Kim Cameron, professor and associate dean at the Center for Positive Organizational Scholarship from the University of Michigan, is doing great work. Not only did he develop the famous Competing Values Framework and the associated Organizational Culture Assessment Instrument, he’s also one of the go-to researchers on Positive Organizational Scholarship. Positive leadership and culture are based on the Positive Psychology research and they’re the heart of the Positive Culture Academy. Here’s an interview I did with Kim about his book, Practicing Positive Leadership. I hope this inspires you to develop a more positive workplace.

What’s an important added value of your book?

“Unless there is a scholarly foundation and research, things tend to be a fad. They come and go depending on what’s popular and hot. There are things that may be implemented but then again, fade quickly. One of the reasons is that there is no evidence that it really pays off. I feel that – at least from a University perspective – we need the foundation before the practice. It’s often the reverse – people try things without evidence on what really works. Our work at the Center for Positive Organizational Scholarship is to create the foundation and credibility and validity and then begin making practical applications.”

How come you are so interested in positive leadership?

“My interest in positive leadership began many years ago when I studied the phenomena of downsizing. What happens to organizations when they cut headcount and get smaller? One of the major outcomes of a decade of research was that almost all of the organizations that downsize 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 what I refer to as organizational virtuousness. They implemented practices and processes that you can label virtuous: forgiveness, compassion, gratitude, integrity and so on. I didn’t have data at the time but there was a major foundation sponsoring research on the topic of forgiveness so I applied for and obtained a grant.

That’s how I started on a big project on organizational forgiveness. 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? That’s not even a scholarly word. It reminds you of programs in high schools or grandmother’s advice.
I wondered: what is it that leaders need to practice virtuousness? For me, leadership and virtuousness go hand in hand. My first book Positive Leadership was short because leaders don’t have time to read for long. But it contained the research that could convince leaders that virtuousness pays off. I meant to say: “Hey leaders, here are a few principles that once implemented, your organization will do better.”

Is it possible 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.
In the business school, we have been very serious in putting those into our culture and it is part of the strategic direction. That makes it easier for the members to practice positive techniques: it has become legitimate and credible. Even though every staff member has to practice it themselves, the environment is supportive.”

Is it harder to be kind at work nowadays because people are so busy?

“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 who became interested in positive organizations ten years ago. One of her daughters was abused by the babysitter, which is a very traumatic experience. She has a joint appointment at the University in the psychology department and the 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. The conclusion was: this is not only an individual attribute but organizations can create a kind culture and enable virtuousness to flourish. That was the start of research of positive virtues at an organizational level.
The 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 readers can take away only one thing from your work, 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: 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.”

If you take this seriously, you might want to enroll in the Academy!

You can check the next Class and the Curriculum here.

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© Marcella Bremer, 2017. All rights reserved.

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