Positive leadership isn’t the same thing as “soft” leadership

Sometime, when people are urged to take a positive approach to leadership, there is some push-back. Some people seem to equate “positivity” with being super-nice, but being kind is much deeper than a spewing of empty compliments like “good job” or “nice work” or “super!”

You can’t be too kind. But, you can be too soft. That is the difference, and I’ll admit that I have had trouble sometimes helping folks understand the difference. I just read Good to Great and have taken quite a liking to Jim Collins’s phrase “rigorous, not ruthless.” This is the message for leaders who would like to be positive. In fact, participants in Group Dynamic workshops are often trained in the art of “behavior –> outcome” statements. (Covered in an earlier post). This focus on behavior, and the high standards of the organization, can be done in a way that is positive, not negative. In a way that is rigorous, not ruthless.

There is a danger in being nice while enforcing high standards. If one continually says things like “please be quiet” or “I am just assuming that all this off task behavior has a purpose” with a smile, one can come off as appearing very passive-aggressive, which is on the edge of sarcasm, and sarcasm has no place in leadership; it is cheap and disrespectful. However, one does not need to be visibly angry or overly stern either. As mentioned in last week’s post, research shows that followers who “buy in” will be more productive and more loyal.

One other way to enforce high standards and be kind is to remain very specific about behaviors. Saying to the whole staff “we all need to make sure we stay until the end of the shift”, when there’s just one or two people sneaking out early, does not help the cause. That is soft and negative at the same time. Taking aside an employee who skips out early and saying “you nearly always do good work; you do the most good when you stay till the end of your shift. Around here, we all work our shifts, unless there’s something else going on that I don’t know about. Is there anything wrong I need to know about? If not, you need to stay until the end of the shift.” This sort of correction validates the employee’s contribution and enforces the high standards. If your tone of voice is matter of fact, then you will not be stern, or mean. Because we have experienced so much stern or grumpy correction during our lives, a matter-of-fact correction or criticism will, over time, become part of a positive approach. An approach that upholds high standards and is very specific about behavior is positive, but not soft. Be rigorous, not ruthless.

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