I was inspired some months ago by seven executives in the federal government who I had the privilege of working with as part of a leadership development program at the Federal Executive Institute.I’ve facilitated many such groups there and all have been wonderful.What made this group stand out, though, was their positive outlook.
It started the first day of the program.On day one, the group is given a simple task, which is to explain what it’s like to be an executive in the federal government today, and to explain it in a creative way. There is always moaning about the creative part, but groups usually buckle down and get it done—generally having fun identifying all the problems inherent in making things happen in a bureaucracy.This time one executive stood out.He kept identifying the positive goal, the benefit of an idea, the opportunity inherent in the challenge, what people were doing right.
It seemed to catch on.By the third day of the program, when the group lost a competition, a number of people acknowledged what didn’t work but chose to focus primarily on what went right.There was a lot of praise and support.By the fifth day, every executive in the group was giving positive feedback to every other member of the group as they shared tough challenges.
If it sounds like Pollyanna, the group’s positive behavior is backed up by research.Marcial Losada, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Marcial_Losada, in his research on the differences between high and low performing teams, found that high performing teams (based on profitability, customer satisfaction, and colleague evaluations) had a 6:1 ratio of positive to negative statements.That means teams where praise is more common than criticism, opportunities are more visible than obstacles, and learning is more valued than blame perform better at the bottom line.Team members think bigger, come up with more creative solutions, overcome more obstacles and have more fun.
This team of executives sure did.At the end of the program, each executive has to identify a transformative challenge they are prepared to undertake to improve their corner of the federal government.While everyone had fun, at the end of the day the executives in this group came up with the most ambitious plans for change, the most concrete steps for getting there, and the clearest ideas for how to improve their own capacity as leaders I have ever seen.
It sounds counterintuitive, because most of us have been taught our whole lives to focus on problems and what to fix instead of what’s working.But Losada and others are pointing the way to a new level of awareness.Look at what’s right, take time to praise, look for opportunity.
Plum Cluverius, PCC is an executive coach with over 30 years experience in leadership development.She lives and works in Richmond, Virginia.