Five Traits of People Who Make a Positive Difference

Thoughts on Excellence Free E-Newsletter Series
Volume 13, Issue No. 9
January, 2015

By Dan Coughlin



When I think about organizations my thoughts are built on a single premise that says:

Most people want to make a positive difference in their organization, and any person, regardless of his or her title, can make a positive difference in an organization of any size.


Since some people become positive difference-makers and others don’t and we can’t determine based on their labels who is going to be in which group, what is it that causes some to make a positive difference and others to not?

I think the difference between the two groups consists of internal traits. Here are five traits that I think make all the difference, and all five of them are traits that can be learned and developed.

Trait #1: Maintain the desire to make a positive difference in your organization.

I believe that the vast majority of people start out wanting to make a positive difference in the organization they work for. They don’t start out their careers or start out in a new job saying to themselves, “I’m just going to earn a paycheck and I’m not going to try to make any contribution at all.”

So why do some people lose their desire to make a positive difference?

First, it has nothing to do with their labels. I’ve seen exceptionally intelligent people from great universities with big titles and significant incomes lose their desire to make a positive difference. They literally used up all their time and energy complaining about their employees, their customers, the government, the economy, their industry, and on and on. It was their way of avoiding having to try to make a positive difference. After time it became clear to me that they had no desire to contribute. At the same time I’ve seen other people with virtually the same labels work every day to try to make a positive difference.

I think people lose their desire to be a meaningful contributor for two reasons: the culture at home and the culture at work. When they were growing up, or possibly in their current home situation, they may have received a lot of negative subconscious programming regarding their career. They may have heard over and over again to “please the boss and don’t rock the boat” or “get what you can get because it’s a jungle out there” or “we’re not the kind of people who lead groups; we’re more the doers than the thinkers” or “why aren’t you in there fighting for a raise like everybody else?” Also, the culture at work may be one of constant fighting between employees and departments. It becomes like a silo mentality on steroids. Everybody is fighting their turf wars with nuclear weapons and blowing up each other’s careers. Any trace of idealism the person had coming into the organization has been wiped away.

How can you combat negative programming from your home life or work life?

I believe you need to find a purpose in your work beyond just making money. And then I encourage you to remind yourself of that purpose frequently. Why do you do what you do for a living? If you don’t have a very strong sense of your purpose for your work, you can quickly lose your desire to make a positive difference in your organization because of the negative subconscious programming you are receiving or have received from other people. If you really, really care about that purpose, you will rise up above all the negative energy flow and continue to try to make a positive impact.

Remember: desire is maintained by purpose.

Trait #2: Develop a strong sense of personal dignity.

With a strong sense of personal dignity, you can make a positive difference in your organization. If you lose your personal dignity, it’s going to be very, very hard for you to make a positive contribution. In the book, Maslow on Management, Abraham Maslow essentially said that true self-esteem rests on a feeling of personal dignity, the feeling that you are in control of your own decisions and your own destiny.

No matter how bossy your boss may be and no matter how much you are told what to do by other people, you can still maintain a very strong sense of personal dignity. Let’s make this as practical as we can.

You can always choose to control two areas: your mouth and your brain. You get to choose what you eat and what you drink. You get to choose what you say. You get to choose what images and ideas you allow into your brain and you get to choose your values, beliefs, and attitudes. For example, you get to choose during your non-working hours what tv shows to watch, what to look at on the internet, what books to read, and what music to listen to. Even if those are your only choices, you can still strengthen your sense of personal dignity by being in control of them.

If you choose to let other people tell you what to eat, what to drink, what to say, and what to think about, then you have made that choice. Just know that at any point in time you can make other choices.

The key here is that when you consciously make choices in some aspects of your life you automatically increase your sense of personal dignity. You are now becoming more in control of your own decisions and your own destiny. The more you do this, the stronger your sense of personal dignity becomes.

Remember: dignity is increased by making conscious choices.

Trait #3: Stay optimistic in good times and bad times.

Optimism fuels resilience. It helps you to persevere when others might give up. If you believe things are going to go well in the future, you will persevere through good and bad times. With a strong belief in the future of your organization, you will be more likely to persevere in trying to make a positive difference. If you think pessimistically and think things are going to go poorly in the future, you are likely to give up and not even try to make a positive difference. Not only do you benefit as an individual through enhanced optimism, you can also help people throughout your company to see the future of the organization with a greater degree of hope and genuine optimism. This can have a multiplying effect throughout the organization.

And what’s the secret to maintaining optimism? The way you talk to yourself.

