Each new year dawns with a sense of optimism. Make the coming year one of daily optimism for your workplace, creating an environment that energizes employees, customers and partners.
That may seem silly, an impractical sentiment sparked by the holiday spirit. But Shawn Murphy, a Sacramento, Calif., consultant who has been carrying the positive psychology approach into his work with organizations, is finding there are huge benefits from optimism.
It's certainly not a trivial notion. Louis (Studs) Terkel opened his classic book Working with these chilling words: "This book, being about work, is by its very nature about violence – to the spirit as well as the body." That was 1972, but today, Mr. Murphy notes, the workplace is equally depressing, as shown by continually decreasing engagement levels and the fact that 65 per cent of employees would rather have a new boss than a pay raise.
He's not talking about becoming an optimist rather than a realist or pessimist. He's focused on the office environment – nurturing a general feeling among employees that something good will come out of their work. Often, managers and employees focus primarily on the bad things in the office and optimism can be boosted by also noting what's working well.
"When people feel good about the work environment, they have stronger relationships, which are the backbone of business. That links to more engagement," he says. People with friends in the office also handle stress better, research shows.
It requires a change in thinking, beginning with the belief that the team is more important than any individual. We tend to celebrate individual effort in organizations. But our brains are wired to be social and we make sense of our world through our relationship with others. "Our individual goals get accomplished through working with others," he notes.
Second, you should embrace the idea that there's value to experiencing joy at work. The work environment should be safe and playful, which energizes and unleashes creativity. Employees can pick up on the joy others are experiencing and share in it. Customers can feel it and be attracted to joyful environments. "Joy, like love, can be taboo in the office. But there is value to having joy in the workplace," Mr. Murphy says.
Another major flip in thinking should be that leaders need to help employees reach their human potential. The human potential movement started in the 1960s, but it's still rare to hear companies say a goal is to invest in helping people grow. Employees are usually viewed as expenses. Even if viewed as assets, the belief is that their worth is declining rather than that it can dramatically increase.
He points to Luck Cos. of Virginia, which is in the stone and aggregate business. The company employs primarily a blue-collar work force, but has embraced a growth mindset with these words: "All human beings have the extraordinary potential to make a positive difference in the world." It's committed to making work meaningful for employees, which can be a major catalyst for optimism in the workplace.
Mr. Murphy says employees need to feel they are fulfilling their life's purpose at work. That means the company should have a purpose beyond profit and communicate it to employees, relating their work to that purpose.
In turn, he argues that will attract the extraordinary employees who make a workplace exciting. Purpose also seems to build resilience. People can deal with reversals if they have a purpose and are developing the deeper sense of identity that purpose can illuminate. "We all want to be part of something meaningful," he says.
Profit is not one of the drivers in the optimistic workplace. Purpose, meaningful work and extraordinary people are. But profits will result as people work more effectively – more purposefully, more harmoniously and more creatively. At Luck Cos., he says engagement levels are at the 95-per-cent level, well above most companies. With employees so highly engaged, the company can quickly take advantage of new opportunities, knowing staff will leap to the challenge rather than grumble or even sabotage the effort. Average profitability in the past 10 years is 16-per-cent higher than competitors.
An optimistic workplace need not require an optimistic company – if you lead a specific unit, you can try to incorporate the approach in your group rather than waiting for the chief executive officer to mandate it across the company. Seek a pocket of excellence.
But beware of two pitfalls. You want to avoid being surrounded by sycophants, who think optimism means not telling you the truth. And you don't want to mistake optimism for always being nice, specifically when evaluating performance. You will still need to hold difficult conversations about performance with subordinates, holding them accountable.
Mr. Murphy's book The Optimistic Workplace sets out a detailed plan for making the shift to this different work climate. It begins with self-reflection, not just about this transformation but about your management efforts more generally. Clarify your values and ask employees how you can improve as a leader. Then get them to join you in a journey of optimism for 2016. Happy New Year!