Enabling Positive Relationships in Business Settings

Fostering the formation of positive relationships in organizations is a topic that has been well examined. For example, a search for the phrase “relationships at work” on Amazon.com results in approximately 100,000 books. Forming close friendships at work, it has been found, tends to enhance and increase productivity and performance (Buckingham & Clifton, 2001; Dutton, 2003; Lawler, 2003). Research by John and Shah (1997), for example, found that friendship groups (people in positive social relationships) significantly outperformed acquaintance groups on both decision-making and motor tasks.

A large number of activities exist for fostering positive relationships at work (e.g., Dutton & Ragins, 2007), so the discussion that follows highlights some less common but very potent ones. Two especially important activities that have emerged from research on positively deviant performance include building positive-energy networks and reinforcing individuals’ strengths.

Positive-energy networks

Research by Baker, Cross and Wooten (2003) discovered that individuals can be identified as “positive energizers” or “negative energizers,” and that the difference has important implications. Positive energizers create and support vitality in others. They uplift and boost people. Interacting with positive energizers leaves others feeling elevated and motivated. Positive energizers have been found to be optimistic, heedful, trustworthy and unselfish. Interacting with them builds energy in people and is an inspiring experience.

In contrast, negative energizers deplete the good feelings and enthusiasm of others. They sap strength from and weaken people. They leave others feeling exhausted and diminished. Negative energizers have been found to be critical, inflexible, selfish, and undependable (Baker, Cross & Parker, 2003).

Most importantly, positive energizing is a learned behavior. It is not a personality attribute, inherent charisma or physical attractiveness. The correlation between positive energy and the personality factor extraversion/introversion, for example is low and statistically insignificant (Baker, Cross & Parker, 2003).Positive energy is not a matter of merely being gregarious or outgoing. People learn how to become positive energizers. It is not an inherent attribute.

Positive energizers benefit their organizations not only by performing better themselves but also by enabling others to perform better. For example, in studies of network maps in organizations comparing people’s position in in information networks (i.e., who obtains information from whom), influence networks (i.e., who influences whom), and positive energy networks (i.e., who energizes whom) revealed that a person’s position in the energy network is far more predictive of success than her or his position in information or influence networks (Baker, 2004). Being a positive energizer made individuals four times more likely to succeed than being at the center of an information or influence network.

Moreover, this success was conveyed to those interacting with the energizer (Baker, Cross & Wooten, 2003). Positive energizers helped others become better energizers. Baker (2004) found, in fact, that high-performing organizations have three times more positive energizers than average organizations. This is understandable inasmuch as the strength of the interpersonal relationships that are formed, the coordination and collaboration that occur among individuals, and the efficiency of the work that is done all are positively affected by individuals who exude positive energy (Baker, Cross & Parker, 2003).

Leaders affect interpersonal relationships in their organizations by facilitating positive energy–both by modeling positive energy themselves and by diagnosing and building positive-energy networks among others. Because interacting with a positive energizer is attractive (Baker & Dutton, 2007), positive relationships are more frequently formed. Leaders may not only radiate positive energy themselves, but they can identify the positive energizers with whom they work and recognize, reward and support them. Because positive energizers affect the performance of others, positive energizers can be placed in tasks and roles that allow others to interact with them, for example, thus enhancing the performance of a broadened field of employees. They can be asked to coach or mentor others, and they can be selected to lead organizational change initiatives.

On the other hand, leaders often encounter individuals who are critical, cynical and constantly disparaging, and who act as “black holes,” destroying the good feelings and positive energy in others around them. How do positive leaders manage negative energizers, especially those who are essential to the organization for reasons of talent or experience (e.g., a highly skilled specialist who, nevertheless, serves as a “black hole” in the organization)? These people may best be approached using four sequential steps.

The first step is to provide direct, honest and supportive feedback regarding the negative behaviors being demonstrated and the effects they are having on the organization. Most people will respond to authentic feedback that is meant to be helpful to them and to the organization. When people believe that someone cares, that someone will listen, and that there is an acceptable alternative available, the feedback they receive is usual sufficient to change behavior (Cameron, 2011).

If this step is ineffective, a second step is to provide development for the person. Often, negative energizers simply are unaware of substitute behavioral and emotional alternatives. They know no other way to respond. Coaching, mentoring, and training often prove effective in broadening the behavioral or response repertoire.

Third, if development does not work, place the individual in a noncentral position or role that minimizes the energy-depleting effects on others. This emplies making the person peripheral or removing the opportunity for the negative energizer to have a negative impact on others. Provide an opportunity or a place for the person to succeed individually without affecting others in a negative way.

If none of these steps work—and this is a rare occurrence–the person may need to be given a chance to flourish elsewhere. Flourishing elsewhere means just that–helping the individual find a place where he or she can succeed. It does not mean merely firing someone and abandoning personal concern. Since neither the person nor the organization is flourishing in the current situation, help the person find another alternative. This fourth alternative should not be the first one selected, of course, but it should follow ffeedback and coaching on how to add positive energy to the system.

Not everyone is a positive energizer for everyone else, of course, and an individual may positively energize certain people but not others. Hence, conducting a diagnosis of the positive-energy network in an organization helps identify positive energy hubs, black holes, and peripheral members who may need development.

This diagnosis can be done in a comprehensive and rigorous way by formal network analysis (Baker, 2000). This is accomplished by having all employees in a unit rate all the other employees on a one-to-seven scalewith one representing “very de-energizing” and seven representing “very energizing.” The data are submitted to a statistical program that produces a network map–similar to an airline magazine route map–showing the positive and negative energy connections in the organization. The map identifies those who positively energize the most people (“hubs” in the map), those who tend to de-energize people, and those on the periphery.

