Three Behaviors of Positive Leadership

Three Steps to Positive Leadership

Results of a 2005 Gallup research study confirmed what many who work in complex organizations know intuitively, the crucial role managerial behavior plays in team member engagement and well-being.

What the Gallup research didn’t study was the specific behaviors that resulted in positive responses from team members.

Margaret Greenberg and Dana Arakawa, both graduates of the Master of Applied Positive Psychology program at the University of Pennsylvania, wanted to know if applying positive leadership practices leads to teams with higher project performance and engagement.

The theory of positive leadership assumes three specific leadership behaviors:

Using a strengths-based approach

Providing frequent recognition and encouragement

Maintaining a positive perspective when difficulties arise

A Strengths-Based Approach

Most organizations are more visible about fixing weaknesses. They consequently conduct reviews and evaluations to measure up to predefined goals and competencies.  More recent studies in behavioral sciences and organizational performance have firmly established that focusing on what works, followed by a program to scale it to greater levels, is a more practical and efficient approach to developing people and performance.  It isn’t that you ignore weaknesses; it’s just that fixing them isn’t the only focus.

The Problem-Seeking Mindset

A second important factor in positive leadership behaviors is giving frequent praise and recognition. In 90% of organizations, this doesn’t happen enough, nor is praise delivered in a way that can be heard or received for maximum effect.

Why is it so difficult to provide frequent, positive feedback? Because we’re predisposed to look for the negative: in ourselves, in others and for external events. The problem-seeking mindset serves as a protective device to spare us from making mistakes and to warn us of danger, but in terms of effective leadership, it can be one of the human brain’s shortcomings.  We have to work against our biases to ask, “What’s working right now… and how can we do more of it?”

The Brain Power of Negativity

In Switch (2010), authors Dan and Chip Heath write about “finding the bright spots” instead of the negative.  Scientists analyzed 558 words in the English language that denote emotions, and they found that 62% were negative (versus the 38% positive). “Bad is stronger than good,” the Heaths conclude. Yet, individuals can override this brain tendency and focus on what’s working once they are aware of their natural bias for the negative.

When Things Go Wrong

Managing long-term, multimillion-dollar projects that involve dozens of people and several workgroups is a complex challenge, and things are bound to go wrong. How we respond to problems has a direct and measurable impact on both the people involved and the project.

Researchers Greenberg and Arakawa asked:

“When a problem crops up on my project, is my project manager able to help me come up with solutions?”

“What steps does your project manager take when such a problem arises?”

Here’s what they found:

  • Those who maintain a positive perspective don’t turn setbacks into catastrophes.
  • They don’t fly off the handle; they control their emotions.
  • They recognize what’s within their sphere of influence (and what’s not).
  • They see and discuss the problem as an opportunity.
  • They provide a solution-oriented perspective.

Positive Results

Greenberg and Arakawa also discovered maintaining a positive perspective when things go awry leads to greater project performance. Of course, unrealistic optimism and inauthentic happy faces are not the objective.  Honesty and authenticity is critically important, especially in uncertain times.


Yes! You may use this article by Executive Director Barbara Demarest in your company newsletter, blog or website as long as you add the following bio box:
Barbara Demarest ( received her MBA from the Babcock School of Management at Wake Forest University and her BA from Duke University. After 20 years at the Center for Creative Leadership, Barbara launched a strategy consulting practice focusing on people leading change in associations, foundations, universities, nonprofits and knowledge businesses.  You can find Barbara’s executive coaching profile on

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