The Power of Positive Regard

Recently, I learned about 2 successful leaders whose stories contain lessons for us all. The first is Rosie, a well-regarded nurse leader and “star” in every venue in which she is known. Rosie runs an organization that provides exemplary healthcare to its community and beyond. Our second leader is Haley, the founder and head of an enterprise that offers support services to healthcare organizations across the country. Although both leaders sit at the tops of their organizations, their approaches to their challenges are telling for all who manage and lead people.

Rosie and Haley are both near the peaks of their careers. Both of their organizations fulfill vital roles in their communities, and both organizations are growing. Each of these leaders has primary responsibility for the continuing viability of her entity, and both have visibility outside their immediate settings. Inside their organizations, each has a strong “wake,” or impact on everyone, whether she interacts regularly with them or not. They both wield influence through direct reporting relationships and team supervision. They also impact others through role modeling and tone-setting for their staff, their customers, and other constituents.

Although these leaders’ similarities are many, it is their differences that will determine their enterprises’ futures. Haley is a successful entrepreneur who is not formally trained for the role she occupies. Occasionally, she says that a bit of luck has led to her achievements. But those moments of conscious humility are rare, and she has not chosen to further her education or secure a mentor. Instead, like many entrepreneurs, she sees opportunity everywhere, and she seizes it whenever possible. She approaches new prospects with studied poise, and she acts as if she is genuinely interested in their needs. These methods have led to many new clients during the short life of her company.

Although Haley’s sales savvy has produced significant growth, the company’s work with existing customers is remarkable in a different way. Inside the organization, the employees disparage their clients on a regular basis. In addition, quality standards are lax, and more than a few customers complain about the service they receive. There is also a lot of negative feedback about the company’s pricing strategy.

Haley knows about all of these concerns because her clients have spoken directly with her. If she were inclined, she could see that her company’s success will be short-lived if she does not attend to these problems. She could also see that by ignoring input from her customers, she is condoning poor quality and contributing to a culture that is disrespectful of others.

We don’t know why Haley is not attending to these important signals. Is she too wrapped up in the thrill of obtaining more new business to notice? Does she simply not care what happens to clients’ interests once they have signed the contract? Although understanding her motivation is difficult, her attitude is telling. She has an air of unmistakable arrogance that is apparent to many.

By contrast, Rosie is both knowledgeable about and experienced with the type of leadership that’s needed for her organization to stay successful. Although she is proud of the stellar results she and her team have created historically, she also pays attention to what’s happening now. Recent metrics have revealed staff dissatisfaction in some parts of the organization. Rosie is alarmed by these data, and she is equally disturbed by quality related negative feedback she has received from both internal sources and external clients. As a result, Rosie wants to know much more about what is happening; she wants a clear picture of what isn’t working for her organizational stakeholders— both inside and outside. She wants to understand the extent of the problems as well as their causes. Most important, she wants to address the issues.

Instead of responding to new, unwelcome, and surprising information with arrogance, Rosie is humbled. She is eager to understand and course correct. She is genuinely concerned about her staff ’s satisfaction and her customers’ feedback about quality. She is respectful of their views, whether she ultimately agrees with all their statements or not.

As we reflect on these 2 leaders and their approaches to troubling information, it is useful to consider Carl Rogers’ notion of “unconditional positive regard.”1 Rogers was a humanistic psychologist who lived from 1902 to 1987, and he put forward the idea of showing true acceptance and support for those with whom we work. For him, this meant his patients.

When coaches are formally trained, we too learn to appreciate and employ “unconditional positive regard.” This way of being in relationship demonstrates the value of honest communication and respect for our working partners. It’s not that we always agree or like what our colleagues or customers say or do. Instead, we have an obligation to be authentic and honest enough to communicate truthfully with one another, whether there’s agreement or not. If we can’t summon the courage do this, professional ethics require us to disengage.

So how does this way of being in relationship translate to leadership? It’s the leader’s job to set the tone for a department or a company. It is also the leader’s job to listen, evaluate, follow up, and set boundaries for acceptable and unacceptable behavior. If the leader demonstrates respect and positive regard for feedback and the life blood of the enterprise—the customers—the staff will do the same. But if the leader ignores data and less formal input, her actions teach others that ignoring feedback and dishonoring clients are acceptable practices. If the leader appears to value her customers in one setting but allows them to be disparaged in another, she gives permission for her team to do the same.

It is also the leader’s job to treat herself with positive regard. If Haley were to further her education and enhance her leadership qualifications, she could potentially forestall the failure that is sure to be in her organization’s future.

1. Rogers C. Client-Centered Therapy. 3rd ed. Boston, MA: Houghton-Mifflin; 1956.

* This article was originally published in Nurse Leader

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