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Why Workplace Optimism Is Important and How to Cultivate It

Shawn_Murphy.jpgToday, the HR Magazine Book Blog interviews Shawn Murphy, author of the recently published book The Optimistic Workplace: Creating an Environment that Energizes Everyone (AMACOM, 2015).

What is workplace optimism?

Recall a time when you were at work and you consistently felt good about being there. What made that time a positive memory? Perhaps you had hope—even had belief—that good things would come from your hard work. Your team’s purpose was inspiring. The work was meaningful. You worked with extraordinary people. Whatever the indicators were for that good feeling, it’s possible that workplace optimism was present.

Workplace optimism is a characteristic of the climate of your team or the organization. Regardless of your personal leanings toward optimism or pessimism, the feeling of hope creates a positive work experience.

Why did you write The Optimistic Workplace?

Engagement levels have been stagnant for almost two decades, at or near levels that show employees are not having a positive work experience. The 2015 Edelman Trust Barometer continues to show a trend of our distrust toward large organizations and the changes they trigger. In many organizations, employees doubt the capabilities of their immediate leader. Too many employees, from the C-suite to the individual contributor, dread being at work.
I wanted to show leaders that there is a path forward to creating a positive experience at work for themselves and for those they lead. We spend more than one-third of our life working. I believe leaders have a responsibility to help position the work environment to enhance employees’ lives. My book explains and shows leaders how to do this by making the shift to an optimistic work environment.

What are the most important takeaways for readers?

The first thing I want readers to get is that they don’t need to wait for senior management or HR to roll out a program to improve the climate of the workplace. Leaders need to act to create an optimistic environment that positions employees to do their best work.
I also want readers to know the difference between culture and climate. We know that culture change is difficult and time-consuming. And if you’re in the middle of the organization, it can be difficult to effect culture change. Climate, however, is mostly influenced by the leader’s leadership style. The one area we have the greatest control over is how we lead.
Finally, I want readers to believe that they can make a positive difference in people’s lives and the results they create.

How is the book relevant to HR professionals?

It’s relevant to HR professionals who believe they have a responsibility for contributing positively to the health and the psychological and social well-being of the company’s employees. For HR professionals who believe their role is merely to process payroll, provide benefits or keep the company out of legal hot water, this book isn’t for them. The HR pros who see the alignment between employee well-being and organizational performance will grab on to the book’s message.

What companies would you hold up as models of optimistic climates?

Many companies come to mind. I’ll focus on one here, though: Luck Cos., an aggregate company in Virginia. It likes to say it makes little rocks out of big rocks. It’s a company of blue-collar and white-collar associates united by a belief that values-based leadership contributes to employees’ personal success as well as the company’s.
Every associate, officer and executive is steeped in the company’s values and expected to explore their core personal values, too. Knowing what you stand for helps develop stronger relationships and gives clarity on what’s important.
Luck holds its leadership accountable for results through its Values-Based Leadership Index. The first third of its performance plan is based on feedback from a 360-degree evaluation. The second third is based on alignment with company values. The final third is based on results.

You identify a number of negative side effects of optimism in the workplace. Why would there be any negative consequences?

It is possible to have too much of a good thing. In the companies I visited and studied, many struggle with balancing kindness and holding people accountable for results. The struggle goes something like this: If I have difficult conversations with employees when they don’t perform, I may upset the positive vibe of the workplace. Consequently, leaders struggle to hold employees accountable for performance. Clarity goes out the window. Performance goes down. When people are confused about expectations and unclear about what is needed of them or what the priorities are, anxiety or even distress settles in. This combination negatively influences engagement levels and certainly does no favors for the organization’s ability to retain talent.

Is there anything else you would like to tell readers?

Another common key trait of optimistic workplaces is in how leaders relate to employees. Every company I studied treated employees as mature, fully-functioning adults—whether that meant building trust through the absence of controlling policies or having those difficult conversations, believing that the person could handle the truth delivered in a caring manner.
At the core of creating workplace optimism is a belief that strong relationships are critical to the success of the company and its people.
Shawn Murphy, @TheShawnMurphy on Twitter, is co-founder and CEO of Switch and Shift, an organization dedicated to the advancement of human-centered organizational practices and leadership. Click here to view The Optimistic Workplace book trailer.​​​​​​​

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