The organization I lead has a small team — just nine of us tackling multiple major initiatives each year. It is imperative that we act as a cohesive group, working collaboratively and supportively to address our shared goals. I have always believed that a positive work environment is a crucial element of any high-functioning team, and after the societal upheavals of the last few years, that view has become a fundamental tenet of how we operate.
To achieve these goals in the workplace, team members must be attuned to the emotions of others. Being genuinely empathic means paying attention so we can understand how others are feeling and reacting. In an era of never-ending Zoom calls, multitasking and abundant worries, maintaining a focus on being present can be challenging. It requires each of us to practice self-care, mind-calming exercises and restorative activities so we bring our best selves to our teams.
I recently completed an impactful executive education program on women’s leadership. A meaningful thread of the experience focused on positive messaging to empower team members so they can generate ideas and deliver strong performances. Key themes included how leaders interact with team members to create psychological safety and how annual reviews can be planned to enhance strengths.
Amy Edmondson, Harvard Business School professor and author of “The Fearless Organization: Creating Psychological Safety in the Workplace for Learning, Innovation, and Growth” (2018), promotes the importance of a psychologically safe workplace for talented workers to contribute at their optimal levels. Edmondson believes that organizational leadership should respond to team members with encouragement, attentiveness and respect, noting that “ … for jobs where learning or collaboration is required for success, fear is not an effective motivator.” This mode of positive leadership is grounded in practices that prioritize organizational values, humility, kindness and a sense of balance.
The oft-dreaded annual review process can be used to foster positive energy. This is not to say that we should gloss over weaknesses, but rather we should emphasize strengths so employees can unleash their energy on augmenting strengths and achieving new heights in their professional and personal lives.
An example of a review process that fosters positive reflection is the Reflected Best Self exercise. Prior to starting the program, our class of women leaders solicited a dozen or so responses from family, friends and colleagues that included three stories of instances when they observed us at our best. We all eagerly devoured the feedback and then distilled themes that captured the essence of our best selves.
Among my themes were courage, collaboration, resilience and empathy. It was an uplifting exchange, and I have found myself doubling down on these characteristics as I navigate my professional life and goals.
Through positive leadership practices, employees feel seen, heard and valued so they are motivated and better able to approach their work in an energized and enthusiastic state of mind. Team members perform best when they feel encouraged, happy and safe in the workplace.
Deborah D. Hoover is president and CEO of The Burton D. Morgan Foundation