Dr. Martin Seligman wrote THE classic book on optimism a quarter of a century ago when he wrote Learned Optimism. He explained that the key to being optimistic is to see the causes for a bad event as being temporary, specific, and outside of yourself. You might say, “I missed that sales number last month, but it’s a temporary thing. The market changed overnight, but with some additional training I believe next month will be record-breaking for me because my skills are effective with a huge range of people.” Now you’re ready to go back out there and start selling again. You have a positive belief about your future sales.

The pessimistic person would say the bad event was permanent, pervasive, and personal. The pessimist might say, “I’m a lousy sales person and last month confirmed what has always been true. I should have known the market was going to change, but I never look ahead and think about an alternative.” The pessimist can eventually talk himself or herself into feeling helpless and hopeless.

Conversely, when a good event happens to you talk about it as being permanent, pervasive, and personal. These are Seligman’s three P’s.

The optimist would say, “The customer surveys say I did a great job with customer service, and I am not surprised at all. I always pay attention to important details, and I do it for every customer, no matter how big or small they are.”

The pessimist makes the good event sound temporary, specific, and external. The pessimist would say, “The customer surveys say I did a great job with customer service, but it was really only about one week’s worth of service. I’m really not as great as the surveys say I am. In that one situation I did well, but overall I’m very average in customer service. Besides, I had a lot of help at that event from other people who really stepped up and saved the day for our customers.”

This kind of self-talk makes all the difference. If you want to be a person who makes a positive difference in your organization, then consciously control the conversation you have in your head and guide it toward an optimistic perspective. One where the causes of bad events are seen as temporary, specific, and external and the causes for good events are seen as permanent, pervasive, and personal.

Remember: optimism is enhanced, or diminished, by how you talk to yourself about past events.

Trait #4: Cross the bridge from intention to action.

Of course your desire, personal dignity, and optimism are nice-to-haves, but they are not of value to other people in and of themselves. You have to move, actually MOVE, from intention to action. Intentional actions are conscious choices you’ve selected to make a positive difference in your work environment with your fellow employees, customers, suppliers, and community members. Here are six actions you can take to make a positive difference in your organization:

One, come into a meeting with a positive attitude and really listen as each person speaks. Don’t cut the person or the idea down. Look for the positive in the idea, and then perhaps offer a suggestion, but do so in a constructive way.

Two, when your customer makes a mistake do everything you can to help the customer anyway.

Three, if a colleague of yours is late, be understanding. Sometimes life intervenes at the worst moments. Let your colleague know that you can help him or her out, and then actually do so.

Four, if a supplier of yours drops the ball at an important moment in a project, go to the person and listen to his or her situation and try to help make the situation better.

Five, if a colleague of yours is clearly upset over something, ask the person to go for a walk and really listen to his or her situation.

Six, look at your business from your customer’s point of view, and even be a customer if that’s possible, and see if you can understand something that would make the experience better for the customer. And then meet with the appropriate person in your organization to share your thoughts in private. If the other person likes the idea, then let it be his or her idea and not yours.

We could come up with 20 more ideas, but that’s a starting point.

Remember: actions make intentions a reality.

Trait #5: Make learning a part of your everyday existence.

Any person can learn more about how to make a positive contribution in an organization. Obviously not everyone is going to be the CEO today or in the future, and no one will become an expert on every aspect of an organization from finance to HR to marketing to sales to operations to facility management and so on. The goal isn’t to become incredible at everything. The goal is to learn and then to apply those learnings in ways that make a positive difference in the organization.

If your desire is to become a more effective leader in the organization, I encourage you to study leadership, teamwork, strategy, execution, innovation and branding. I believe these are six critically important aspects of effective organizational leadership. The more you learn and consciously apply what you learn, the more you will be able to add value to your organization and be a life-long positive difference-maker.

Remember: growth comes when you learn from an activity.


Making a positive difference in an organization is NOT a function of your labels: gender, race, height, size, personality type, authority, title, income, or industry. It IS a function of these five traits:

Desire, Dignity, Optimism, Actions, Learning
In other words, you are the driver of your capacity to make a positive difference. Your boss, school, and family cannot MAKE you into a positive difference-maker, nor can they make you into a person who avoids trying to matter.

You’re in control of making a positive difference. I actually think that makes it all the more exciting.

Republishing Articles

My newsletters, Thoughts on Excellence, have been republished in approximately 40 trade magazines, on-line publications, and internal publications for businesses, universities, and not-for-profit organizations over the past 20+ years. If you would like to republish all or part of my monthly articles, please send me an e-mail at with the name of the article you want in the subject heading. I will send you the article in a word document.

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