Staying positive in tough times: Leadership Essentials

Every day leaders face tough challenges and changes impacting their organisations. Choosing how to respond in any given situation provides a “moment of truth” which determines how a leader is perceived and their impact on the organisation’s results.

Most leaders find themselves alternating between the two paths outlined in the diagram below. Their assumptions, beliefs and interpretation of a situation place them at some point on either path and directly influence how they react to their circumstance. However, some leaders have a tendency to stay more on one path than the other based on their personality, background and how they perceive their circumstances.

The lower path, the Path of Limitation, drives thought and actions narrowed by a negative mindset that focuses on problems, issues, failures, weaknesses and independent action. It results in fear, mistrust and pessimism. This in turn fuels a culture of learned helplessness where individuals and teams feel isolated and unable to progress. This self-doubt leads to lower performance and undesirable and unintended consequences, such as missing business targets.

The upper path, the Path of Possibility, is more productive. Thoughts and actions are broadened and focused on strengths, successes, opportunities, solutions and building collaborative partnerships. Leadership is based on trust, hope, optimism, purpose and energy-boosting habits. This leads to a sense of powerfulness, positive energy, confidence and meaning at work, which fuels higher performance.

Most leaders don’t want to be negative and aren’t even aware when they end up spending the majority of time on the lower path. This happens for several reasons, the most common being:

  1. They are naturally more pessimistic and critically-minded in nature and when these behaviours are overdone or used inappropriately, they can be perceived as too negative.
  2. They experience really tough events at home and/or at work that push them into the negative zone. Even the most upbeat and optimistic leader can end up with a negative mindset if they experience cumulative events which cause distress, such as marital problems or major reorganisations creating uncertainty and insecurity. This can result in them feeling helpless, disengaged and lacking in confidence.
  3. A minority of leaders might deliberately remain negative and critical to avoid taking responsibility to lead on making the situation better. It is easier and often less risky for a leader to blame others for problems, issues and weaknesses in the workplace than to lead positively to get things altered.

So can leaders shift their mindset? By adopting these straightforward principles, leaders can become more aware of their mindset, how it impacts others and develop a more positive outlook:

Know what triggers your negativity and pivot

It is important to understand where you are at any point in time, and to understand the implications of your mindset on your performance and that of others who you work with. Identifying specific triggers (people, events, etc.) that move you to the Path of Limitation will enable you to pivot and stay on the performance-enhancing positive path.

Focus more attention on strengths and solutions

Research shows that even if leaders are naturally pessimistic and critical, they can consciously choose to focus more attention on the positive aspects of performance. After a few months, new habits will develop around this more positive mindset which will feel natural to apply. Specific ideas of how leaders can shift their mindset to focus on the positive include:

  • Keeping a diary of what went well during each day and how these successes can be built upon
  • Discovering the strengths of their people and helping them optimise these using a strengths profiler like Strengthscpe®
  • Learning ‘flip thinking’ techniques to think about problems and issues using a more positive lens. The one I often recommend is POINT, a mnemonic which stands for Pluses, Opportunities, Issues, and New Thinking. When applying this technique it is important to frame issues as questions which encourages a search for new and creative solutions. So rather than saying: “Budgets have been cut by 30% so we can’t deliver our sales number” it is far better to ask something like: “How can we achieve our sales targets by finding new and smarter ways to win business?”
  • Starting every meeting by inviting team members to share their successes as well as support they need to achieve even better results.

 If you are prone to negativity, draw on positive co-workers

If you are naturally a more pessimistic and critical thinker, leverage the art of complementary partnering by bringing in positive colleagues to support you in spotting the upside and possibilities in situations. This will ensure a more balanced perspective in your team and will keep your negative excesses in check, particularly if you invite honest and regular feedback.

Be curious and inspire a positive learning culture

Great leaders are great lifelong learners. They remain curious and positive about finding innovative solutions and ways of creating value for customers. Strong leaders also inspire and stretch others to focus their strengths, skills and ideas on finding new and sometimes disruptive solutions to deliver exceptional results. They continuously ask themselves and others: “What can we do to approach this in a new or different way to achieve a better result?” They don’t allow themselves or others to waste valuable time and energy becoming trapped by problems, issues and weaknesses for longer than is absolutely necessary. 

Express negative feelings, but don’t dwell on them

Maintaining a positive mindset as a leader doesn’t mean you need to be happy and upbeat all the time. As was so well illustrated by the recent Pixar movie, Inside Out, every emotion – including sadness and anger – has a role to play in ensuring success, productive interpersonal relations and well being.

A positive, strengths-based approach doesn’t encourage people to suppress emotions. It highlights the need to remain aware of them and the implications for a leader’s behaviour and results. So, if a leader is upset or angry, we encourage them to talk about these feelings in an open and constructive way and focus on finding solutions with the help of co-workers. This enables them to overcome their negative emotions more quickly and constructively.

Developing and maintaining a positive mindset is essential to great leadership. It builds a culture of hope, optimism, resilience and confidence, all of which are instrumental in helping inspire people to create a better future and achieve the organisation’s vision. What we now know from neuroscience is that almost any leader, regardless of their personality and how negative they are, can learn to become more positive in their approach and build a high-performing workplace where people optimise their strengths, deliver innovative solutions and stay focused on possibilities arising from uncertain and fast-changing times we are facing.

James Brook