Navigating Positional Thinkers

“The key to successful leadership today is influence, not authority.”

Kenneth Blanchard

In the past couple of weeks, I have found myself lending support to individuals seeking guidance on how to collaborate with a leader stuck in positional thinking. I am always appreciative to have the opportunity to support fellow leaders as they explore the options of how to best maneuver through these challenging relationships.

The positional-thinking leaders we’ll discuss in the following scenarios are unable to separate their personal notions from their leadership methodologies in the workplace, thus leading them to present their opinions and ideas as the only approaches available. Through analysis, we will discuss ways of combating this type of thinking.

Let’s dive right in:

Scenario #1 finds a leader we’ll call Krista in a challenging partnership with a peer-level leader named James. Although Krista and James have a cordial working relationship, Krista feels that James is not open to receiving her ideas. In fact, when Krista approaches James with opportunities for collaboration, James consistently, and without hesitation, leads with a “no.” This situation is no doubt very familiar to most of us and may occur for a variety of reasons, which I will expand on below. When a peer or superior routinely displays this type of positional thinking, it can be planned for and strategized against.

Scenario # 2 concerns a mid-level leader, Isaac, struggling with a boss/supervisor we’ll call Elena. Frequently Elena couples directives with a request for feedback. Isaac reluctantly responds with his ideas and observations regarding Elena’s proposals, which are in turn quickly dismissed in favor of her point of view. To add insult to injury, Elena predictably follows her dismissal with cutting remarks such as, “You should think through your ideas instead of trying to be the smartest guy in the room.” This challenge shares similarities with the positional thinking represented in Scenario #1 but has caused Isaac to feel an exaggerated sense of self-doubt.

So what is positional thinking?

As defined by expert Ariane David of the Veritas Group, Positional thinking means that our thinking on a subject is rooted in a particular point of view to the exclusion of all others.” In other words, it is a technique or need to present a personal idea or opinion as the only approach, solution, or method.

Positional thinking limits potential, slows efficiency, lessens results, dampens creativity, and can produce unwise compromise on the part of the recipient.

Where it happens:

These opinions may be presented when directing individuals and teams, creating the vision of an organization, when speaking in meetings, and in everyday exchanges with peers and subordinates. Positional leadership can show up in boardrooms, classrooms, meeting and conference rooms, municipal offices, sanctuaries, and anywhere individuals interact. It often surfaces conversationally when leaders do not possess skills to influence, and instead choose to dictate an outcome.

Why it happens:

Positional thinking often happens when leaders are operating from a space of fear. Sometimes this limiting approach is a result of the inability to navigate the rigors of a leader’s environment. It can be compounded further by an organization’s lofty expectations placed upon a leader incapable of meeting their goals. Positional thinking can be catalyzed when a person struggles with insecurities. Lacking a sense of self-awareness is also a common factor for someone maintaining a fixed position.

How can we stop it from continuing?

“That which can be learned can be unlearned. By knowing the existence of our deficiencies, we can improve ourselves.” Bhante Gunaratana, Mindfulness In Plain English

Considerations on replacing limited thinking with possibility:

  • Don’t let discomfort be seen as disharmony within your organizations.
  • Embrace differences of opinion and empower those creative and talented employees just waiting to show you their full potential.
  • Facilitate a Creative Conflict workshop for your teams.
  • Teach the art of negotiation to your teams.
  • Seek common ground in partnerships and deliberations.
  • Be honest about your own limitations and allow others to support and enhance your capabilities.
  • Set your teams free! For example, if you are not naturally strategic, creative, or enthusiastic, doesn’t it make sense to surround yourself with people who are?

Remember, serving and supporting our organizations and teams should transcend the need to be right.

So let’s get back to the scenarios:

Scenario #1

As you remember, our leader Krista struggles to connect with a peer named James who does not value partnership opportunities. There is something about these exchanges that causes James to respond with an unequivocal “NO” when Krista asks for support or compromise.

As I mentioned earlier, there is good news with this type of situation. You can plan for these types of interactions. I won’t for a minute suggest that the aforementioned personality trait is not unquestionably maddening, however, I do think the situation warrants mindfulness. I challenge you to extend care to a fellow leader who misses critical collaboration opportunities.


  • Instead of directly asking for what you need, ask the leader for their experience and guidance on how to best pursue the desired outcome.
  • Let’s look at an example of how we can introduce a new product to the fixed positional leader who signs off on new item submissions for a company’s sales team.

“When time permits, would you be willing to share with me your experience and ideas on how to best market our new file sharing software to a targeted demographic? You have always been so well respected for generating online engagement. I would really appreciate your thoughts.”

Leaders operating from the space of control love nothing more than to have you appreciate and validate their sense of self. Give it to them.

Look for an opportunity to extend your discussion.

“I truly appreciate your help. As I factor in your thoughts, how would you suggest I present our new product to the sales team?”

  • Broaden the conversation. Include others more willing to consider differing points of view into the discussion.
  • Include this person in brainstorming meetings to expose them to the creative process.
  • Give the leader a public appreciation. “We couldn’t have brought this new product to market without you!”

In Scenario #2, the relationship dynamic is much more complicated. Isaac is struggling with a leader who exhibits much more than a fixed positional approach; Elena’s challenging leadership style invalidates Isaac’s contributions, and also undercuts his self-esteem through the use of ridicule. Although Isaac understands that Elena’s comments are not a reflection of his skills or capabilities, they are hurtful and undermine his desire to further partner with an organization that seemingly sanctions this type of behavior from a Senior Leader.

Unfortunately, leaders like Elena are all too common, and often remain rigid in their ways. I propose the best way to handle a situation like this would be to balance introspection and the willingness to reach out for help, both of which can be invaluable to maintaining a sense of self worth and strength.

Suggestions on managing these types of challenges:

  • Know and engage your strengths. “Employees who used more than four of their signature strengths had more positive work experiences and work-as-a-calling than those who expressed less than four.” (Harzer & Ruch, 2012). Test your strengths Here.
  • Use your resources. Do you have a mentor or coach that you can consult?
  • Start self-discovery work. This is a perfect time to go after a certification or the continuing education credits you have always contemplated.
  • Give back. Look for an opportunity to mentor or support someone in need of your time or experience.
  • “The more you help others, the more you help yourself. The more you help yourself, the more you help others.”
  • Establish boundaries and work towards managing your emotions concerning your place of work.
  • Ask for help from the leader with whom you are struggling. When you do so, the results are shared, thus eliminating the opportunity to assign blame or find fault with your results.

It is our responsibility, as leaders to ascend above fixed thinking and personal predilection to find and support the best possible outcome, not solely advance our own agenda. In the spirit of possibility, when you find yourself frustrated with a colleague who is using fixed positional thinking; remember that you can utilize the techniques outlined above to reach your desired goals.

I urge you, reader, to be courageous and leave yourself open to deeper understanding, outside of your individual thoughts and ideas. Listen to and value the contributions of others. Be available for idea sharing. Challenge yourself and your teams to ask the simple question, “what if.”

Follow the inquiry and…….. Lead on!

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