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Create Positive Energy

Jim Mahoney Teaching

“ Everyone brings happiness. Some by coming, others by leaving .”

That is the quotation from a placard I kept in my office for many years. Often, when people saw it, it became an easy icebreaker over laughter about why they were coming to see me. Since then, it has become less a point of humor and more a bullet of truth. Today, I might even substitute the word energy for happiness. How many in their work experience have gone to a meeting where ideas were flying, enthusiasm was high, and energy palpable? Or at the opposite end of the spectrum, found yourself dulled by conversation, fearful of honesty, and not enough energy in the room to break an eggshell? I suspect we have all had our variations of this experience.

What accounts for the difference? I’ll put it in a word. Leader. Let’s be honest here. There are people who can’t lead others in silent prayer. Then there are those who can tell us to go to hell and have us looking forward to the trip. Gallup, in groundbreaking research chronicled in Jim Clifton and Jim Harter’s book, It’s the Manager, affirm that the quality of leadership is the single most important factor in organizational or team success. Zero surprise with this finding. Let me suggest part of the leader’s success comes from those who can create positive energy. I describe energy as a combination of enthusiasm, vitality, and feeling of moving forward. Author Ken Blanchard describes it as “optimism, trust, enthusiasm, love, purpose, joy, passion, and spirit to live, work, and perform at a higher level.” We have all felt it. Or not. From decades of leading groups imperfectly, reading volumes of leadership research, and watching others, let me suggest three practical ways to create positive energy.


In the late 60’s I worked as a steelworker in the pot rooms of an aluminum factory. Now going to work on the afternoon shift from 4pm to midnight on a ninety-degree day outside and over 100 degrees inside the plant wasn’t fun. It was hard, dirty, gritty work. But it was often fun because older workers delighted in horseplay to amuse themselves and others as they taught, laughed with, and encouraged the college workers like myself. I looked forward even in those miserably hot days to their sense of humor, sage advice, and respect you earned from them by working hard to accomplish difficult tasks. It was there that I gained a true appreciation for work and learned firsthand this adage: “if you can’t laugh at yourself, you leave the job to everyone else.” Leaders need to create or call on culture champions to make your team a place people look forward to contributing, laughing, and yes— having fun.


Let’s start with the obvious here. The leader needs to know others’ strengths first. Everybody has a unique set of talents that become strengths when applied and empowered by others to do what we naturally do best. Have you ever lost track of time because you were so engaged in your work? If you have, you probably were using your strengths in a task. I like using a systemic measurement approach like Strengths Finder 2.0 to assess people’s strengths. Before you say you already know a person’s strengths, I’d remind you that there are people in a karaoke bar who think they can sing too. Find out team members’ strengths and talk to them about “ what’s strong, not simply what’s wrong.” You create positive energy when you acknowledge and deploy tasks using people’s strengths.


William James, often referred to as the father of American psychology, posited that the deepest principle of human nature is the craving to be appreciated. Do people work harder for others who acknowledge their contributions and efforts? It seems so simple and yet so many leaders pay little attention to something that creates incredible positive energy. Still, when it comes to praise, I’ve seen far too many leaders celebrate thanks getting instead of thanks-giving. They think it’s about them. Usually, these are the ones whom you couldn’t pat on the back because their hand is already there. The leader that wants positive energy writes notes, sends cards, or says thank you to team members. It doesn’t have to be fancy. You just have to mean it. Studies have reinforced countless times that people will work for a good leader who appreciates them more than nearly anything.