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Interview: Kim Cameron on Positive Leadership Research

  • 05 November 2013
  • Posted by Marcella Bremer

“The duty of a leader is to help create a virtuous, kind organization”

Kim Cameron, professor and associate dean at the Center for Positive Organizational Scholarship from the University of Michigan, just published a new book: Practicing Positive Leadership. Time for an interview.

The full version of the interview and more on change and leadership is published on the Leadership & Change Magazine Blog

You’ve been interested in organizational effectiveness and developed the Competing Values Framework. From where originates your interest in positive leadership?

“My interest in positive leadership began when I studied the phenomena of downsizing. What happens to organizations when they cut headcount? One of the major outcomes of a decade of research is that almost all of the downsizing organizations deteriorate in performance. Instead of getting better, they get worse. This happens for several reasons; conflict goes up, moral and innovation go down, loss of trust etc. But 10-15% of organizations tend to flourish after downsizing! The question was: what was the difference between those who flourished and those who deteriorated?

The difference was: organizational virtuousness. They implemented practices and processes that you can label virtuous: forgiveness, compassion, gratitude, integrity and so on.

From my research on downsizing I knew that organizations that flourished in spite of everything, were more optimistic looking at the future. They forgave the pain that was inflicted through the downsizing - instead of holding grudges and dwelling on the pain. That started the research on organizational virtuousness. The evidence over the last 10 years is clear: if you implement virtuousness in organizations, performance goes up, customer satisfaction goes up, everything gets better.

But how do you get an organization to implement or even take seriously the notion of virtuousness?

My first book Positive Leadership contained the research that could convince leaders that virtuousness pays off.”

Is it possible for you, in your position as an associate dean, to practice the techniques of positive leadership in a university setting?

“I try to do that consistently. I would not say that I’m very good at it, but I try as best I can to put it into practice. What is interesting is that our Ross School of Business has identified four pillars for our work and those values drive our behaviors. One of those is “positive”. Making a positive difference in the world, having a positive organization, developing positive attributes.”

Is it harder to be kind at work nowadays because people are busy and experienced the economic recession and may be scared?

“I think the environment creates more stress and pressure, and there’s more impatience, criticism, and cynicism. Certainly, at this moment the USA is rife with conflict, criticism, and negativity. On the other hand, we study organizations because we have seen that it is possible to create organizations that foster positive virtuousness

I’ll tell you the example of my colleague. One of her daughters was abused by the babysitter, a very traumatic experience. She has a joint appointment in the psychology department and our business school. Her psychology coworkers are wonderful people, but they reacted: “Yeah, bad things happen, better get over it.” Her business school colleagues were very sensitive, empathetic and compassionate. Her conclusion was: this is not only an individual attribute but organizations can create a kind culture and enable virtuousness to flourish. That started the research of positive virtues at an organizational level.

The job and duty of a leader is to help create an organization where it is easy to be supportive and to practice virtuousness, compassion and kindness. Where it is legitimate and natural to even love one another. When that happens, the data is very clear: organizational performance goes up.”

If leaders read your new book, and they can take away only one thing, what would you like that to be?

“It might be the message: Take This Seriously. It’s often interpreted as touchy-feely and other negative labels: funny school material and airport bookstore advice. If you look on Amazon, there are 110.000 books on leadership! We don’t need one more... Why did I write this book? To show there is evidence that if you practice these principles, organizations are better off and so are the people that populate organizations. They flourish and you get outcomes you could not have achieved otherwise. So, take this seriously to improve and make a difference.”

Practicing Positive Leadership

“Positive leadership is much too rare because people tend to focus on the negative. Organizations are usually in the business of solving problems,” states Cameron in the book. The added value for me was in the sound research presented, to convince skeptical managers who feared the “touchy-feely, happy hippie stuff”.

Positive Leadership contains four key strategies to create extraordinary performance in organizations: create a positive climate, positive relationships, communication and positive meaning. This new Practice book offers five specific positive practices to help leaders implement those four strategies. Though the book is founded on research, the tendency is more pragmatic. What can you do? What tools and techniques have proven positive outcomes?

This book explores how to create a culture of abundance, how to develop positive energy networks, how to deliver negative feedback positively, how to establish and achieve “everest goals” and how to apply positive leadership based on the Competing Values Framework.

By Marcella Bremer

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