The following is a conversation between Kim S. Cameron, author of Positive Leadership: Strategies for Extraordinary Performance, and Denver Frederick, Host of The Business of Giving on AM 970 The Answer in New York City.

Kim S. Cameron ©

Denver:  One of the foremost experts on organizational culture and management in the entire country is Kim S. Cameron from The Ross School of Business at the University of Michigan. He has written more than 120 academic articles and 14 scholarly books on the subject including Practicing Positive Leadership. It’s a great pleasure to have him with us now.

Good evening, Kim, and welcome to The Business of Giving!

Kim: Thank you Denver. It’s such a delight to be invited to come on your show.

Denver: Your interest in positive leadership resulted from the phenomenon of downsizing an organization. Now, most organizations’ performance really deteriorates as a result. But a few, maybe 10 or 15%, actually flourish.  What was the difference?

Kim: That’s a good question. It really is true, what you just said, that is downsizing ends up being the most implemented change strategy in the world, and also among the least effective. There are lots of reasons, of course, for deterioration.  But the most important part is: how about those that flourish and thrive versus those that don’t?  What I discovered in time is that those that flourish end up having practices and attributes different than the norm. The word I used after 10 years of research was “virtuous practices.”  Now, the trouble with that word is, that it is too religious, too philosophical, not really acceptable in scholarly rigorous circumstances. But that’s what I discovered, nevertheless. Forgiveness, compassion, support, integrity– those kinds of things were unusual and integrated into the practices that the organization demonstrated.

Denver: Picking up on that whole idea of virtuous, practicing positive leadership, that can come across a little bit as a fad or somewhat trendy unless it is really anchored in scientific research, and I know that you have done that. So, share with us some of the highlights of that research.

Kim: It really is true that the notion of virtuous, the notion of positive is often interpreted as soupy, syrupy, saccharine sweet; everybody gets a blue ribbon. I run into a lot of senior executives who say, “Don’t bother me with that. I got shareholder value to pay attention to;….profitability, productivity, quality; those are the issues I really worry about.” So this soupy, saccharine, positive stuff is just a side trip for me. So, what we’ve done over the last literally 15 years is to ask the question: Does it actually affect performance in areas for which leaders are held accountable… shareholder value and profitability and quality and customer satisfaction, and so on. And the answer is an unequivocal: Yes!

That is: 15 years of research have demonstrated so far with no disconfirming evidence that if you implement these positive practices, if you demonstrate positive leadership, you end up with, in fact, those increases and those factors for which you’re held accountable. That just shareholders really want to make sure you maximize and that employees get hired to do, and so on. The empirical part is the thing that most intrigued me.  That is, it’s nice to have a motivational speaker come sometime and razz everybody up and become enthusiastic. But I need data. I need to make sure it’s credible and that there’s some kind of evidence that says: this is valid.

So, that’s the research that we’ve been doing. We’ve done it in the airline industry; we’ve done it in manufacturing, we’ve done it in education, healthcare. I spent time with the US Army, National Intelligence Agency; it doesn’t matter the sector. These results occur in each one of those different kinds of industries and sectors.

Relational energy is the only kind of energy that when you use it, it elevates. When do you get exhausted by being around a person with whom you have a loving, supportive relationship? That’s renewing, that’s elevating.

Denver: So, all this soft and touchy/feely stuff shows up on the bottom line. You’ve helped to identify and describe a phenomenon that I think we’re all a little bit aware of at some level, but perhaps not as consciously as we should be. That’s relational energy. Speak to that and its importance in the workplace.

Kim: Great. Thank you. When you draw pictures of organizations, they normally look like pyramids, organization charts. There’s an alternative to that, and that is to draw pictures of organizations like  network maps. So, a network map is in the back of an airline magazine…so  some cities at the hub, and some in the periphery. You can draw pictures of organizations in the same way, except people rather than cities become the nodes. Then the question: How do you connect people?  One way is information. Who gives information to whom? Who gets information from whom? And if you’re at the center or hub of an information network, your performance is higher than the norm… as is the unit you manage… which makes sense. If all the information flows through you, you have an advantage; so, you’re going to do better.

