The Wheatley Institution

Fellow Notes


Build on the Positive

“Focusing on the positive rather than the negative things will help improve performance.”

Kim S. Cameron | December 9, 2015
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A leader builds positivity in his team to improve performance and maximize output.



We are all familiar with the principle that leaders should emphasize the positive, build on strengths, and focus on abundance rather than deficits. We know that providing positive feedback is likely to produce higher productivity and higher engagement than criticism and negative evaluations. Ten years of research in the University of Michigan’s Center for Positive Organizations has produced study after study confirming the importance of adopting a positive perspective and implementing virtuous practices in organizations, teams, and interpersonal relationships. Individuals, teams, and organizations do far better in a positive environment than in a negative, critical, or punishing environment.

What happens, however, when we confront a real problem, a major mistake, or a situation where negative feedback seems essential? How can we possibly rely on positive feedback, capitalize on strengths, and focus on abundance when someone really goofs up?

Let’s say, for example, that your son or daughter comes home from school with a report card that looks something like this:

English A
History A
Chemistry A
Math D-
Humanities A

How would you react? What would you say? It’s natural to immediately focus on the low grade in math: “What in the world happened in math? What went wrong? How did you mess up in that class?”

An alternative, however, is not to abandon positive communication and a focus on strengths but to maintain consistency in utilizing them. That is, use the positive to address and influence the negative.

That is, use the positive to address and influence the negative

My friend, Jim Mallozzi, the former CEO of one of the Prudential Financial Services companies, found himself in a situation with his daughter just like the one described above. Jim is completely dedicated to positive practices in his company, and he wanted to apply it at home as well. His daughter, Mary Rose, came home with good grades across the board except in math class where her grade was abysmal. Here is the way he approached the situation.

Jim: “I need to talk to you about your report card.”

Mary Rose: “Yeah, I know, dad.”

Jim: “I want to talk to you about your grade in English.”

Mary Rose: “But I got an ‘A’ in English.”

Jim: “I know you did. But I want to talk about English. Do you like your teacher?”

Mary Rose: “I like her a lot.”

Jim: “Do you get your homework in on time, and do you participate in class?”

Mary Rose: “Every day.”

Jim: “Do you go in after class to ask questions or check on assignments?”

Mary Rose: “Yeah. I’ve gone in several times.”

Jim: “Do you have a study group to prepare for exams and assignments?”

Mary Rose: “Several of us get together to study and help each other out.”

Jim: “Well, Mary Rose. You are an ‘A’ student. You know how to get ‘As’. But, now let’s talk about math. Do you like your teacher?”

Mary Rose: “I think he is a jerk.”

Jim: “Do you get your homework in on time, and do you participate in class?”

Mary Rose: “Heck no. I don’t understand the material.”

Jim: “Do you go in after class to ask questions or check on assignments?”

Mary Rose: “No. I probably should, but I don’t want to appear stupid.”

Jim: “Do you have a study group to prepare for exams and assignments?”

Mary Rose: “No, I don’t want others to know how bad I am at math.”

Jim: “Well, Mary, why don’t you just apply in math class what you know how to do to get As in English? I will check with you every Friday, and I’ll ask you about these things. You don’t have to like your teacher, but you have to respect him. I want to encourage you to participate in class each day, even if it’s just to raise your hand and ask the teacher to repeat what he just said. Plus, go in after class and check with the teacher about what is confusing. If you don’t get it, a lot of others don’t either, so put together a study group to help each other out. And, if you don’t get your homework done because you don’t understand, let me know and we’ll get help. Will you do it?”

Mary Rose: “OK, sure, dad.”

Guess what Mary Rose’s grade was at the end of the next semester in math? An ‘A’.

The point being illustrated is that regardless of the problem or situation, capitalizing on the positive, finding a way to build on strengths, and reinforcing an abundance mentality almost always produces better results than focusing on mistakes, harping on weaknesses, and reinforcing a deficit mentality. Great positive leaders help others flourish and improve performance by building on the positive.