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  • Writer's pictureJosh Vaisman

You Think Positive Leadership = Coddling...? Wrong!

A while back I was facilitating an all-day workshop on the science of positive psychology applied in the veterinary workspace. The 60+ attendees were engaged and energizing.

About halfway through they day, as worked through the PERMA model for well-being and how leaders can enable thriving at work an attendee raised his hand.

“This is all fine and dandy, Josh,” he said, “but I don’t think it’s my responsibility to make my employees happy. I pay them to do a job. They should do it.”

For a moment, the room stopped entirely. It was as if every other attendee inched toward the edge of their seat to see how I’d respond.

What he was saying is a version of comments and concerns I hear a lot.

As an advocate of Positive Leadership I firmly believe – and the science supports me in this – leaders must care for the people they lead in order to succeed. Business is, by its very nature, a human endeavor. If the people doing the work are not thriving, the business cannot thrive either. At least not sustainably.

When I say “caring”, some of those actually in management roles (e.g., “Bosses”) seem to hear the word “coddling” instead.

I took a breath and looked this gentleman in the eyes and agreed with him.

“You’re right. It is NOT your responsibility to make people happy. You have a business to run and there are certainly no laws – federal, state, or otherwise – that hold you responsibility for your employee’s thriving.”

I then paused for the briefest of moments. In that pause I could almost feel the dismay from the rest of the group. Before dismay turned to resignation, I continued.

“Here’s the thing. If you want people to do what you say, don’t worry about their happiness. Just be the boss. Challenge them to get things done. And in doing so, you’ll get things done. To an extent. But you’ll never maximize the potential of the people you lead, the team they form, or the business you run. To get the most out of people, you have to concern yourself with their needs as well as the needs of the business. Leaders can get people to do things. Positive Leaders get people energized to go above and beyond expectation.”

To get the most out of people, you have to concern yourself with their needs as well as the needs of the business.

He smirked and nodded…and said nothing further. He also stuck around for the rest of the day.

Caring is NOT Coddling

Here’s what I know – when people thrive in the workplace, the workplace thrives. Veterinary hospitals serve human beings (who have animals). Those clients are served by human beings (who probably also have animals). And they are led by human beings.

Without people, there is no veterinary medicine.

That is why I teach about the science of Positive Leadership. We must make caring for the people (who bring the higher purpose of the work to life) the primary task.

So I talk about things like positive emotion, connection, support, psychological safety, and so on quite often.

And I get it – some folks hear all these “feel good, soft” things and think, “so everyone gets a trophy and a hug? When does the work get done?”


To that I respond, “Yes!”

Yes, we need to care for people. And hold them accountable.

Yes, we need to enable psychological safety in our teams. And challenge them to stretch.

Yes, we need to cultivate a positive environment. And have the difficult conversations.

Yes, we must connect with our people. So that we can nudge them toward the best versions of themselves.

Positive Leaders exemplify both. Caring AND Challenging.

No coddling here.

Research supports this.

Caring without Challenging leads to stagnation and apathy. Challenging without Caring contributes to turnover, burnout, and underperformance.

One of the most interesting pieces of research I’ve ever seen really hammers this home.

Researchers asked employees to rate how demanding their boss is. The scale essentially covered three regions – not demanding enough, just the right amount of demanding, too demanding.

They then asked the boss’s boss to rate how productive the team is on a 5-point scale.

The results point to precisely what I’m talking about.

We might think the most productive teams have bosses who are “just the right amount of demanding”.

That was not the case.

The most productive teams have bosses who edge into the “too demanding” zone.

Caring for the people and challenging them to stretch toward their potential is the magical combination that energizes people to be at their best. This is how we make work fulfilling for the people we lead.

Becoming a Caring Challenger

Here’s a fun and potentially eye-opening exercise for you.

Ask your team to rate you as a Caring Challenger leader. Create an anonymous survey and have everyone on the team complete it. Here’s what I’d ask:

Question 1 scores your Caring leadership. Question 2 rates your Challenging leadership.

Ideally, you’ll be close to a 7, on average, on Caring leadership.

Ideally, you’ll be around a 5, on average, on Challenging leadership.

Look at your scores. What is ONE small thing you can do to get yourself a bit closer to your ideal?

You’re well on your way to becoming an effective Caring Challenger and Positive Leader. Prepare to watch your team shine bright.

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