An alternative is influence network: who influences whom?  who is influenced by whom? Again, no surprise. If you’re at the hub or center of an influence network, you have an advantage. Your performance will be higher, as will the unit you manage. We’ve been doing research on an alternative to those. By the way, almost all leadership literature… I’m not sure the percent but I bet it’s 90% of the leadership literature… equates leadership and influence: if you’re influential, if you can get people to follow you, that means you’re a leader.

Well, the alternative we’ve been studying is something we refer to as positive energy. What does that mean? That means when I interact with Denver, what happens to my energy? Am I uplifted, elevated, life-giving?  Or is he depleting, exhausting, just sucks the energy right out of me?  In which case, he’s a de-energizer. There are several kinds of energy. One is physical energy… which when I use it diminishes. If I run a marathon, I can’t do it again; I need recovery time. Mental energy, emotional energy are the same. When you use them, they diminish. That’s why you need breaks. We need vacations and end-of-semester breaks, and so on, in education. Relational energy is the only kind of energy that when you use it, it elevates. That is: when do you get exhausted by being around a person with whom you have a loving, supportive relationship?  That’s renewing, that’s elevating.

So, we study relational energy; that’s the energy that is transmitted between two individuals that is either elevating and life-giving, or exhausting and depleting. Here’s what we’ve discovered. Your position in the energy network is 4 times more important in predicting performance than your position in the information network or the influence network. That is, positive energy matters a lot. So, it’s okay to define leadership as influence, but it turns out energy is 4 times more important. And what’s especially interesting is most of us– at least most leaders in the organization– spend a lot of their time managing information:  Did you come to the meeting?  Did you get the memo?  Do you understand where we’re going?  And they spend a lot of time managing influence. Here’s the incentive system.  Here’s the goal.  Here’s the target… pushing what we’re trying to do to get results. Question is: Does anybody ever manage energy? Does anybody get promoted or hired or recognized or rewarded in any way for being a positive energizer because it trumps what we normally manage by fact or force. What we’ve done is discovered something that exists in all organizations. Energy exists, but it’s generally not managed. But it’s 4  times more important than what we normally pay attention to.

Contribution, assisting, providing value or benefit to somebody else almost always resounds to the benefit of the person who is the contributor.

Denver: You’re absolutely right. I have never heard of a bonus being paid out for positive energy. So, what can managers do to tap this precious resource in their organizations?

Kim: Well, there are a variety of things. And it’s not rocket science by any means. In other words, positive energy is something we all of sort of know about. That is positive energizers are for example people who help other people without expecting a return. Or they’re problem solvers rather than problem creators. They are people who see opportunities and help other people mobilize other people to achieve goals and outcomes. They’re trustworthy. They’re supportive even when you’re not present; they’re supportive when you leave the room, and so on.

So, the bottom line is great interpersonal relationships, interpersonal skills. EQ is sort of a popular notion… at least it was 10 years ago or so. That’s one. Another is fostering opportunities for people to contribute as opposed to just get rewarded. For example, here’s a study that illustrates what I’m referring to. There’s a study done with MS… multiple sclerosis, patients. These people all were struggling of course with multiple sclerosis. They took half of these people, put them in an experimental condition. Half of these people were assigned to receive a phone call once a week from somebody who is expressing love, support, and concern. The other half of the people were assigned to place a phone call to someone else every week expressing love, support, and concern. Two years later, they simply measured…there were five outcomes… the extent to which people were physically active, suffered depression, anxiety… essentially physical health indicators.

There was an eightfold difference in the outcomes; that is, those who placed the phone call, who contributed to somebody else were eight times healthier at the end of two years than those who received the phone call. That is contribution, assisting, providing value or benefit to somebody else almost always redounds to the benefit of the person who is the contributor. There are lots of studies that confirm that. When you think about positively energizing somebody else, it’s almost always attached to contribution.

Denver: I think contribution almost, as you say, always trumps achievement, but our systems and our incentive systems are all set up for achievement… which doesn’t make any sense. I know for instance Delta Airlines now… instead of giving you a reward will give you a reward which you can give to a Delta flight attendant or baggage handler.  And people get more gratification out of passing that along than they would if they received it themselves.

