Cultivating Positive Energy In Your Leadership Team

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How to focus on what truly matters

By Craig Phifer, PT, MHA

The color orange symbolizes many things: warmth, energy, enthusiasm, and even luck. Oranges are common food gifts for Chinese New Year because they are believed to bring good luck and happiness. While I do love a good orange, and I’ll take all the luck and happiness I can get, sometimes, I can be guilty of assuming the energy and happiness around us comes from luck. In fact, every time someone gives me the wonderful compliment — “The atmosphere in the office was amazing. Everyone was so kind and helpful!” — my canned response is, “Thank you! We’re lucky to have a really amazing team.”

It’s true. We do have a really amazing team, but getting there isn’t luck. The leaders on our team have worked hard to create a culture where fun-loving people with positive energy want to work. It wasn’t enough to say who we wanted to be or who we wanted to work with. We had to bring that same energy to our lives — and not even just at work. It had to be who we genuinely were, or it wouldn’t be sustainable. As leaders, there is good evidence that if we could demonstrate genuine positive organizational behavior, then our team would have higher levels of performance, job satisfaction, work happiness, and organizational commitment.1 If we could bring that positive energy to our lives, we would be able to attract others who had it or help them find it in theirs.

In search of our solution, and knowing that we are clinicians at heart, we decided to approach it as such. First, we would need to assess where we were. Then we needed to intervene in ways that brought us sustainable positive energy. The following strategies have worked for us:

ASSESSMENT

The first step is always awareness. We know that our energy affects our team. But do we know the specific behaviors that alter our team’s attitude, outlook, and engagement? Most of us don’t. We don’t naturally have the level of emotional intelligence required to fully understand how our energy is perceived by others. For example, have you ever had a terrible morning, gave yourself a pep talk on your commute, and put on your fake happy face at work, only for the first person you interact with to ask if you’re okay? You thought no one would notice all day, and it only took five minutes to be called out.

We don’t easily perceive the energy we put out. Here are two specific strategies you can use to determine how your energy is affecting your team:

1. Ask

This one is simple, just not easy. The asking is the easy part. Finding the right person to ask is hard. Every leader needs at least one veracious teammate; a person who is going to be completely honest with them, even when it isn’t what they want to hear. If you have that person, you already know who it is. If you don’t, then you need to help someone get there. The next time someone at work respectfully disagrees with you or tells you you’re wrong, thank them for it. Let them know that you appreciate someone holding you accountable to the high standards the whole team is shooting for.

2. Survey Your Team

If you haven’t yet developed the level of trust required for people to share tough feedback, then you can start with anonymity. Send out an anonymous survey with the following questions:

  • On a scale of 0-10, how likely would you be to recommend this as a place of employment to a friend or family member? (This is the employee version of the Net Promoter Score question. It also allows you to benchmark your company’s score with others.)
  • Why did you select that number?
  • On a scale of 0-10, with zero being an extremely negative impact and 10 being an extremely positive impact, how would you rate the impact of our leadership team’s attitude and energy on our culture?
  • Why did you select that number?

The combination of these questions will provide information as to how your team feels about your culture, how that feeling is impacted by the attitude and energy of the leaders, and why.

Completing either or both of these steps should give you an increased level of awareness, and that’s a good place to start. However, assessing our current position is only the start of a solution. We also need a plan for intervention.

INTERVENTION

We pick up on the emotions of others quickly. In fact, the time it takes us to pick up on someone’s emotional state isn’t even measured in seconds. It’s best measured in thousandths of a second.2 So, the first step in the intervention here is to know that you can’t fake it. If you want to display positivity and enthusiasm at work, you must be genuinely positive and enthusiastic. There are no shortcuts. So, the bad news is that it’s difficult to change. The good news is that this change will be worth it.

Clear the Clutter

“How you do anything is how you do everything.” This is a well-known quote that I disagree with vehemently. Not everything in your business requires your best effort or your highest level of attention. Start by dividing the functions of your business into two categories:

Transformational and Transactional

The transformational elements of your business are the things you need to be great at. They are the things that define you as a company. For many service-oriented companies, the quintessential transformational elements are creating a great culture and delivering a service people value. Every team member you have should care deeply about the transformational elements of your business.

The transactional elements of your business are items that still need to be done, but they don’t require your best energy or attention. You won’t (and shouldn’t) be great at them; you just can’t afford to be bad at them. Your goal should be to spend as little time doing, thinking, and worrying about the transactional parts of your business. Set up nudges and reminders — anything that makes these easier to accomplish. Some examples of transactional elements of therapy businesses are documentation and compliance. We need to document appropriately. We need to be compliant. However, being the very best in these two categories will do little to help our businesses achieve our goals.

Now that you have created clarity around the most important domains of your business, you know what is worth your time, attention, and even occasionally, your worry. And, more importantly, you know what isn’t. As Mark Manson states, “If you want to change how you see your problems, you have to change what you value and/or how you measure failure/success.”3 Often, you’ll find yourself less stressed by simply taking the time to clarify what it is you value and therefore, what is actually worth your stress.

Outsourcing

Until we find a way to completely outsource our stress, a good solution may be to outsource the parts of our lives and work that we dislike. In her book, Happy Money: The Science of Happier Spending, Dr. Elizabeth Dunn argues that we should outsource our dreaded tasks in order to focus on the ones we are passionate about. In her research, Dr. Dunn found that people who pay others to do tasks they dislike were significantly happier than those who used the same amounts of money to buy “stuff” instead. She states “In terms of our happiness, time is really the fundamental currency… By focusing less on money and more on time, it’s easier to use both resources in happier ways.”4

I know that physical therapists are stressed about climbing expenses and stagnant payment. However, it’s hard to think of a solution to your problems when your calendar is filled with unwanted tasks. Now that you have “cleared the clutter” and discovered the key functions of your company, you have the freedom to outsource tasks that are adding stress without adding value. This may mean that you can delegate to other members of your team or pay an outside entity to deal with these challenges for you. Either way, if we are genuinely seeking to improve the positive energy we are bringing to work, we need to let go of the things that are bringing us down. Only then can we build the kind of culture where we solve complex problems like rising costs and less-than-ideal insurance contracts together.

Ultimately, we can’t fake positive energy, and we can’t leave it up to luck either. The energy we bring to our teams matters, and it can be the difference in building a culture of positive teamwork and collaboration versus one of drama where more of your energy is spent putting out fires than solving bigger problems. Because we don’t know what challenges will come our way, but we do know that teams who are united are the most likely to solve them. 

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References:

1Youssef CM, Luthans F. Positive organizational behavior in the Workplace. J Manage. 2007;33(5):774-800. doi:10.1177/0149206307305562

2Edmondson A, Boyatzis R, De Smet A, Shaninger B. “Psychological Safety, Emotional Intelligence, and Leadership in a Time of Flux.” McKinsey & Company. July 2, 2020. Accessed May 25, 2023. https://www.mckinsey.com/featured-insights/leadership/psychological-safety-emotional-intelligence-and-leadership-in-a-time-of-flux.

3Manson M. The Subtle Art of Not Giving a ****: A Counterintuitive Approach to Living a Good Life. Macmillan. Pan Macmillan; 2017.

4Dunn E, Norton MI. Happy Money: The Science of Happier Spending. Simon & Schuster Paperbacks; 2014.


Craig Phifer, PT

Craig Phifer, PT, is an owner and the CEO of Rehabilitation & Performance Institute, a private practice with locations across Indiana, Illinois, and Kentucky. He can be reached on Twitter @CraigPhifer or at craigphifer@gmail.com.

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