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Five Practices of Positive Impact Leaders

written by Giselle Nicholson 19 March 2014
Holding our world

Giselle Nicholson Timmerman, MAPP '06, has over nine years of experience working as a strategy consultant and leadership coach in the Americas, Europe, and Middle East. Giselle has pioneered the application of positive psychology to strategy, leadership, and organizations. She has seen the field develop firsthand and is fortunate to collaborate with the very best practitioners in the world via her collaborative consultant network, Positive Work. Giselle serves as President-elect of the Work Division for the International Positive Psychology Association. Full bio. Giselle's articles are here.

Editor’s note: For more on this topic, listen to Giselle’s session in the virtual conference to run all day on March 20 in honor of International Happiness Day. Click here to find out more and register. The conference starts at midnight GMT on March 20. It is free during International Happiness Day. Recordings are available for a modest price after the day.

Organizational culture, often described as “the way we do things around here,” is a management challenge begging for positive intervention. Yet it is an asset often taken for granted by traditional companies that believe it is hard to define, measure, and manage proactively. Those companies have it wrong. Investing in culture provides returns in competitive advantage, employee satisfaction, improved distribution of information, clearer communication, nimbler implementation, and more.

Even though more and more leaders paying attention to culture’s strength, I’ve found that most informational resources focus on “why” culture is important and “what” good culture looks like, instead of “how” to go about changing it. The most immediately powerful step towards cultural change is for leaders to change their own behaviors because positive leadership habits build and reinforce a positive culture.

So if you are like the 96% of executives who say some change in their culture is needed, read on for some insight into the five behavioral practices I believe leaders must demonstrate in order to positively impact culture.

Practice 1: Commit to a Higher Purpose

“Get 80% of the world’s population connected to the Internet.” This statement led Mark Zuckerberg’s keynote speech at the Mobile World Congress just a few weeks ago. He did not talk about signing up more Facebook users or acquiring new apps; he spoke about vision, meaning, and purpose. Positive leaders have clarity of purpose, They understand the deep needs of their stakeholders and are able to articulate, believe in, and live a clear purpose or vision. Then they communicate it over and over. This is precisely why the CEO must be a culture-builder.

Robert Quinn teaches that commitment to a higher purpose helps us move forward through fear or conflict when we are in a place of uncertainty or challenge. Purpose requires us to take the long-term, strategic view. When we do this not only does organizational culture and society benefit, but it also helps employees to survive the everyday ups and downs. Any hiring manager will tell you that one of the highest priorities among young job candidates is their desire to work for organizations that pay attention to social responsibility, in other words, a higher purpose other than just profits.

Next time you introduce a new project or change initiative, ask yourself: “What really drives this employee? How can I tap into what they believe are their most meaningful contributions and connect those to the task at hand?”

Practice 2: Build Trust

Think about a manager you loved working for or a meaningful relationship outside of work. What made that relationship work? What encouraged you to deliver your best for that person? Most would say, Trust. Positive leaders build collaborative trust within their networks.

I emphasize ‘collaborative’ because trust develops from the joint experience of working together, which requires collaboration and dialogue. When trust is high we are more likely to develop positive, implicit ways of working with others.

Working well with others and building trust requires that leaders recognize everyone is human. It is about respecting who people are before they enter the office door and the unique talents they bring to work. Managers that structure a coaching relationship with their team typically encourage ongoing conversations about performance and intentionally ask questions that support trust building.

Ask yourself questions such as: “Am I reliable and consistent in making sure my deeds follow my words? Do I genuinely demonstrate compassion for my colleagues? What kind of listener am I?”

Practice 3: Be driven by strengths and values

This one should be obvious to regular PPND readers: leaders that positively impact culture are driven by strengths and values. Positive leaders deliberately define and live their values, strengths, and passions, and they understand that the same needs to be done at the organizational level. These leaders are often described as authentic and with strong character because they appreciate how their inner experiences and personal history drive who they are at work, and they understand this is also true of their coworkers. They also know how to build their immediate team in a way that mobilizes everyone’s greatest strengths to achieve sustainable success. Positive leaders remind themselves they are only one person and that every success is the result of teamwork.

Ask yourself: “What can I do on a more consistent basis to make sure my values are expressed and lived? What do I want to be remembered for? Would employees say they are able to live our company’s values?”

Practice 4: Focus on the Humans, Not Just the Job

As my friend and MAPP classmate Sulynn Choong says, “Positive leaders focus on the human being too, not just the job. They know that if the human being isn’t happy that nothing good gets done…and they are open to accepting that they themselves are part of the [cultural] change.”

Leaders that do this practice emotionally intelligent communication to develop self-awareness of how they affect others and to build meaningful relationships. Emotional intelligence research tells us that a wide range of EI competencies distinguish top performers from average ones, including self-awareness, empathy, judgment, and resilience. These leaders “create climates in which information sharing, trust, healthy risk-taking, and learning flourish.”

This practice contributes to a leader’s ability to be a positive energizer, modeling and building positive energy networks and connections with others. They are able to appeal to people’s rational and emotional sides. (Most often there is a rational business case for culture change and formal ways to go about it, but this case needs to be combined with emotional appeals at more personal levels.) This kind of communication relies on strong empathic and active listening skills, as well as the ability to leverage the power of culture with storytelling. Every company I know of with a strong culture has pivotal stories that explain how they got to where they are today.

Ask yourself: “What stories illustrate my/our values in action (personal or organizational) that are a natural way to reinforce our desired culture? How can I improve the way in which I communicate to others to improve understanding, inspire confidence, and direct action?”