Kim: Boy, that’s exactly right. That in fact, I’m a 3-million miler on Delta Airlines, and that’s  the reward I get; that is Delta gives me certificates every year that I can hand to a baggage handler or gate agent or somebody, and it’s the best thing that happens to me. About six months ago, I was on the way to Australia, and I couldn’t check in online. So, I had to go to the counter. I went to the counter, and a fellow said to me, “Sorry, you can’t check in. You don’t have a visa for Australia.” I said, “Oh yes I do, here, I have a copy of it.” Handed him a copy, and he looked at it and he said, “Gee I’m sorry you don’t because your secretary or assistant has mistyped one number in your passport. You don’t have a visa.” Well my plane was leaving in 90 minutes. I thought, Holy cow! It takes a month to get a visa, and when I got there, I had a couple of hours before I was onstage.

I said:  Is there anything, any way you could help me that you can do. He said, “I’m not sure. I’ll get my supervisor to come over.” He brought a fellow over, and they did a whole bunch of fiddling on the computer, called Washington, DC, got me a visa. I thought, Holy cow!  This is so spectacular!  I handed them both one of those certificates. It was like Christmas. Man, it was the best thing that happened to me; it was a chance to give somebody something who had done something for me, and most organizations ignore that.

Denver: That’s a very sweet story. You know, you got me thinking though about this positive relational energy. It’s going to change the way we hire people, isn’t it? You do not ask, looking for those traits. We’re looking still more for skills and expertise, and achievements. How do you see that changing? Tell me a little bit about what you see changing in that interview process?

Kim: You’re savvy on all of this. Holy cow! I ought to be conducting the interview for you. But I’ll tell you one of the things I was impressed with. There was a woman who was an executive vice president of human resource in a big company, and she learned about all this positive energy stuff and decided: “I’m going to make this work for us in our own organization.” She took the normal interview questions for new candidates– which are normally things like: Tell me about a major problem you solved; Or when you were in a conflicting situation, how did you handle it? Or sometimes you actually put people in little role plays where they’re sitting in a group, and you have to handle difficult situations and handle disagreements and conflicts, and so on.

She said, I’m going to flip those questions on their end. So, she has a set of questions, and they go something like this. Think of the times in your life when you are at your very best, when you were at peak performance; tell me what it was you did that was so spectacular.  Or tell me about a role you performed or job you had where you actually fell in love with it. What was it about that role or that job that you just loved? Tell me about the very best boss you’ve ever had, somebody who is just extraordinarily spectacular. What are the attributes of that spectacular boss? Tell me about an organization you fell in love with; you just said, “This gets me up every morning. I love this place.” What is it about that organization that you loved? And I had several other questions.

She said:  I have many of my candidates who can’t even answer those questions. They’ve never experienced peak, virtuous, extraordinary, or sometimes we refer to it as positively deviant performance. They’ve never experienced it. She said, I don’t hire them. The ones I want are people who really know what it means to excel, to be spectacular, and to fall in love with roles, with organizations and bosses, and so on.

Denver: Those are great questions. She sounds actually more like an executive coach than somebody in HR. Let me ask you something else. One of the most difficult things that people have to do, managers have to do, is give negative feedback. They either do it very badly and more often than not, they avoid it altogether because they’re just so uncomfortable with it. What advice would you offer them?

Kim: Well it’s a good question, and it’s a universal problem, and I wish I were better at it myself. But I think we know something about that, and the word that gets used to describe the very best kind of feedback… where you have to give negative feedback, but you want the relationship to flourish and grow;  you want the relationship to be stronger as opposed to diminishing. The word that’s used, or the term that’s used is:  supportive communication or supportive feedback. If I give you negative feedback, it’s almost universally the case that you’re going feel one of two things: either diminished, disconfirmed… gee, I’m not doing so well; or defensive:  Well, what do you know?  That’s sort of an aggressive defensiveness, fighting back. Those two things– neither of which are helpful to a relationship or to an organization.

