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Faculty Viewpoints

The Power of Positively Energizing Leadership

Researchers have found that certain people make everyone around them more productive, writes Yale SOM’s Emma Seppälä. In an excerpt from her new book, she explains how to become a colleague with “positive relational energy.”

Etelle Higonnet (Yale College Class of 2000) is a human rights lawyer and environmental activist. She can be found doing investigations on deforestation and child labor in the jungles and forests of Africa and South America, often risking losing her life, as nearly happened on a mission in an African country where she was working to stop a rubber company from illegally cutting down trees.

As Etelle was about to leave for the airport, which was three hours away, her driver mysteriously disappeared. The local officials suspiciously insisted she set off for the airport with two threatening-looking, muscle-strapped strangers in military apparel. The safety concerns were obvious: The rubber company Etelle was investigating for illegal deforestation had built close financial ties with the country’s leaders. Her activism was a potential threat to the kickbacks the leaders were receiving. Still, she had no other choice than to get into that car. In those three momentous hours in the car with her would-be hitmen, Etelle worked a miracle. She connected with her handlers in such a way that they not only safely escorted her to the airport, but also shared their snacks with her and—get this—even held up a little sheet to give her privacy while she relieved herself by the side of the road.

When they safely dropped her at the airport, Etelle received confirmation that they had been ordered to kill her. They warned her that she was not safe in their country and that she shouldn’t ever come back, but that, if she did anyway, she should travel over a land border and under their protection. And that she should stay with them.

The cover of the book Sovereign

How did Etelle turn her hitmen into protectors?

She didn’t threaten them, seduce them, or pay them. She didn’t need to. Because Etelle has something much more powerful than that: positive relational energy.

Kim Cameron at the University of Michigan’s Ross School of Business, together with his colleagues, discovered the fascinating science of relational energy while studying organizations. He noticed that among these large networks of people, certain subgroups stood out as anomalous. They had significantly higher levels of productivity than other groups at the company. Not just a little higher; much higher. What was going on here?

Looking further into the data, you see that one person at the center of this subgroup is causing the effect. And—though it didn’t sound scientific—the best way researchers found to describe this person was that they had contagious positive energy.

Others, on the other hand, had the opposite effect. They were de-energizing. Being around them made people feel less motivated, less enthusiastic, and less alive.

Thinking back on your own life, you’ve probably experienced that some friendships and work relationships are draining while others are enlivening.

You can turn around failing companies by training previously de-energizing leaders to become positive energizers. And that means we can learn it too. Because it is both extraordinary and absolutely ordinary.

The 6 Keys of Positive Relational Energy

Positive energizers relate to others in such a way that they are a catalyst for those around them to get in touch with and reach their fullest potential. They raise their own energy and that of others. Both the giver and the receiver leave the interaction uplifted. These energizers live a fulfilling and productive life and are magnetic.

What makes someone a positively energizing person? Based on Kim’s research, it involves six things:

1. Caring for, being interested in, and seeing the best in others—their qualities and skills, their attributes and gifts. In so doing, you meet their fundamental need to be seen, heard, and valued. To feel safe and to trust. You let others know that you appreciate them for who they are and that they matter and that you have their back.

2. Providing support for one another, including offering kindness and compassion when others are going through a hard time. Everyone has moments of struggle, and when someone knows you genuinely are there for them during those times, it automatically deepens your relationship. Think about someone who was there for you unconditionally when you were going through a hard period in your life—perhaps it was a mentor or a friend, a teacher or a boss. If that person were to call you right now and ask for help, you’d probably drop everything to do what you could to help. That’s the kind of loyalty that grows out of a deeply supportive relationship.

3. Avoiding blame and forgiving mistakes, not holding on to grudges. Making mistakes is a basic part of the human condition. It’s how we learn. Forgiveness both benefits the relationship and increases your own well-being, research shows.

4. Inspiring one another and focusing on what’s going right. It’s easy to be negative, criticize, and complain, but it’s also de-energizing and depleting—both for yourself and others. Positive energizers don’t just focus on what’s going right; they make a point to emphasize it and celebrate it. Gratitude, for example is a tenet of wisdom. It is energizing and enlivening both for yourself and others. Research shows it strengthens relationships.

5. Emphasizing meaningfulness. Whether you’re parenting children together or working on a group project at your job or in a community, focusing on the impact and benefit of what you are doing is a powerful motivator. It reminds others of the impact they have. In one of my favorite studies, workers at a university alumni call center doubled their productivity after they heard a student talk about the difference financial aid had made in her life. Feeling that you are contributing in some way and making a difference is automatically energizing and inspiring, research shows.

6. Treating others with basic human values like respect, gratitude, trust, honesty, humility, kindness, and integrity. Think about it. When you know someone has those kinds of values, you automatically feel trust and safety around them. You can relax and let your guard down. You know they will do the right thing, so you appreciate them. These are the type of people you want to be around and want to be like. They are uplifting.

7. Having a positively energizing relationship with yourself. Eighty percent of millennials endorse the idea “I am not good enough” with regards to almost every aspect of their life. Most people are running around with high self-criticism, which we know leads to depression, anxiety, fear of failure and lower motivation. We run ourselves into the ground and don’t always take care of ourselves. Positive energizers know how to fill their own cup. They don’t just take care of their physical, mental, and emotional well-being; they prioritize it.

Excerpted with permission from Sovereign: Reclaim your Freedom, Energy and Power in a Time of Distraction, Uncertainty and Chaos by Emma Seppälä. Available wherever books are sold.

Department: Faculty Viewpoints