Happy Thoughts Lead to Happy Companies

Life is good these days for the positive-minded — especially in business. With the stock market recently hitting record highs, consumer spending on the rise and unemployment sinking lower, there’s plenty for business leaders to be positive about.

To some, there was never a reason to be negative in the first place, even when the economy was in complete disarray.

Kathy Cramer is one of them. She’s the author of “Lead Positive: What Highly Effective Leaders See, Say, and Do,” and the founder of consulting and coaching firm the Cramer Institute.

According to Cramer, leaders who maintain a positive spin — even when things are seemingly at their worst — find the most success when it comes to rallying teams, building collective intelligence and solving problems.

Talent Management spoke with Cramer about the power behind positive-minded management. Following are edited excerpts from the interview.

You’ve developed this concept of asset-based thinking. What is that?
You can think of asset-based thinking as a distinct channel in your mind. You grab the spotlight of attention and focus it on what’s working, what’s strong, what’s valuable, useful and what’s possible. That is in contrast to another channel in your mind that we call deficit-based thinking.

On that channel, you’ll notice that you grab the spotlight of your attention and focus it on what’s not working, what’s weak, what’s missing, what’s problematic.
Many high-profile leaders — Steve Jobs comes to mind — are notoriously hard on their companies.

How can a leader lead with positivity while also driving hard results?
I think people who you mentioned, especially somebody like Steve Jobs, when people refer to him as “hard” they’re talking about the bar he set and the way he scrutinized new ideas and processes. And there are very many people who are attracted to a leader who both drives for results and sets the bar high. Sometimes I think of it as moon-shot thinking, where we’re going to the moon here and there are many people who want to be in that kind of environment, because the task at hand, the results that we’re going for, are breakthrough.

All you need to add to that in terms of becoming an asset-based leader is to begin to see what that breakthrough is going to bring to the world, the customer or the technology. Here’s where I think hard turns into inspiring.

We have a three-part process that we tell leaders is very important when they speak. It’s called substance, sizzle and soul. The substance really speaks to what you’re doing, what your vision is, what your goal is. The sizzle speaks to the story that you might tell about how we’re going to get there, what it’s going to take, and in many cases, it’s going to be a struggle. The third area, the soulful area, is when a leader talks about why the goal is so important and why it is important to that leader. This is where followers find out how much skin in the game a leader has. When you mention those leaders who do have the reputation for being gnarly and even argumentative, there’s no question that that leader has a very strong sense of commitment and that followers can trust that leader will be there for the duration of the voyage and the journey to get there.

How can positive-thinking managers lower in an organization maintain asset-based thinking in a culture that is not supportive of that style?
I can’t tell you how many times people come to us, leaders in the middle, with exactly that problem. The perception is the top team is everything from mean to pessimistic, and of course that is contagious. Cultures that can be toxic, they have a kind of snowball effect. So if you’re a manager and a leader in that kind of environment it’s going to require more effort. I want to remind the readers that every engagement survey finding has to do with the relationship with your immediate boss, not the relationship between them and the top team. So we really focus on leaders and their teams, and every single team is unique in terms of what the context is and what the internal and external environments are. I encourage the readers to realize leadership with their immediate team can buck the trend even if it’s a strong one.

How can positive-thinking leaders maintain a balance when bad things happen?
When a leader is facing a true setback, a leader cannot call a dog a frog — you have to be honest. So here’s the problem, and we need to think about how we can milk this problem for all it’s worth. In other words, if we’re going to go through it, we’ve got to fix it, but let’s not stop there. Let’s look at what else we can learn. What is it that we can do together to forge the bonds, the collaborations, the teamwork, so it’s not just about the problem, it’s about really being able to raise your game in a lot of ways. Oftentimes what happens when you get some kind of wake-up call from a big problem is you begin to notice other things could be improved. Now the problem has gotten your attention. Asset-based thinking is about turning the problem into a set of opportunities.