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If you think people respond best to leaders they perceive as virtuous, you’re right.
If you assume virtuous behaviors are contagious, you’re right again.
Dr. Kim Cameron has research findings to prove it.
He’s professor of management and organizations and cofounder of the Center for Positive Organizations at the University of Michigan. And he’s invested decades in studying leadership behaviors—especially behaviors that directly influence individual and organizational performance.
Dr. Cameron is author of more than a dozen books. His latest is Positively Energizing Leadership: Virtuous Actions and Relationships That Create High Performance.
In the first part of this conversation, Dr. Cameron explained how people are naturally attracted to light, including the “light” found in leadership behaviors that uplift and encourage. This time, he differentiates between leaders who “energize” others and leaders whose behaviors have a “de-energizing” effect.
Rodger Dean Duncan: If not in a formal leadership role, what can a positive energizer do to influence a team to perform better?
Kim Cameron: First and foremost, positive energizers should demonstrate virtuousness—i.e., kindness, generosity, forgiveness, gratitude, integrity. They should help other people flourish without expecting a return. This is simply what good mothers do. Human beings cannot resist virtuousness forever, and much empirical research confirms that virtuousness will reproduce itself. When people experience virtuousness, they tend to repeat it themselves.
Duncan: Managing change initiatives is of course a critical responsibility of a leader. How does positive energy help build a cascading network of people who champion a particular change?
Cameron: Positively energizing leaders often do not occupy the top spot in the organization chart. They are people who exude positive energy in their own domain, and their influence is almost always felt far beyond their own unit boundaries. People are attracted to them—i.e., illustrative of the heliotropic effect we discussed earlier—and share more information with them more frequently, and feel valued and validated by them.
These are all predictors of high-performance teams. Whereas positive leadership from the top is crucial for successful team success, the highest performing organizations have three times more positively energizers than normal organizations, so positive energizers do and should exist throughout the team.
Duncan: If I’m looking to hire a positive energizer, what questions should I ask when evaluating candidates for the job?
Cameron: Examples of the kinds of questions to ask include—
- Describe an organization you’ve worked for that you’ve fallen in love with. What was it about this organization that caused you to love it? What did you learn?
- Describe a role you’ve had that you absolutely loved. Describe why you loved it. What did you learn?
- Describe an example of a coworker or employee who needed your assistance to succeed or flourish. How did you help this person achieve his or her highest potential? What did you learn?
- Describe a time when you have achieved peak performance, and when you have been at your best, or when you have become positively deviant. What did you do? What did you learn?
Duncan: For a variety of reasons, increasing numbers of organizations are allowing their employees to work remotely. What challenges does this trend pose for positively energizing leaders?
Cameron: Of course, some positive energy can be transmitted remotely via Zoom, especially if meetings are frequent and small enough to be personal. On the other hand, just as few couples would choose to get married without substantial face to face contact, or high-performance sports teams would not choose to watch film of games in place of actual human interaction and practice, so remote workers may miss the advantages of human contact that enhances positive energy transfer. The higher the expected performance, the more likely positive relational energy must be shared in social interactions.
Duncan: What are some of the tell-tale behaviors of a de-energizer?
Cameron: Here’s the “profile” of de-energizers—
- They ensure that they get the credit.
- They are selfish and resist feedback.
- They don’t create opportunities for others to be recognized.
- They are somber and seldom smile.
- They don’t invest in personal relationships.
- They dominate the conversation and assert only their ideas.
- They create rather than solve problems.
- They mostly see roadblocks and are critics of others’ ideas.
- They are indifferent and uncaring.
- They are satisfied with mediocrity or “good enough.”
Duncan: What does research tell us about the physical effects people can expect when they exhibit the virtues of generosity, altruism, and contribution?
Cameron: A study of kidney dialysis patients measured on two factors— (1) the extent to which they were receiving love, support, and care from someone, and (2) the extent to which they were offering love, support, and care to someone else. The second factor was found to be significantly more predictive of physical recovery and well-being than the first factor. The higher the contribution score, the better off were the patients.
In a study of multiple sclerosis patients, half of these patients were assigned to receive a phone call each week in which another person expressed love, support, and concern to them. The other half of the patients were assigned to place a weekly phone call to someone else expressing love, support, and concern. At the end of a two-year period, patients were assessed on five factors: well-being, self-efficacy, physical activity, hope, and depression. An eight-fold difference was observed. Patients who placed the phone calls were eight times healthier on these five outcomes than were patients who received the phone calls.
Finally, a study of widows who had recently lost a spouse showed that those who provided instrumental support to others had no depression six months after their loss compared to substantial and lasting depression among those who merely received support but did not provide it.
Duncan: What are some best practices you’ve observed in people who use gratitude, recognition, and humility to influence the performance of others?
Cameron: Here are some easy ones—
- Keep a gratitude journal. Write down three things for which you are grateful each day.
- Write a letter of gratitude to someone else each week for three weeks.
- Each day send a note to someone recognizing his or her contributions.
- Create a gratitude wall at work on which individuals can write notes of gratitude to others.
Duncan: How would you respond to someone who suggests that positively energizing leadership is just a manipulative way of getting people to work harder for the benefit of the organization or their leaders?
Cameron: It’s true that when experiencing positive leadership and positive relational energy, individuals tend to work harder and produce outcomes at much higher levels than they would otherwise. Empirical evidence confirms that exposing people to positive energy, helping employees flourish personally, and fostering a sense of value and meaningfulness at work almost always pay off in higher levels of productivity and effectiveness.
However, disingenuous positivity programs designed primarily to get people to work harder are contrary to the very definition of positive relational energy and positive leadership. Especially when facing trying times, mandating positivity or superimposing false positivity on a workforce is unscrupulous and will likely backfire.
Rather than denigrating and crushing initiative and opportunities for personal growth, the goal of positive leadership is to help people dream more, learn more, do more, and become more. It is the opposite of manipulation.
This column was first published by Forbes, where Dr. Duncan is a regular contributor.