When it comes to work these days, we're all expected to do more with less. But is this nose-to-the-grindstone philosophy the best way to run a business? Alarmingly low employee engagement numbers indicate otherwise.
In his new book, The Optimistic Workplace: Creating an Environment that Energizes Everyone, management and leadership consultant Shawn Murphy tackles the productivity challenge and argues that our best work is the product of a positive environment.
“How it feels to work within an organization is a critical workforce development issue,” says Murphy. “We need more leaders who are willing to choose to set a positive tone for their teams despite what senior management isn’t doing.”
There are a number of common missteps; the first one is not believing that optimism in the workplace is even possible. Murphy identifies five common missteps:
Misstep No, 1: Believing it's someone else's responsibility. Many believe workplace optimism must start at the top. This is a fallacy. It lets us off the hook from doing something about the bad vibe hovering over teams.
Correction: For a climate of optimism to be possible, it is best initiated and supported by the middle layer of the organizational hierarchy, assuming there is one, or by those on the team.
Misstep #2: Failing to build alliances to support your effort. Without this, your work can become stagnant, says Murphy. There will be times when you run into obstacles and you will doubt yourself. You'll need support.
Correction: Your allies don’t need experience with creating an optimistic workplace. You only need to trust and respect them. Diverse perspectives are invaluable to help bring about change. Your allies’ viewpoints will help you grow, and their input will strengthen your plan for creating workplace optimism.
Misstep #3: Assuming you know how your team members feel about the climate. It may be tempting, but don’t do it. You’re likely to be overly critical or downplay reality. Either one will lead you astray.
Correction: Choose a few who you anticipate would be supporters of creating workplace optimism. Then select a few who may be skeptical. Be careful here, however. Too often, leaders will spend more time with those who resist new ideas, believing if they can convince the nonbelievers they have a chance. This is another fallacy, according to Murphy. Encourage a dialogue. Ask open-ended questions and stay away from “why” questions (e.g., “Why do you feel that way?”). Be sure and sound curious, not accusatory.
Misstep #4: Assuming people understand the importance of their work. Too often leaders think because they said something important once, people will remember it. Work alignment occurs when each person on your team knows how his or her contributions align with the team’s and organization’s goals. This may seem obvious, but it’s a standard leadership belief not often put into practice.
Correction: Talk to your team often. Set clear goals, discuss what work is a priority and give feedback often on each person’s progress. Explain why the work matters to the team or to the organization. When employees understand the importance of their work, they take ownership of their results and you enable progress.
Misstep #5: Unknowingly overpromoting individualism. Physically separated from one another by cube walls, offices or geography, most workspaces promote individualism and not team cohesiveness, says Murphy. Even goals are set for individual performance. Rarely are team goals established and monitored.
Correction: When emotional energy is shared among a group of people, a strong bond forms and the desire to repeat the interactions is high. Have your team get together physically at meetings or conferences. Have them identify goals that encourage collaborative behaviors. Your goal is to build bonds between team members. Successful teams execute, but they also celebrate. Celebrate accomplishments.
“Taking responsibility, building alliances, deepening personal interest, motivation, commitment and loyalty – all of these things are possible when you deliberately and strategically focus real effort and make employee optimism a real and measurable metric,” Murphy adds. “You can position employees to believe that work is a bright spot in their life.”
Here are some of the critical strategies he recommends managers learn and deploy:
The team is more important than any individual. It’s a fact of neuroscience: our brains are wired to think about the thoughts, feelings and goals of other people. Working as a team to achieve desired outcomes makes people feel good about work. For optimism to be strong, a cohesive team is vital. Managers and leaders need to avoid relying on the usual suspects, the same few superstars, to handle high-profile projects.
There’s value to experiencing joy at work. Joy can open brains to better see connections and various options to solve work problems. In a joyful workplace, people are more likely to contribute their best. Expressing joy is simple. Give a proud smile when a team member does great work. Celebrate reaching key project milestones or momentous occasions in an employee’s life, buying a new house or having a baby, for example.
Doing good is good for business. It’s not just about philanthropy. When leaders adopt business practices that contribute to improving employees’ lives, business prospers. Do something crazy; have an anti-workaholic policy. When team members have time to pursue personal interests, they are more productive and satisfied at work. Implement a policy banning team members from emailing each other about business on weekends.
Relationships with employees need to be richer. Relationships are central to cooperation, collaboration and successful outcomes. Take, for instance, the remarkable 2014 events at Market Basket, a 73-store grocery chain based in Massachusetts. When the board of directors ousted the company’s CEO and steward, Arthur T. Demoulas, in favor of his bottom-line driven cousin, Arthur S. Demoulas, employees responded by orchestrating a massive boycott. Strong relationships between employees, suppliers and customers resulted in a collaborative effort that restored a beloved CEO and saved a company.
Work should align with purpose and meaning. Why does work matter to your team members? For workplace optimism to thrive, organizational leaders must strive to find the answer to that question and then continually invest in making sure that work remains meaningful. A focus on financial motivators blinds leaders from helping employees do work that matters.
Leaders need to actualize human potential. Luck Companies, an aggregate business headquartered just outside of Richmond, Virgi., believes, to quote CEO Charlie Luck, that “all human beings have extraordinary potential to make a positive difference in the world.” For Luck, this belief shapes how its leaders treat one another, develop their associates and spread the message globally. Actualizing human potential puts the spirit into workplace optimism inspiring business leaders to put this belief into action.