Honoring small victories can lead to larger ones

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It was cloudy and rainy — perfect. The sky and my attitude were completely in sync. I was in a funk, a slump, a pile of gloomy gunk. You know — that place where too many things didn’t go the way you planned, producing a moody mindset you’d love to escape. I wanted to scream to the outer universe: “Get me away from this stuff!”

Then the light went on. I remembered one of my friends telling me how she dumped a slump and adopted a more positive outlook. Every time something good happened (even a green light on the way to work) she declared it a “little win.” Over time, little becomes huge because a sense of winning generates hormones that make us want to win more — supplying small doses of self-fueled euphoria. Wow.

It felt as if I had almost discovered an alternative to dark chocolate. Wait a minute — I would never give up dark chocolate. For me, part of beating my bummer outlook and becoming more upbeat meant I needed to start finding little wins. They’re always out there. I had to start calling them out for all the goodness they would naturally bring back to me.

For managers, there’s a gem hiding within the look-for-little-wins attitude. Spoiler alert: Here it is. You can use this “little wins” technique to improve, if not make a titanic transformation in the way you lead your team or run your business. Let’s explore how this works, keeping in mind that you don’t need to have a problem to solve — you only need the desire to improve the status quo.

For fun and easy acclimation to the little wins model, I’m going to apply it to a few leadership approaches that snagged my interest several months ago. In his article “3 Leadership Trends of 2014” (Jan. 28, 2014) Will Yakowicz of Inc. magazine revealed techniques that are projected to take hold, based on innovative leadership methods that business schools are teaching and CEOs are using. You’ll want to give these a try.

• Unlocking hidden strengths: Yakowicz’s article shared a leadership trend discussed by Chris White, managing director of the Center for Positive Organizations at the University of Michigan’s Ross School of Business. White indicates that today’s best leaders are using “endogenous resourcing,” which refers to finding unique ways to unlock employees’ hidden strengths.

White advised that this happens when leaders focus on building relationships with employees to uncover their full potential while providing them with a sense of work ownership and buoyant well being. According to White, the positive psychological outcomes that come with this can be scaled to an entire company. This leadership style is collaborative, yet provides clear direction, builds ownership and cultivates collective responsibility.

Do you see how unlocking hidden strengths can be a little win that turns into a giant difference? The tiny triumph is recognizing the benefits of building employee relationships from a sincere place of getting to know workers as capable individuals, rather than only as people hired to do a job. The more leaders know about each employee, the more hidden skills and strengths are discovered. The bonus, bigger win is that these newly revealed strengths play into exactly what makes employees passionate about their work — matching natural talents with a business need seeking that talent.

• Giving second chances: This trend is being implemented by Fred Keller, founder and CEO of the Grand Rapids, Mich.-based plastics manufacturing company Cascade Engineering. Keller leads his multimillion-dollar business, which is committed to solving social and environmental problems, based on a quote from 18th century social reformer John Wesley: “Do all the good you can.”

Keller’s leadership motto is: Rule by heart first, brain second. Second chances feed into his Welfare to Career program, for which he hires people who have been on government aid for long periods. It also saves the state of Michigan millions of dollars by getting people off welfare. The careers provided to former welfare recipients generated an adjacent little win in that it required Cascade’s corporate culture to change and become more accepting and welcoming. This made its culture more positive for everyone — the greater victory. Keller also launched a similar program to hire ex-felons.

And there’s more. As Cascade’s above successes unfolded, so did related advantages. A positive culture is good for business because it yields workers who are proven to be more satisfied and productive, exhibit a collective approach to problem solving and have higher retention rates.

What about second chances for current employees who make a mistake and want another try? This ties into our first point about discovering hidden strengths. I did this with a worker who didn’t do well on his first assignment. When he moved into another position that was more operations-oriented, his performance soared, proving again that every failure is an opportunity to learn what not to do next time to be successful and, of course, find another little win.

• Implementing democracy: This leadership development practice is embodied by Avinoam Nowogrodski, CEO of the project-management software company Clarizen. He advises that previously accepted command-and-control leadership does not work in today’s business settings. Nowogrodski says people want a voice and want to participate, both of which are requirements for democracy.

He indicates that his company’s success can be attributed to hiring the right people and leading democratically. How? The right people must have three specific capabilities: curiosity, modesty and passion. Nowogrodski says that once these key traits are pervasively evident across the ranks, a democracy can be installed that focuses on individual empowerment and participation.

The little wins in this scenario begin with the core tenets of democracy — of, by and for the people — in this case, employees. Democratic business leadership encourages people to be outspoken and treat everyone equally. Workers believe that if they’re in a fair fight, as opposed to being dictated to, possibilities expand and they contribute more than they could elsewhere because they are truly part of a big story, a big vision. Participation is vital, as is recognizing success and widely sharing rewards. Enjoying the benefits of democratic leadership produces enthusiasm, idea contribution and even more small victories.

It’s your turn. Consider unlocking hidden strengths, giving second chances and implementing a democracy from a holistic sense. What do these leadership opportunities have in common? Can we talk? They all help employees and leaders make the utmost use of their talents, unleash their passion and collectively achieve more. With unencumbered encouragement comes the flow of unimpeded ideas leading to unbelievable outcomes.

The added windfall is that when you apply these trends and regularly recognize bright and shining mini-conquests along the way, it packs an even broader benefit punch. This is exactly what happened to me. Once I started calling out little wins to myself on a daily basis, the mental slump and gunk quickly began to dissolve, replaced by self-empowered enthusiasm, renewed appreciation for the positive and a passion for possibilities.

Your new mantra is this: Manage to call out little wins every day. Then lead in a way that maximizes and turns teeny triumphs into major achievements. What little wins did you have today?

Mary Elston has spent more than 20 years in management in the transportation, consulting and technology industries. She is a member of the National Speakers Association and author of the book, “Master Your Middle Management Universe, How to Succeed with Moga Moga Management Using 3 Easy Steps.” Contact her at mary@masteryoursuccess.com.

This article originally appeared in the January 2015 issue.

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