Most of us go to bed thinking about the work that didn’t get done and the tasks that are still on the list instead of recognizing what went well and how we moved the needle forward, even if only a little. That makes sense, since humans are wired to focus on the negative. This is evolution’s way of keeping us alive.
For CEOs and leaders running organizations, it’s important to acknowledge this natural negative lean and how it affects work culture. This is especially true when people in work organizations are constantly bombarded with problems to solve, roadblocks to remove and a never ending set of tasks.
Leadership attributes that don’t intentionally create a positive organizational culture will create a negative organization by default. Here we will explain why being positive is so damn hard, the benefit of a positive organizational culture on both employee productivity and engagement, and two research backed programs that leaders can prioritize to create the positive shift.
Research shows that due to evolutionary adaptation, we have a negativity bias, or a built-in tendency to focus on the negative over the positive. To put it simply, bad is stronger than good. We see this in the news when stories that frighten us make headlines, but positive stories receive very little air time. We see this in work organizations when negative feedback is perceived to have a greater effect than positive employee feedback.
We also experience this in our self-talk, being judgmental about how much we didn’t accomplish versus focusing on how we contributed and added value each day. Even some of the most successful creative geniuses fall into this natural negativity trap when they conduct a self assessment.
Walter Isaacson takes us through the life of one of the world’s greatest polymaths in his new book, Leonardo Da Vinci. Da Vinci’s areas of expertise are so expansive, the best way to conceptually organize them is alphabetically. He was an anatomist, botanist, chemist, draftsman, engineer, geologist, inventor, mathematician, painter, and a sculptor to name a few.
Da Vinci was one of the most accomplished and successful humans in the world. Two of Da Vinci’s paintings, the Mona Lisa and The Last Supper, are the most reproduced paintings of all time. As an anatomist, he was the first person ever to draw the lungs, the reproductive organs, and the first scientific representations of a fetus in-utero. Da Vinci wrote one of the most expensive manuscripts of all time, The Codex, which was purchased by Bill Gates for over 30 million dollars. He accomplished all of that within a relatively short, 67 year lifespan.
Five centuries have passed since his death, yet we’re still learning from him. As the story goes, Da Vinci died in France in the arms of King Francis I. His last words were, “I have offended God and mankind because my work did not reach the quality it should have.” Perhaps the most brilliant and accomplished person in the history of humanity beat himself up for not doing a better job!
Reading Da Vinci’s last words highlights the negativity bias that affects even the most talented among us. So why should this matter for every CEO and company leader?
Out of the 70,000+ management and leadership books prescribing steps to create high performing organizational cultures, Positive Leadership by Kim Cameron stands out among the rest. Not only is it grounded in empirical research, Positive Leadership proves that organizational performance and high levels of employee engagement are directly correlated, not mutually exclusive. In other words positive organizations that develop practices that enable employees to thrive are also among the top performing and most successful.
Organizational cultures that are intentionally positive outperform organizations that are not, and organizations that are not intentionally positive are by default, negative. Positive organizations are organizations characterized by both high performance and high engagement.
Below, we will highlight two research backed programs that leaders can implement to improve their leadership strengths and turn their companies into positive organizations where both employee performance and engagement are at their peak:
Weekly Check-ins and One on Ones
Positive CEOs provide managers with the tools they need to offer regular constructive feedback and coaching to their employees. Ongoing and regular one on one meetings are a proven methodology to turn managers into positive leaders and create a work culture of positive communication.
Research shows that one on ones not only improve employee engagement but also improve productivity and the completion of key objectives. In academic studies, teams that initially implemented one on ones and then stopped saw a decrease in performance after those brief meetings were removed. Once one on ones were reimplemented, employee performance soared as a result. One on ones are the most high leverage meeting a manager can have to directly impact team engagement, goal accomplishment, morale and productivity.
Staff Recognition – The Magic 5:1 Ratio
Positive organizational culture is characterized by supportive leadership, and supportive leadership is characterized by positive communication. Leaders can build a culture of positive communication through a cadence of solid staff recognition from managers and peers.
According to Gallup, a culture of recognition not only boosts employee engagement, but also productivity and staff retention. Research shows that in high performing organizations, the ratio of positive to negative statements is 5:1. Positive statements are those that express appreciation, support, and helpfulness, whereas negative statements express criticism, disapproval, dissatisfaction, and cynicism. As a leader, it’s important to ask yourself, what does your organization sound like? Do you hear more criticism or more praise?
Communicating effectively is a top strategy for CEOs who are interested in building positive organizations where both organizational performance and employee engagement thrive. Performance Management Technology helps leaders implement the types of staff recognition and employee feedback programs that matter most.
Similar to Da Vinci, even the best of us are poor judges of our own performance, which is why management and leadership need to be intentional about providing employee feedback and developing programs that allow their teams to do the same. Imagine if the king had given Da Vinci praise for his many accomplishments. Would he have been more encouraged? How else would the world have been impacted?
Courtney Bigony is Director of People Science at 15Five, continuous performance management software that includes weekly check-ins, objectives (OKR) tracking, peer recognition, 1-on-1s, and reviews. She is also the founder of The Deep Feedback Movement, where she provides actionable insights for People Teams based on the latest social science research, and a Fellow at the Center for Evidence Based Management.