Ever heard the expression that some people light up the room when they enter? As it turns out, there’s a name for that! It’s called the “heliotropic effect,” and when practiced, it could be the key to better business and a brighter life.
Dr. Harry Cohen applies the heliotropic effect to business in his new book, Be the Sun, Not the Salt
In “Five Keys to Flourishing in Trying Times,” University of Michigan Professor Kim Cameron defines the heliotropic effect as “the tendency in all living systems toward that which gives life and away from that which depletes life—toward positive energy and away from negative energy.” Just as plants turn to the light, people do too.
Fellow University of Michigan alumni, psychologist and executive coach, Dr. Harry Cohen, simplified it further: “Be the sun, not the salt,” a mantra that became the title of his new book.
It’s simple enough to implement. A heliotropic person looks for any opportunity to be a positive influence and, most importantly, acts on it. “When you see someone who needs assistance, offer them a hand,” Cohen says. “It’s a practice. How can you lift someone up? Make their day? Say a kind word? Think of the best coaches, the best friends, the best teammates, the best strangers. It’s a mindset but it’s also a way of life.
“Being dependable is a quality we like in other people. Authenticity—we like it when people are real. We like it when people are grateful. There are endless opportunities for us to practice these qualities. By doing so, [the results are] immediate. We feel better, and other people around us feel better,” Cohen says.
How does the heliotropic effect show up in leadership and business?
Cameron’s research indicates the most effective companies have the highest numbers of heliotropic leaders. “Your organization will be more successful on every metric from customer retention to employee engagement and profitability,” Cohen says.
Leaders need to be aware of their impact. “Leaders have to be ‘on,’ and that doesn’t mean happy all the time. They just need to be deliberate in terms of their emotional contagion. They know the power of their words, and they use their words deliberately to bring out the best in their people, so [those] people bring out the best in their other people and their customers.”
However, the heliotropic effect isn’t a switch that can be turned on or off on a whim. A key tenet of being heliotropic is complete authenticity rather than toxic positivity. “You can’t fake any of this,” Cohen says. “Get this into your culture. It’s heliotropic to desire to be better, for continuous improvement in how we really care about our customers and our employees. This will drive performance.”
How do we identify and recover from ‘salt’?
A heliotropic person bites their tongue when it comes to expressing anything that wounds and looks for opportunities to make something better or, at the very least, not to make anything worse. Salt, in the extended metaphor of the heliotropic effect, is what causes our roots to shrink, making us wither.
“Salt is unkindness, incivility, disrespect, poor listening, selfishness and inauthenticity,” Cohen explains. “Little snarky ways we communicate at work, like ‘as per my previous email.’ We are short with people. We are impatient. We are unkind, disrespectful or rude. We make people feel stupid. Salty behavior comes in different forms, and it’s the subtle ones that are probably the most damaging because we think they don’t matter. And all of this is salt on our roots.”
When it comes to leadership, it matters even more. In business, we want to energize customers and colleagues, which can’t possibly happen when leaders are perceived as volatile.
How do you tell if your leadership falls under this category? According to Cohen, it’s when co-workers and colleagues whisper things like, “What mood is he in? Don’t say the wrong thing. You’ve got to be careful around him or her.” An environment like this doesn’t inspire psychological safety.
“You want to feel safe to bring up difficult conversations and challenge a boss or a colleague in a way that isn’t going to be met with defensiveness and friction,” Cohen says.
Heliotropic effect leadership strategies
If you’re trying to be heliotropic in a work environment that has experienced nothing but salt, Cohen offers five ways to do so without veering into toxic positivity territory:
- Know you’re not crazy. If you’re reading up on a toxic, negative, salty environment and you see your work environment described, you’re not wrong.
- Find a colleague or confidant to talk to and help you figure it out, gain perspective and think through strategies. Make sure you’re in the best possible shape to endure a toxic environment and find allies.
- Don’t succumb to the temptation to go to the salty side. When you hear talk from people going down that toxic road, don’t join in the fray. Stay quiet.
- Stay true to yourself and your values. Watch how it affects your confidence and make sure you’re not suffering from it emotionally or physically.
- If all else fails, make your plan to leave. It may take a while, but start to formulate a plan. If you can’t make it a better, healthier environment, you can’t change it. If you can’t influence the players to change, find another place to work.
How does one do damage control after spreading ‘salt’?
“When you say something negative and lose your temper, you have to immediately do the next right thing and apologize well,” Cohen explains. “You need to clean it up and not make any excuses. ‘What I said was inexcusable and I want to make amends.’ You have to want to [become heliotropic]…. You have to over-index on the positive. You’re never supposed to make people feel bad.” In Cohen’s TED talk, he concludes by asking his audience to focus on producing an “afterglow, rather than an aftertaste.” A heliotropic person has others basking in their warmth. Aspiring to bring more sunshine into our daily lives may sound idealistic, but the proof is there. Worth a try, isn’t it?
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