A more simplistic, but still useful, diagnostis is to ask employees to write down the names of the two, three, or four most energizing people in their organization. The results are tabulated so that the most frequently named individuals are identified–the positive energizers–as well as the names of individuals mentioned less frequently who can be monitored and developed. Positive energizers, for example, may be assigned to coach less energizing people. Task forces containing both high energizers and those with less positive energy could be formed to enhance and increase the positive energy of the group. And, recognition can be provided to positive energizers for the contributions their energy provides.


A second opportunity for leaders to promote positive relationships lies in reinforcing individual and organizational strengths. Identifying and building on people’s strengths can produce greater benefit than finding and correcting their weaknesses (Buckingham & Clifton, 2001; Clifton & Harter, 2003; Seligman, 2002). For example, studies have show that managers who spent more time with their strongest performers, as compared to spending it with their weakest performers, achieved double the productivity in their units. In organizations where workers have a chance each day to do what they do best or to demonstrate their strengths, productivity is one and a half times greater than in the typical organization (Clifton & Harter, 2003).

One reason for this difference in performance lies in the way that people learn. Individuals learn more readily and more completely from positive demonstrations than from negative demonstrations (Bruner & Goodnow, 1956). In other words telling people what not to do is less helpful than identifying what they should do. People given negative examples (i.e., told what to fix or to avoid repeating) are much more likely to do exactly what they were told not to do, simply because that is the picture in their minds.

For example, if someone says to you, “Do not think of a white bear,” the first thing you think of is a white bear, a phenomenon called the “ideomotor reflex” (Bargh & Chartrand, 1999). That is, thinking of an action makes people much more likely to engage in that action, regardless of whether or not they were thinking about doing it beforehand. Consequently, leaders who want to foster positive relationships emphasize strengths, small victories, and positive imagery with organization members as opposed to errors, mistakes, or problematic behaviors.

To illustrate this point, what if you were given a choice to either change or die? What if a well-informed authority figure told you that you had to make difficult and enduring changes in your behavior, and if you did not, your life would end soon? Would you change if it really mattered? What is the probability that people really change in these conditions?

The answer is that only one in nine people change. In studies of coronary artery bypass surgery patients who were living unhealthy lifestyles, almost 90 percent chose not to change their lifestyles after two years, even when threatened with death. However, when people were given a positive target for change (for example, we want to help you witness your daughter’s wedding next summer, rather than “change or die”), 60 percent changed (Deutschman, 2005). Moving toward a positive target (or a strength) is much more effective than moving away from a negative target (or a weakness).

The impact of leaders who reinforce strengths among those with whom they work can be illustrated by a study of the performance of bowlers. In an experimental condition, people were videotaped as they bowled three games. Half of the bowlers were then shown videotapes of their spares or strikes, whereas the other half of the bowlers were shown viedeotapes of frames when they did not knock down all the pins. After a period of practice, using the videotapes as sources of feedback for change, statistically significant differences were found between the two groups. Those who watched themselves succeed (i.e., making strikes or spares) had improved significantly more than those who watched themselves in a nonsuccess condition (Kirschenbaum, 1984). That is, people tend to learn from and model positive imagery more effectively and efficiently than [when] they follow negative imagery.

Leaders who enable positive deviance, therefore, emphasize successes, build on strengths, and celebrate the positive much more than spending time correcting the negative. They begin interactions and meetings with a celebration of what is going right. They role-model positive energy. They provide opportunities for other positive energizers to infuse members with their enthusiasm. They highlight positive images more than problematic images. Simply stated, they focus on strengths and encourage others to do so as well, thereby enabling the development of positive relationships.

An example of the effectiveness of positive relationships in achieving extraordinary success is illustrated by a quotation from a leader at the Rocky Flats Nuclear Arsenal three years before the project was completed (Cameron & Lavine, 2007: 165, 170, 181).

      It took years to change the attitude of the workforce. We got workers on board by listening to them, and unleashing their energy to do good work. The climate changed to one of working together. . . . That was the shift that really allowed us to make progress. It isn’t much more magical than people sitting down together and actually solving problems together. . . . I said the very first I arrived at Rocky Flats: “This is the best team I’ve ever worked with,” and I say that today. It is the best team I’ve ever worked with. . . . I think we have the best of the industry right now.


The importance of enabling positive relationships in organizations is not news, but the impact of such relationships on multiple factors–including people’s emotional and physiological health, life expectancy, and positively deviant performance in teams and organizations–is often unrecognized and worth reinforcing. Relationships that help people contribute to the benefit of others, rather than merely receive support from them, are the most valuable. Fostering positive energy in the organization and effectively managing positive energizers are also important elements in enabling these kinds of relationships. Helping individuals and organizations to become aware and capitalize on their strengths has also been found to predict positively deviant performance.

Kim Cameron is William Russell Kelly Professor of Management and Organizations in the Ross School of Business and Professor of Higher Education in the School of Education at the University of Michigan.  He currently serves as Associate Dean of Executive Education in the Ross School.  His current research focuses on virtuousness in and of organizations–such as forgiveness, gratitude, kindness, and compassion–and their relationship to performance.


Excerpted with permission from Positive Leadership: Strategies for Extraordinary Performance by Kim Cameron ©2012 by Kim Cameron, Berrett-Koehler Publishers, Inc. (www.bkconnection.com).

Positive Leadership is available at www.bkconnection.com and www.amazon.com.

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