultivating positive identities isn't just about inflating people's sense of self-worth, rather it's helping them identify the personal characteristics that help them operate at their best, in ways that are also valued by others.

"It's not enough for an employee to just feel good about themselves in isolation," explained Laura. "Instead it's important for them to understand that by cultivating a more positive identify for themselves, they can start a virtuous cycle so instead of feeling insecure and needing to pull others down, they can focus more enthusiastically and productively on helping other people understand how to bring their strengths to our collective work so that we can build a better organization together."

But just how are leaders helping their people to cultivate and sustain more positive identities in workplaces that are often highly competitive?

Laura's research suggests there are three ways you can help cultivate positive identities in a chapter she recently contributed to How To Be A Positive Leader: Small Actions, Big Impact:

  • Craft Your Own Positive Identity - What are the stories you tell about who you are at work? Laura suggests for a moment violating all the norms of humility and exploring the stories about when you've brought your best self to work. Think about the times at work when you were really growing and developing into your full potential, when you were engaged in virtuous actions and when you feel good about yourself and were validated by others. Use these different angles to your stories to create concrete, specific examples of the experiences that have led to your success. Then identify the personal characteristics that are considered to be positive or valuable about who you are so you can proactively use this to shape the future for yourself and your team.

  • Have Evidence-Based Contribution Conversations - If you conclude a project with your team, and you're pleased with the outcome, the tendency is to say, "Great job everybody! Thanks a lot for all your effort," and to move on to the next task or responsibility immediately. Instead of offering empty praise and pats on the back, try to pause and engage the team in a collective conversation about how each individual contributed to the work of the team and why that was important and valuable. Try to also help the team to have a conversation about what it means for us, as a team, to function at our best so that, as a group, they develop a more positive identity for themselves.

  • Prioritize Learning - Model the way by showing humility and communicating that you are still a work in progress, growing and developing in a positive direction. While we generally like to focus on strengths, our accomplishments and our victories, in order to sustain the positive self it's important to acknowledge that we're always growing, developing and progressing through the highs and lows of work projects and of our careers. By being more public about your own learning processes and giving more acknowledgement and recognition to the growth of others, you can help support the collective growth of your team.

As a leader what stories are you telling about yourself and your team members? How might these stories be shaping the way you think, feel and act? Could a more positive interpretation lead to better outcomes?

For more tested, practical examples you can use to help cultivate and sustain positive identities grab a copy of How To Be A Positive Leader: Small Actions, Big Impact.