Some time ago I was coaching a very senior director in Russia and about a year after we began, their company invited a well-known international consultancy to conduct a leadership potential assessment on the top fifty or so executives, of which they were one.
Although we recognized some of the findings from the results of the questionnaire, there was one aspect in particular with which we violently disagreed. This was to do with optimism. The report stated that they were in the bottom 10% of successful leaders and that they would benefit from a more optimistic outlook. That it was not being suggested to ignore or discount real problems but to maintain confidence that with time and effort, they will be solved and things will improve.
I will admit that my first fleeting thought was that the assessment may have contained some truth. Although they were very successful, we had discussed at length the many difficulties and challenges they faced in their aim of breaking through into the management board. And so I could imagine some of that negativity we had shared, spilling over into the questionnaire.
However I had also observed them with their own people, and if anyone was being encouraging and positive about all manner of situations, it was them! And when much later they suggested I was being a little negative about their company – whereas I consider myself to always be positive and optimistic, and despite the thought of ‘projection’ going through my coaching mind – it got me thinking about the leadership qualities of positivity and optimism.
Your attitude, positive and negative, affects everyone with whom you come into contact: friends & family, work colleagues, your staff, your boss, current and potential customer & clients, your investors & stakeholders. (As well as influencing your ability to learn, your business performance, your success and even your future).
The Oxford English Dictionary defines attitude as a way of thinking or feeling about something; a personal view or posture.
If you display a positive attitude this will be infectious and those around you will be stimulated by your positive and optimistic energy. Your staff will also feel positive and your clients will want to do business with you. Thereby helping to maximise your business results.
Taking a negative attitude, the opposite is likely to happen. You know how it affects yourself and others if you ‘get out of the bed on the wrong side’. Your staff may feel demotivated, people will not want to be around you, and clients might not want to work with you. So your business performance will get worse.
A positive approach will help you feel confident, in control and able to perform at your best. It creates belief and determination. You can keep your motivation longer to do the work you need to succeed and you will derive more pleasure from your work. A negative approach will erode confidence, damage performance and can even negatively impact your health.
But as the feedback assessment to my senior leader stated, positivism does not mean being unrealistic about the economic climate or market conditions or discounting real problems. It is not always possible to control the circumstances around us. But you can control your attitude and the way you look at the world. And then you (and your people) will be in the best possible shape to weather the storm.
I believe attitude is a choice. And your attitude influences others. Especially if you are a leader.
So how to create and maintain a positive attitude? How to coach others such that they (also) have a positive attitude? And can you train attitude?
A positive attitude takes discipline and practice. But – without trying to sound like a self-help book or so-called motivational speaker! – there are some simple, if sometimes difficult, actions one can take.
- Focus on improving your business performance and achieving your business goals, always looking for positive ways to do better
- Radiate a positive attitude to others: even if deep-down you don’t feel that way at that moment. This will actually help you feel more positive and more importantly it makes others feel positive and optimistic as well. Which creates a virtuous circle. Optimism is contagious.
- Concentrate on the positive: focus on the things going right rather than what has gone wrong. It is easy to focus on the negative, but look for the positive.
- Be aware of your own thoughts and the language that you use to yourself and to others: What do you say to yourself? Saying negative things to yourself (or others) in the expectation that they are motivational is mistaken. And how do you think in different situations? Glass half-full or glass half-empty? Challenge any negative thoughts you have and make them positive opportunities.
- Where possible choose with whom you associate: the phrase ‘Misery loves company’ exists for a reason! The more positive the people around you, the more you will feel positive and vice versa. Do not underestimate the power of association. When working on a difficult project it is preferable to be surrounded by a group of positive thinkers rather than people who think you will fail
Coaching somebody else, whether in executive coaching or as their line manager, unsurprisingly includes a number of these same elements.
- Ask open coaching questions to unearth the source of the person’s attitude
- Facilitate a self-evaluation: talking about attitude can be difficult, but what is the person’s attitude to themselves, others and life in general and why?
- Focus on the good things rather than the things going wrong. Positive feedback really does work more effectively than over-critical negative feedback. Reward positive attitude rather than punish a negative one.
- Role model by using positive words in your feedback (adjectives such as ‘great’ or ‘excellent’) and phrases such as ‘improvement opportunity’ rather than pointing out what the person is doing wrongly.
- Build awareness by challenging them to view their attitude through another person’s eyes, from an external view.
- Practice: to change a habit one needs to practice the new behaviour, as with any other coaching
- Changing attitude can be difficult, so support by helping identify problems that occur as a result of change and facilitating the solution of any issues. Again as with any other coaching.
The step from coaching a positive attitude to training a positive attitude might seem large but is important for all staff in customer or client facing roles, be it in a shared service centre, shop, hotel, restaurant or airline. Whatever.
In addition to many of the points above, explaining context is important.
- Create clarity about what ‘customer service’ means for your business
- Explain how your product/service adds value (for the customer/client, society, whomever)
- Show your employees how they individually add value
By explaining the effects that what they say and how they say it can have, connected with the picture, purpose, plan and their part in it, can help staff be more wiling to go that extra mile for their customers and will also increase how much they actually like their job.
A positive and optimistic attitude for all of us, leaders or staff, is both good business sense and excellent personal sense.