The Problem with Problem-Focused Leadership

DG-positive-leadership_pt2Unfortunately, positive practices are truly rare in today’s businesses and organizations.  In my work coaching executives, there is a natural tendency to talk about what’s wrong and what’s not working.

Two key factors explain our natural resistance to using positivity and appreciation:

1.  Physiologically speaking, our brains have a built-in negativity bias. We’re hardwired to pay more attention to issues that threaten our survival (negative trumps positive). Crises and problems dominate work agendas. Managers’ daily tasks necessitate solving problems.

2.  Leadership pressures steal attention from positive practices, in spite of our best intentions.  As a manager, you have to fix things. Effective bosses must override the tendency to only focus on problems. When they do, they experience the high performance that positivity can unleash.

While positive focused executives are perceived to be better leaders, they’re nonetheless in the minority in today’s competitive business environment.


Finding the Right Feedback Ratio

A wave of research reveals that “soft”-sounding positive management practices — including conversations focused on dreams, strengths and possibilities — motivate people to achieve higher performance levels. In fact, the more positive the message, the better the outcome.

But managers are charged with pointing out what’s not working and solving real problems — a mandate that presents a potentially frustrating leadership dilemma: How do you focus on the positive when continually forced to make corrections?

Richard Boyatzis, PhD, a professor of organizational behavior at the Weatherhead School of Management at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, offers a pragmatic solution:

“You need the negative focus to survive, but a positive one to thrive. You need both, but in the right ratio.”

Let’s quantify this positive to negative ratio. Effective leaders should provide 3–5 positive messages for every negative message they deliver. Your communication must skew heavily toward the positive, without sounding incongruent or inauthentic.

If you fail to “accentuate the positive” (to borrow a World War II-era song title), you remain stuck in negative feedback patterns that demotivate your staff.

What about you in you? Have you experienced the effects of too much emphasis on what’s wrong and not enough on what’s right? I’d love to hear from you; leave a comment.


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