Leaders set the tone for the climate and culture of an organization.
If leaders take a mindset that they alone have the answers to the organization’s challenges and believe that solutions are passed down from top-to-bottom, they risk establishing a negative climate. If supervisors believe feedback is one way, and employee judgment is discouraged, then they risk creating an environment where employees do not feel valued, are fearful of sharing ideas, and are afraid to take action on their own.
Organizations with these types of climates get results but have lower rates of employee engagement.
On the flip side, if leaders take the mindset that information and ideas should flow up and down the organizational hierarchy and that diversity of thought, experience, and knowledge base are assets to the organization, then they will be on the way to establishing a positive organizational climate and culture where employees thrive. Organizations with these types of positive climates get results as well and have higher rates of employee engagement.
Let’s revisit the definition of leadership I shared in a previous post as “a process whereby an individual inspires and influences a team, or group of people to achieve a common goal, task, mission, etc.”
Every interaction between a leader and a member of their organization counts. It has either a positive or negative impact. There is no neutral.
Social psychologist Edgar Schein writes in Organizational Culture, and Leadership that interactions between leaders and other members of the organization creates culture. Leaders influence others and set the conditions for the organization’s culture through their interactions.
Once established, leaders pass on elements of the culture to new generations of leaders.
For leaders wishing to develop and build a positive organizational climate and culture, I will share two ways to start building the foundation in their immediate areas of responsibility, and an approach senior leaders can take to implement in their organizations. This is the hard and challenging work of leadership, but worth the benefits once the positive core is exposed and the organization’s full potential is unleashed.
Positive leadership starts with leading self. That statement might appear to contradict the definition offered above, but to lead others effectively requires leading self first.
To lead “ourselves” requires having the self-awareness of how our personality, behaviors, and emotions impact those around us in a positive or negative way. Once a leader has awareness they can take steps to regulate, maintaining control of negative emotions and impulses, and other inappropriate behaviors.
A leader’s direct reports have to live with and experience their supervisor’s leadership. A good question to ask that will trigger reflection on this topic is “How do others experience my leadership?” The answer to this question can lead to new levels of awareness and understanding, and a more positive leadership experience for members of the organization.
No one can stay positive all the time. However, supervisors have a choice of mindsets when they engage their employees. If they practice leading self and understand how their moods, behaviors, and emotions impact those around them, then they can choose to be positive.
Once a leader is operating in a positive mindset, they can focus on creating a positive climate around them. In their everyday supervisory duties, leaders naturally will inquire about how things are going in the organization. They have a choice in how they inquire and the questions they ask. Taking a page from Appreciative Inquiry, an organizational change initiative methodology, inquiring in a positive way can put the individual who is being asked the question in a positive mindset and open their mind to more possibilities in conversations about what the organization does well and what the future holds.
Positive inquiry can transform dialogue. The knowledge of what is going well in the organization does not reside solely at the top of the organizational hierarchy. It exists within the organization, the people who execute and learn. When leaders ask questions in a positive way, they extend an invitation to their employees to respond that is meaningful and real. These types of dialogues are collaborative learning conversations that can help leaders understand their organization in a new way and make changes accordingly.
In complex systems such as healthcare, using a positive inquiry approach that is inviting for fellow health professionals to share their observations can be critical to identifying areas that are doing well and areas that need more focus. This approach to inquiry can also prevent harm as workers feel free to share information, give suggestions, and ask questions.
For readers who want to try this method, the next time you are observing how things are going, ask an employee “What is going well here?” or “Tell me three things that went well this week in your unit.”
The responses you receive will give insight into the strengths of the group, department, etc., and open your mind (and theirs) to new possibilities as you continue the inquiry. As the stories are shared of member’s positive experiences, organizations can leverage the learning and use the lessons to improve performance.
By focusing on the positive, leaders are not ignoring challenges. What is not said is sometimes equally, if not more important than what is said. Positive Inquiry forces leaders to listen more actively. When supervisors pay attention to what is going well, they can focus follow-up questions on what wasn’t said, asking “you didn’t mention X, what can we do better with X?”
This approach to inquiry can push some leaders out of their comfort zone. It is easy to focus on what needs improvement. It can be more challenging to focus on and build off of what is going well and provide direction toward “What might be.” Practice this, and you might be amazed at what you learn about your organization and can put into action.
Positive Organization Leader Development
I remember how in the some of the most-challenging situations I saw in my combat experiences; a positive, optimistic attitude kept my soldiers in a positive mindset. It helped us accomplish our assigned mission. A positive leadership mindset does not happen by accident. I was developed to lead in that manner, and organizations can develop leaders to take that approach to leadership as well.
Organizational leadership development programs have the opportunity to build “positive” depth and sustainability in organizations. A potential program could include learning from mission-related challenging and realistic experiences, focused reflection, coaching, and mentorship.
By developing leaders who are equipped to lead with positive approaches, organizations can be better prepared to handle complexity, and the rapid change needed to remain relevant in today’s environment. For example, in developing leaders to view failure as an educational opportunity and learn from it, they will improve resilience and be better equipped to come up with solutions for “gray area” scenarios where there is no clear right or wrong answer. That mindset doesn’t happen overnight; it’s developed through challenging and realistic training scenarios aligned with the organization’s mission.
Building a positive organization aligned with its strengths is hard work. Leadership is not passive, it is active, and is a relationship between a leader and other members of the organization.
If leaders take the mindset that organizations are human systems full of strengths waiting for development, then that belief should inspire them to be a positive force for those they lead. Leadership Counts!
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