A personality trait that most leaders desire in individual staff members can best be described as “being a good team player.” This trait is a combination of behaviors that, overall, puts the team’s goals and interests above those of the individual. You will hear people say positively, “he has more ego for the university than he does for himself.”
How best to encourage this team-first thinking and behavior, though, is complex. People come to the workplace with a lifetime full of lessons that may have taught them to “look out for number one,” or that “nice guys (and gals) finish last.” For someone who believes that they are the most important beneficiary of any activity or effort, it can be very difficult to re-shape that approach. The old saw, “hire for attitude, train for aptitude” stays imbedded in our thinking because we know it is exceedingly tough for individuals to change their worldview in this regard.
However, there are some leadership strategies that can help to gently move people from a “me” orientation to a “we” orientation. It is well known in cognitive psychology that negativity focuses the human brain narrowly. For instance, when something upsets us, it is common for some (many) people to obsess over it. Our brains tend to get fixated on negative feedback.
I once had a foundation president who, after I delivered an incredible positive Campaign Readiness Study report to the institution’s leadership team and Board, cornered me for the better part of an hour to complain about one slightly negative comment that was made by a participant in the study. The report was 100 pages in length and was overwhelmingly positive. And his focus was on the one sentence at the bottom of page 32 that was less than glowing.
However, when we focus on the positive, our span of attention is broadened. We feel free to take in more than what is troubling us. Our friends who study cognitive psychology suggest that we are not as self-focused, self-conscious, or self-involved when we are enjoying positive emotions. When we feel good, our minds tend to broaden out from “me” to “we.”
Shawn Achor and Marcia Losada, psychologists who have studied high-performing business teams, tells us that there is a ratio that best balances positive and negative feedback in the workplace. Specifically, in separate pieces of research, they suggest that a positive/negative ratio of at least 2.9 good feelings to every negative feeling makes individuals most productive and happy.
In other words, if a primary purpose of leadership is to establish an environment within which individuals and teams flourish, then part of that responsibility should include balancing positive feedback to negative feedback in a 3:1 ratio. When we help craft positive moments for our teammates, we help them gain the confidence to move from “me” to a much more helpful, “we.”