So, an alternative to that is something we refer to as supportive communication. It has a number of attributes. I’m just going to highlight one. One of those attributes is something we refer to as using descriptive rather than evaluative communication. What does that mean? That’s an academic jargon-ish word. Descriptive communication has three rules. Number one is: when you identify something that’s going wrong or you need to give negative feedback, rule number one is: describe it as objectively as possible. That is, “I just saw you interrupt somebody three times in the meeting,” or whatever it is. Number two is: Here’s the consequence… or in some cases… Here’s how I feel about it. “What happens when you interrupt is, it cuts off discussion. You notice that we’re not making progress when that occurs.”  Rule number three is: Make a suggestion for a more acceptable alternative. “I suggest that instead of interrupting, you raise your hand or at least wait until somebody finishes the sentence, or whatever it is, I’m not sure.”  

There are a lot examples in my own life when I’ve had difficult relationships with somebody, and my mother taught me when I was very young: “If you can’t say anything nice, don’t say anything at all.”  So, that was the sort of strategy I used, and the trouble is: that doesn’t resolve the problem. It just makes me feel worse and worse, more and more upset, and more and more angry. There is some research… in fact a lot research that suggests if I can describe what I just saw objectively– no blaming but describing; number two is identifying either the way I feel about it and/or the consequence and the result. Number three, here is a suggested alternative, and then what happens is we begin discussing the suggested alternatives to solve the problem rather than whether or not I’m right or wrong… whether or not you’re a good or bad guy or whatever. So the alternative is something called evaluative communication which means:  you’re wrong, you’re doing it poorly, it’s your fault, something is wrong with you. If you just shape up, everything would be better, and so on. That’s evaluating the person.

When there is a mistake or an error, you can’t just get back to normal. You have to be better than you were before because you can’t afford to have that happen again, and so on. That’s the notion of organization healing. It’s getting better as a result of problems as opposed to just recovering.

Denver: That’s passing judgement, and then you try to tell them what to do, and you’ve lost them. They are so far gone. You just wish that organizations would really train their people both how to give and to take feedback; it would just be a return on investment which would be priceless. Finally, if I understand it correctly, your next book is on organizational healing. Could you give us a sneak peak of that?

Kim: Sure, that‘s one of the books in the works, and it’s a topic that is different than recovery.  It’s different than just getting back to normal. It has to do with:  How do you help an organization go through trauma and difficulty and actually become stronger?  It’s very similar to the process that occurs in physiological healing. For example, if you get an abrasion on your arm, you’re rubbed by something and it cuts your arm or in some way, you have an abrasion. The first thing that happens in your body,  lymph nodes release liquid, and it goes immediately to the wound and begins the healing process, and it heals from the inside out. Your blood will then create a scab or a protective mechanism.  That is, with a sensitive wound, it will try to protect that and keep outside influences away. Over time, there are three or four other kinds of systems that will be put into place, and then finally you then begin intervening from the outside.

With organizations, same thing happens. When there’s major trauma that occurs… real difficulty; the very first thing that effective healing does is you get internal resources immediately focusing on the issue or the problem. Not from the outside but from the inside. You protect it. There are various mechanisms to do that where you protect the organization or you protect the wound, so that the inside dynamics can take hold. Then you begin intervening from the outside, and there are a variety of ways to do that. But the whole point is this phenomenon is actually best illustrated in the military. The co-author is a faculty member at the naval postgraduate school who is studying what happens on aircraft carriers when there are mistakes made.  Because you can’t make very many mistakes and have planes land safely, coming in at 600 mph and so on… stopping on a dime. They have to be very careful. When there is a mistake or an error, you can’t just get back to normal. You have to be better than you were before because you can’t afford to have that happen again, and so on. That’s the notion of organization healing. It’s getting better as a result of problems, as opposed to just recovering.

Denver: I can’t wait. Kim S. Cameron, the William Russell Kelly Professor of Management and Organization at the Ross School of Business of the University of Michigan. I want to thank you so much for joining us this evening. I really do find this to be a fascinating subject, and one that’s been a little overlooked at least until recently. Where can people go to find out more about the work you have done in this area?

Kim: Thank you Denver. There are a variety of books. Maybe the very best source is a research center website that we have. We created what’s called a Center for Positive Organizations. That website is simply

Denver: Sounds great! It was a real pleasure to have you on the program, Kim.

The Business of Giving can be heard every Sunday evening between 6:00 p.m. and 7:00 p.m. Eastern on AM 970 The Answer in New York and on iHeartRadio. You can follow us @bizofgive on Twitter, @bizofgive on Instagram and at

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