The magic ingredient in leadership is positive relational energy, Harvard says
The Sector > Workforce > Leadership > The magic ingredient in leadership is positive relational energy, Harvard says

The magic ingredient in leadership is positive relational energy, Harvard says

by Freya Lucas

April 04, 2023
three women are shown with laptops sitting around a table

Standout leaders have one thing in common, researchers from Harvard University have concluded, and it isn’t charisma, influence or power. 


It’s also not personality, attractiveness or the capacity to be innovative. Instead, researchers have concluded, the one thing which supersedes all these factors is positive relational energy. 


Positive relational energy refers to the way in which leaders exchange energy with those in their team, uplifting them, enthusing them, and renewing their own energy levels. 


Harvard discovered the single largest predictor of success among leaders and organizations – and what researchers found is that it’s not what most people think. This energy, researchers say, “spreads like wildfire,” because it’s highly contagious. The powerful forces which come from this positive relational energy cannot be copied or manufactured because it is, at heart, an authentic exchange which is magnetic, and brings teams together, creating extraordinary performance. 


For those groups who were high performers, the researchers found that the person who was at the centre of the organisation, driving forward motion and wellbeing, had positive relational energy. Organisations with these leaders, researchers concluded, experienced a number of benefits, including: 


  • Increased levels of engagement
  • Decreased employee turnover
  • Increased workplace well-being
  • Increased profitability and productivity


When effective leaders are in place, the researchers noted, there is a domino effect, where there is increased workplace satisfaction, increased productivity and increased profitability. Basically, researchers said, “when everyone is happier, everyone wins.” 




Positive relational energy, researchers caution, cannot be faked. In fact, an environment with superficial “false positivity” can be detrimental. Environments of toxic positivity, where employees are encouraged to manufacture happy thoughts, can lead to decreased wellbeing, decreased productivity, a decline in profitability, and increased staff turnover. 


“One of the main problems with false positivity is that it often leads to overlooking real issues and sweeping stresses under the rug,” researchers note. 


“And, in time, all the little things surmount, turning small issues and stressors into a major problem. In return, employees become overloaded and pressure builds, not wanes, from false positivity.”


Not about energy


Contrary to popular belief, having positive relational energy isn’t about being an “always on” extrovert, who is always bubbly, enthusiastic and energetic. Rather than being about projecting a persona of being a “high energy” leader, leaders with positive relational energy actively demonstrate their values, and actively demonstrate values like: 


  • Forgiveness
  • Compassion
  • Humility
  • Kindness
  • Trust
  • Integrity
  • Honesty
  • Generosity
  • Gratitude
  • Recognition.


These traits are part of what makes an individual an authentic leader, and in practicing these traits, leaders are taking a “genuinely human” approach to leadership and people management, leaving those in their teams feeling more understood, valued, and satisfied within their role and within their organisation.


“As simple as it sounds, treating people like people lifts up workforces–and their organisations,” researchers said, “and it doesn’t cost a thing to do. But those who don’t do pay the price with increased turnover, decreased productivity, and diminishing profits.”


To read the research in full, please see here

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