Accentuating the Positive to Improve Productivity

Published: Jan 24, 2019
Modified: Mar 24, 2020

By Carol Morrison

Strictly speaking, productivity is all about comparing inputs with outputs, for example, how many widgets Jane or Joe Employee (or their workgroup or their company or even their country) can crank out per hour of work.

Whatever the variables measured, though, productivity requires a catalyst to creatively leverage all the resources required to produce goods or services. The most valuable of those resources, of course, is people. And most often, that catalyst is leadership.

A Positive Influence
Several weeks ago, our TrendWatcher recounted the results of the Institute for Corporate Productivity's  recent survey on productivity. Among the highly productive companies participating in that poll, 76% said that, to a high or very high extent, leadership in their companies raises productivity. Respondents also spoke to the need for leaders to focus on engagement of their workforces if optimal productivity is to be achieved. But how can a leader do both—engage employees and raise productivity?

One answer is that leaders can model what we might call "optimism in action" by engaging in positive leadership. Such managers focus on positive factors, recognizing workers' strengths and encouraging them to capitalize on those strengths. In short, positive leaders try to set up circumstances within which employees can thrive.

Peter Drucker touched on this concept four decades ago in his book The Effective Executive (Fairhurst, 2008). The Gallup Organization has published extensively on the subject, especially in the wake of its work on employee engagement. And at this year's annual Institute for Corporate Productivity Membership Conference, presentations by Marshall Goldsmith and Kenny Moore included elements of positive leadership.

A study by Margaret Greenberg and Dana Arakawa examined the premise that enhanced engagement and performance occur when managers apply positive leadership techniques. The pair conducted a cross-sectional study of employees and managers in an information technology organization, finding that "positive leadership correlated with employee optimism, engagement, and project performance." While acknowledging the limited scope of their research, Greenberg and Arakawa documented that "teams are more engaged and productive when led by an optimistic manager," which speaks to "the importance of optimism in the workplace" (Greenberg and Arakawa 2006, p. 2).

The National Research Centre for the Working Environment in Denmark reached similar conclusions in 2008. Its report "Healthy at Work-Positive Factors in Working" featured the results of an extensive review of studies pertaining to workplace factors associated with "improved health and increased productivity." Leadership style was among the key elements found to influence employee well-being and productivity (Ballebye and Nielsen 2008).

Lessons for Leadership Development
Leadership development programs often focus on helping individuals hone specific competencies that organizations have identified as key to managing their particular challenges. Content also tends to center on the nuts-and-bolts skills that make up sound business acumen. But some experts suggest that leadership development should include a healthy dose of education on how to become a positive influence in the organization.

For instance, Greenberg and Arakawa (2006) looked for specific characteristics that identified positive, optimistic leaders. Such individuals, they found, manage by developing the strengths their employees bring to the workplace - in essence, accentuating the positive. In times of adversity, they evince good coping skills and focus on problem-solving. Finally, positive leaders provide "frequent recognition and encouragement."

"Positive people, positive interactions and positive work cultures produce positive results," argues Jon Gordon, author of The Energy Bus: 10 Rules to Fuel Your Work, Life and Team with Positive Energy.   He adds, "Positive companies aren't born. They are developed" (Gordon 2007). Gordon suggests that positive leaders must learn to emphasize open, organization-wide communication, and they must be able to rally workers around a shared vision of the company's future. In addition, interpersonal interactions by leaders must consistently be positive. Therein lies the basis of a development module on communication skills.

Marshall Goldsmith (2008) adds an eliminate-the-negative caveat, pointing out that "stopping negative behaviors and actions ... can be as critical as everything else we do put together" when it comes to building positive leaders and creating organizations that embody "a commitment to positive action." In other words, leadership development shouldn't overlook the need to help managers recognize and do away with any detrimental behaviors they bring to the workplace.

The positive leadership concept has influenced managers even in some of the most resolute of organizations. FBI chief learning officer James A. Trinka has developed an action plan "to achieve breakthrough improvement in employee productivity and leadership effectiveness" that includes such positive leadership elements as strength-based management, positive feedback and "effective interpersonal relations" (Trinka 2008).

While positive leadership isn't the single, magic-bullet answer to boosting productivity and enhancing employee engagement, it has many distinguished proponents and a growing body of research that speaks to the results it can achieve. But as Jon Gordon points out, "If positive energy is so important ... then why aren't more companies more positive?" The answer might be that not enough organizations have taught managers how to infuse their workplaces with positive energy.


  • Ballebye, M., and H. Nielsen (2008, March 10). Positive work factors can improve
    health and productivity. Retrieved from 
  • Davis, J. (2006). Powerful performances with positive psychology. Retrieved July 6, 2008 from
  • Fairhurst, P. (2008, June). Positive leadership. Training Journal, pp. 43–46.
  • Fine, L. (2008, May 19). Difference between success and failure. Retrieved from
  • Goldsmith, M. (2008, January). Stop in the name of leadership. Retrieved July 6, 2008 from
  • Gordon, J. (2007). The case for positive energy. Retrieved July 6, 2008 from
  • Greenberg, M., and D.  Arakawa (2006). Optimistic managers and their influence on productivity and employee engagement in a technology organization. Master of Applied Positive Psychology Capstone Project, University of Pennsylvania.
  • Institute for Corporate Productivity. (2008, May). Taking the pulse: Productivity/efficiency.
  • Rath, T. (2004, August 2). The impact of positive leadership. Gallup Management Journal.

About the Author(s)

Carol Morrison is with the Institute for Corporate Productivity.  For more information, visit