Optimizing Team Performance: The Power of the ‘Glass is Half-Full’ Perspective
Early in my career, some people held the belief that successful leaders were expected to have all the answers, emphasizing their intelligence as the defining trait. The prevailing notion was that an education at a top school would lead to top-tier positions, cultivating exemplary leadership. However, over time, this perception shifted. Most leaders now acknowledge that the leader, while important, isn’t the sole determinant of success. The true differentiator lies in the collective strength of their teams. But what makes these top-tier teams tick? Of all the qualities, passion, proactivity, and unwavering self-initiative shine the brightest.
But what happens when your team members let you down? All people have strengths and “non-strengths”. Not everyone can be everything you want them to be.
When considering your team members, do you tend to see their shortcomings and mistakes, fixating on what’s going wrong and what needs improvement? Or do you emphasize the positive attributes they bring to the team and acknowledge their achievements? The enduring debate of whether the glass is half empty or half full remains relevant, and as leaders, it’s imperative for us to grasp how to utilize this analogy to motivate and draw out the best from our teams.
The mindset of leaders profoundly influences how the entire team perceives their objectives, roles, responsibilities, and purpose within the organization. People act as we expect them to act. Therefore, cultivating a constructive and positive mindset is not just essential—it’s fundamental to shaping a thriving, motivated, and highly performing team.
Wouldn’t It Be Lovely? Joy from Confidence.
Anyone acquainted with the musical “My Fair Lady” is familiar with the tale of a man who transforms a lower-class woman named Eliza Doolittle into a polished lady through his belief in her capacity for change. While this narrative is based on George Bernard Shaw’s play and delves into themes of class, language, and societal transformation, it also contains elements that pertain to leadership styles.
Named after the character Pygmalion in Shaw’s play, American psychologists Robert Rosenthal and Lenore Jacobson published the results of a study later known as the Pygmalion Effect. The phenomenon asserts that one’s expectations about a person may become a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Simply put, the greater the expectation placed upon a person, the better they perform and vice-versa. This implies that people typically live up – or down – to the expectations and labels assigned to them.
As a leader, you wield significant influence over your team members. Your beliefs about your employees, conscious or unconscious, frequently manifest in how you interact with them. If you treat them as incompetent or don’t trust them to do the job right, that’s likely what you’ll get from them.
Do people really want to work? The influence on outcomes lies in your approach.
In the 1950’s and 60’ Douglas McGregor described a contrasting set of assumptions that managers hold regarding their employees that he called Theory X and Theory Y. Theory X (authoritarian) assumes that some employees are inherently lazy, unmotivated, and prefer to be directed. It calls on the leader to be proactive/closely supervise employee’s efforts. On the other hand, Theory Y (participative) assumes subordinates are self-motivated, innovative, committed to their work, and seek responsibility. As such, leaders respond with a trusting, participative management style.
Later, researchers wanted to see the impact of authoritarian leaders on participative employees. However, these researchers ran into a problem. They could not find Theory X managers with participatory employees or leaders with Theory Y expectations with employees who functioned in a Theory X manner.. The leaders got what they expected from their employees. Regardless of an employee’s orientation (autocratic or participative) when they started, they eventually adopted the behavior their manager expected of them – or left the department or organization.
While leaders want engaged and committed employees (Theory Y), they too often lead using a Theory X approach, causing a disconnect that can demotivate employees.
One of the primary reasons expectations wield such a potent influence on outcomes lies in the interplay between beliefs, behavior, and results. What we believe strongly influences our actions, and these actions, in turn, shape the outcomes. Consequently, it becomes imperative for leaders to foster an attitude of trust and abundance rather than adopting a perspective of scarcity or incompetence when it comes to leading if they are genuinely dedicated to unlocking their team’s full potential.
How Can Leaders Cultivate a “Half-Full” Attitude Towards Their Team Members?
It probably comes to no surprise that positivity lies at the heart of positive psychology. However, it’s important to note that positivity extends beyond mere smiles and cheerfulness. It’s fundamentally about one’s broader outlook on life and an inclination to emphasize the positive aspects of it. But how to do you, as a leader, apply a “glass is half full” approach to management? Here’s what I recommend:
- Check assumptions: What assumptions are you making about your team members? Are they Theory X or Theory Y assumptions? Most people don’t intentionally aim for poor results or to disrupt their colleagues. Come to the table with the belief that team members find satisfaction in their work and take pride in delivering their best. Separate the outcome from the intent to foster a more optimistic perspective as a leader.
- Ask, “What else could be true?”: This is one of my favorite questions. When you start thinking, “He really isn’t committed to this project.” Or “She is only doing that to irritate me.” Stop and ask yourself, “What else could be true?” Adopt an open and curious mindset to seek alternative explanations for others’ behavior.
- Prime the mind for success: Develop the habit of priming the mind for success by thinking about everything the team is doing right. Before going into a meeting, or better yet, at the beginning of each day and several times throughout the day, think about everything your team is doing well. Focus on the strengths of your employees and what you appreciate about each team member. Try this approach before having a difficult conversation with an employee. Even if you do not specifically detail for the employee what you see as their strengths during the conversation, priming your mind with this information before the conversation will have a positive impact.
- The Gap and the Gain Perspective: Dan Sullivan’s book, “The Gap and the Gain.“ provides a valuable lesson for leaders aiming to cultivate a “half-full” attitude toward their team members. He discusses the idea that, often, individuals set ambitious goals and then gauge their progress by measuring the remaining distance to those objectives, creating a perpetual sense of unfulfillment.
Instead, Sullivan encourages us to measure our progress by looking backward – to reflect on how far the team has come instead of fixating on how distant the goal might be. This concept applies to my hiking experiences in Colorado. The peak never seemed to get any closer. . However, when I turned around and looked back, the distance I had covered was evident. This highlights the importance of appreciating the journey and celebrating the progress made – not just fixating on the destination.
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