The EFMD business magazine

The EFMD business magazine

The power of positive leadership
Whether directly through personal interaction or indirectly through their decisions, leaders shape the quality of a workplace. Siegfried Hoenle describes how leaders can act to boost employee engagement.

Considering research results across organisations worldwide, leaders do not seem to deliver on engagement1. The levels of disengagement are high, harming the productivity and creativity of the workforce. What can leaders do differently to address this alarming state?

Positive psychology – a new pair of lenses

Unfortunately, leadership cannot be “fixed” by applying a new technique. No programme, policy or project will do the trick. What leaders need is a new set of lenses through which to look at leadership – and re-wire it.

Positive psychology offers that new set of lenses. The research in this field searches for the keys to human flourishing. The aim is to find out what ingredients a life requires in order to be rich and fulfilled. Martin Seligman, one of the founding fathers of positive psychology2, has found two concepts central to it:

  • Strengths are underlying personal qualities that energise us, contribute to our growth and lead to peak performance. When we tap into these sources of energy, we can reach full immersion in our task at hand, a state Hungarian Psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi calls “Flow”3.
  • Meaning is what gives purpose to our existence and to what we do. We gain happiness from our actions when they are based on choices that make sense to us. Many definitions of employee engagement include energy and meaning. Accordingly, employees are engaged when they are energised by work and show a genuine willingness to go the extra mile. What does this mean for leadership? To boost their employees’ engagement, leaders have to help their people play to their strengths and find purpose at work. Positive leaders drill for strengths and make meaning.

Drilling for strengths – mining for passion and energy

Positive leaders look for strengths instead of relentlessly focusing on deficits and gaps. They help employees leverage their passions and perform at their peak. In practice, they take three steps (remember these steps with the acronym ACT: Assess, Challenge & Support, Team Design):

  1. Assess
    Positive leaders are curious about the people they work with. They care about more than skills, knowledge and professional experience. They believe that energy trumps everything else; they want to understand what makes their followers tick. Where employees have a passion is where they have the largest potential to perform, learn and grow. Positive leaders know that positive energy unlocks human potential and, therefore, engagement at work.
  2. Challenge and support
    Positive leaders challenge their followers to work in their areas of energy. They do not merely fill “gaps” revealed by a competency model. They help their followers maximise the advantages of their strengths. They challenge employees in two ways: first, to use their strengths to tackle problems they have not tackled before; and second, to achieve true mastery in their areas of strengths. Along the way, in addition to the challenge, they coach them, providing support.
  3. Team design
    Positive leaders recognise that beyond leveraging individuals’ strengths, they need to leverage team strengths. Team strengths depend on how each team member’s strengths interact with other team members’ strengths. This interaction influences how well the team performs as a group. Positive leaders leverage the full diversity in their teams. They ask questions like:

    • Do we have a critical mass of individuals in our development team who are courageous enough to go against the grain?
    • Is our production team sufficiently passionate about the critical detail?
    • Do the strategic thinkers in our management team hear the single voice of pragmatism?

Making meaning – if not the leader, then who?

Especially in large corporations, employees often perceive their work as “meaningless”. Opaque decision making, political agendas, a fragmented value chain, bureaucracy – all these devalue what employees perceive as the actual, often-invigorating purpose of work. Consequently, positive leaders need to offer meaning to their followers – no one else will! There are various sources of meaning; here, we focus on four that are particularly relevant to the workplace4:

Personal values
At work, people want to uphold their values. Workplaces that subtly require employees to compromise their basic moral standards destroy their identification with work and employer. Often, such organisations have a dysfunctional culture that can open the door to misconduct or even criminal behaviour. Leaders who evince clear values in their words and actions help employees connect with their work and experience a sense of purpose.

Since the early days of evolution, human beings have been hyper-social animals. The group we belong to gives us the safety we miss when we are on our own. The members of a cohesive community have each other’s backs; they are there when an individual needs help. The good of the group takes priority over selfish motives because it promises future benefits to the individual.

Being part of a group makes sense. Research conducted by Gallup shows that people who have a best friend at work are seven times more likely to be engaged. Positive leaders know this. They emphasise the team over individuals, reducing internal competition for the benefit of mutual support and collaboration.

Positive impact on others
Giving makes us happier than receiving. Seeing the positive impact we make on somebody else’s life gives our actions meaning.

Adam Grant’s research at Wharton Business School in the US underlined this impressively5. He conducted a series of experiments with university call centres, which are tasked with raising scholarship funds.

He looked at different ways to motivate the call centre agents. In one trial he brought in a student who personally thanked the entire group of agents for changing his life by raising the funds for his scholarship. In the following month, the call centre employees up to doubled their calls and increased their revenues by up to 400%.

Positive leaders work with this powerful source of meaning. They enable their followers to feel helpful to others, be it clients, colleagues or the general public.

Leaving a mark

Meaning is about having an impact on the world that transcends our own short existence. We want to be part of something that still influences the world when we are no longer here. We want a glimpse of immortality; we care about how we will be remembered. Positive leaders know this and they help their followers to feel significant. They stress the importance of the shared mission and the criticality of every team members’ contribution.


Positive leadership goes beyond leveraging strengths and making meaning. But the practices suggested in this article are a start. For employees and organisations, the potential benefits of positive leadership are huge. Leaders who engage their employees help them flourish in life. And for their companies they boost productivity, creativity and financial returns.

1. Gallup State of Global Workplace Report 2013
2. Martin Seligman (2002): Authentic Happiness. New York: Atria.
3. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (1990). Flow. New York: Harper Collins
4. Kim Cameron (2008). Positive Leadership. San Francisco: Berret-Koehler.
5. Adam Grant (2011). How Customers Can Rally Your Troops. Harvard Business Review, June 2011.


See more articles from Vol.10 Issue 01 – ’16: An engaging place to work.

He is Director of Corporate Programs at the University of St Gallen and co-facilitator of the EFMD Special Interest Group “An Engaging Place to Work”.

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