Practice 5: Personify a Growth Mindset

Finally, positive impact leaders personify a growth mindset, fueled by dogged commitment. These leaders believe their own abilities expand over time, so they are more likely to persist in the face of difficulty. Having a growth mindset is about demonstrating humility and willingness to learn, grow, and stretch rather than trying to prove expertise and knowledge. These leaders do not shirk responsibility or applaud passive progress; they are committed to moving towards goals in a way that is learning and results-oriented. This is strongly linked to having sharp clarity of purpose and using a collaborative approach to achieving long-term goals. You can bet this practice comes in handy for situations that demand courage and guts!

It’s easy when surrounded by intelligent coworkers to feel the need to display feathers, but much more productive to creating a positive work climate when leaders demonstrate curiosity instead.

Rather than thinking, “What can I teach? How can I prove myself here?”, ask yourself: “What can I learn from this situation? What other perspectives are possible?”

In Sum

In sum, culture formation is an ongoing, deliberate practice that starts with top-level leadership. There are no shortcuts and contrary to popular belief it takes rigorous effort. I encourage you to regularly measure the health of your organization’s culture to best understand how to leverage culture to drive and sustain change.

Check out my video in the International Happiness Day virtual conference on the March 20th for more information and to hear me talk with three leaders who are living these practices: Sulynn Choong in Malaysia, Lisa Watson from Downtown Women’s Center, and Caryn Bosson from TreePeople. I would love to hear from you – what personal habits or organizational practices do you believe best support building a flourishing culture?


Bradberry, T. & Greaves, J. (2009). Emotional Intelligence 2.0 TalentSmart.

Cameron, K. (2008). Positive leadership: Strategies for extraordinary performance. San Francisco: Berrett-Kohler.

Cross, R., & Parker, A. (2004). The Hidden Power of Social Networks: Understanding How Work Really Gets Done in Organizations. Harvard Business School Publishing.

Dawes, S. (2003). The Role of Trust in New Models of Collaboration, University at Albany.

Dweck, C. (2007). Mindset: The New Psychology of Success. New York: Ballantine Books.

Goleman, D. (1998). Working with Emotional Intelligence. Bantam Dell.

Goleman, D. E., Boyatzis, R., & McKee, A.. (2001, December). Primal Leadership: The Hidden Driver of Great Performance. Harvard Business Review.

Mishra, A. & Mishra, K. (2008). Trust is Everything: Become the Leader Others will Follow.

Nunn, M. (2011, Dec. 20). Millennials to business: Social responsibility isn’t optional. The Washington Post.

Quinn, R. (2004). Building the bridge as you walk on it: A guide for leading change. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Quinn, R. E. (2005). Moments of Greatness: Entering the Fundamental State of Leadership. Harvard Business Review.

Photo Credit: Most via Compfight with Creative Commons licenses

Holding the world courtesy of Entrer dans le rêve
Upward spiral courtesy of hugovk
Sulynn Choong courtesy of Jon and Sue Hacking
Looking up courtesy of Rudolf Getel

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Jonathan Beck MD, MPH 19 March 2014 - 1:35 pm

Great article on what should be a no-brainer by now. Talk about concerns for adequate ROI! Consider time spent trying to get past the invisible wall of resistance that so many C-levels at the top have against the notion of investing in employee happiness and wellbeing. These are smart people–there’s no way they aren’t capable of understanding clear, proven principles of performance, as so well articulated by Giselle here. I honestly wonder if unconsciously this is still seen as too much of a “perk”, and therefore intuitively seems like an irresponsible investment to a CEO or HR management whose job necessarily includes prioritizing the company bottom-line.

Happiness and wellbeing is what we live for. That’s it. Everything else is a pathway attempting to achieve and sustain those qualities of life–not just build for having happiness and wellbeing in the future, perhaps after retiring, but now, today. All forms of performance challenge, especially high-demand performance challenge, entail the same fundamental, essential components. This is true whether it’s an elite athlete, patients trying to get through 10 months of chemotherapy, special ops professionals, neurosurgeons, or corporate executives. All are performance challenges but just with varying characteristics–same human dynamics for all, though.

For any sustained high performance, one of the fundamental, essential components is having a sense of wellbeing: good health, good relationships, life balance, and happiness. The high-performance individual requires a sense of wellbeing cultivated and sustained at a level commensurate with the performance level required of that individual. Where there are deficits in any of these components–including happiness and wellbeing–any performance, no matter how good it may be going, could be going better and, all other factors being equal, will sustain longer.

Thomas Muha 20 March 2014 - 9:24 am

I really like the ideas you present regarding how to create a more positive culture. I’d like to know the reference for the research that found 96% of leaders think the culture in their organization could be improved. I’m hoping there are more details about what leaders would like to see improved. Thanks.

Giselle Nicholson 20 March 2014 - 12:57 pm

Hi Thomas,

Glad you enjoyed it! Good question, I need to update the footnotes. That statistic is from Booz & Co’s 2013 Culture & Change Management Survey. There are many more details about what executives believe could be improved — for instance, 60% of the 2000+ surveyed think culture is more important than their strategy or operating model! Also provides perspective on who people believe should be responsible for culture change.

The report, summaries, and info graphics can be found here: http://strategyand.pwc.com/global/home/what_we_do/services/ocl/culture-and-change

Thanks for reading,

Giselle Nicholson 20 March 2014 - 1:07 pm

Hi Jonathan,

Great, thoughtful comments! In many ways I believe culture is a barometer of organizational wellbeing. Even management consultants or thought leaders that “get it” still often neglect that wellbeing is core to sustained, high-performance. Sure, you can identify the behaviors that drive performance and positive culture change, but if you neglect to factor the person into the mix (all components of their wellbeing, strengths, and motivations), you simply will never have a flourishing culture.

Thanks again for taking the time to share your POV!


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