In today’s volatile, uncertain and complex landscape, traditional leadership development programs are falling short. In the face of ambiguity, leaders often fall back on methodologies learned decades ago, which are no longer effective in our hyper-connected, 24/7 world. While positive leadership may sound like a “nice-to-have,” two decades of research show it is imperative for sustainable commercial success.

For example, one nonprofit health care provider applied Kim Cameron’s positive leadership framework to not only deliver customer satisfaction above the national benchmark but also increase surplus by 294 percent, deliver a $257-million increase in revenue and reduce debt by 94 percent. These are hard figures, not fluffy flights of fancy, achieved 12 months after implementing positive leadership development.

Positive leadership is the application of positive psychology principles in the workplace. According to Cameron, there are four positive practices that enable leaders to create extraordinary performance.

1. Cultivate a Positive Climate.

In a positive climate, leaders consciously create upward spirals of positive emotion. Often, this practice is where leaders start and stop with positive leadership. They try all manner of fun activities to keep employees engaged. It’s the ping pong table in the lunch room, the dress-up days, or the team barbecue or work party. These activities are great, but without a systematic shift toward the positive, the benefits are short-lived, leaving leaders disillusioned and training teams wondering why the program has not delivered sustainable change.

The health care organization rewrote all policies, procedures and training to focus on what they wanted rather than what they didn’t – a real paradigm shift for the risk-averse health care industry. At the end of each shift, leaders had five minutes with their teams to celebrate the best things that happened that day. Patient notes changed to include more of what the patient could do, rather than focusing on what they couldn’t, and hand-over discussions focused on enablement. Leaders wrote thank-you notes to co-workers on other shifts, expressing gratitude for a job well-done, and the staff soon followed suit. Within three months, the organization had reduced night shift absenteeism, decreasing agency costs. One-off fun events still occurred, but the systemization of leaders who focused on the positive truly embedded change.

2. Connect to Positive Meaning.

To connect leaders to meaning, the organization refreshed their purpose and values. It conducted workshops in which teams of leaders were given an instruction manual to create a “widget.” Halfway through the activity, the workshop facilitators revealed that the widget was a prosthetic hand that would be given to an amputee. The debrief explored the difference in the leaders’ engagement, effort, productivity, quality and compliance to instructions before and after they knew the purpose of the widget. Then, they contextualized what they learned in their everyday activities and repeated this process of connecting tasks to purpose with their teams.

3. Create Positive Communication.

All leaders participated in positive communication training, which included how to use inclusive, supportive, affirmative language rather than critical or negative language. Training was not about always giving positive feedback but about making the ratio of positive to constructive right. The training did not shy away from addressing issues, but it gave leaders the ability to do so in a way that built trust, competence and motivation to improve.

4. Foster Positive Relationships.

It’s critical to develop leaders who enhance trust and increase psychological safety through supportive and enriching relationships across the organization. The health care organization trained its leaders on how to identify and leverage strengths in their team members. After the initial training, the company ran an inaugural strengths challenge, in which all leaders used one of their strengths each day for 15 minutes and recorded the results. After the week-long challenge, leaders reported being more energized, motivated and better able to cope with stress.

Want to see how your leadership development stacks up? Use this checklist to see how you can create more positive leaders.

Does your leadership program develop leaders who can:

Positive Climate

  • Use policies and procedures to show people how to do things the right way, instead of telling them what not to do?
  • Facilitate discussions that help people identify and discuss the good things that happened?
  • Identify what the organization does well just as easily as they can identify opportunities for improvement?

Positive Meaning

  • Articulate how what they do on a daily basis contributes to the organization’s purpose and help their people do the same?
  • Proudly tell others how your organization benefits other people and society as a whole?
  • Coach their team members in a way that aligns each team member’s values to his or her performance?
  • Support meaning-making for challenging situations, helping their team make sense of events?
  • Create meaningful moments that matter throughout the day for themselves, team members and customers?
  • Share their energy and drive in pursuit of the organization’s purpose and help people see the bigger picture in times of stress?

Positive Communication

  • Have three to five positive interactions for every neutral or negative interaction?
  • Communicate in a way that allows individuals to savor their successes?
  • Give feedback in a way that builds trust and motivation for improvement?
  • Focus on the impact of poor behavior rather than on personal attributes?

Positive Relationships

  • Provide emotional and intellectual support for others?
  • Help their team members connect to each other and others in the organization?
  • Identify their team member’s strengths and find ways to maximize them?