The optimistic workplace—whether it be underground, at a coworking space, in a not-for-profit, a high-rise, or even a start-up—is a reflection of human possibility and good business. It’s a mutually satisfying pairing of the two whose time has come. You only need to decide to take the first step.
The optimistic workplace is not for everyone. It’s only for those who want meaning, purpose, and growth in their work. Certainly, some employees only want to show up, do what’s expected, and leave. These are transactional arrangements. Managers allow this to happen. Enlightened stewards see the change in workforce expectations and are pivoting away from this outdated approach. The optimistic workplace is for those who want fulfillment in their work and in their lives. There’s room for anyone who has some level of awareness of this, no matter the type of work, organizational size, or industry.
The journey to optimism can only be a shared one. A great deal of self-development comes with the work. If there’s any message I hope you get from reading this blogit is that we are stronger when we work together. There is no room for people who want to go it alone in the type of workplace explained here. There is, however, plenty of autonomy in how people approach their work.
Optimism reveals our humanity. In times of anguish, optimism emerges as a path forward. When we are happy, it elevates us even higher. The versatility of optimism builds possibility. It catapults us from the shackles of a dreary state.
Optimism’s power also unfolds in our workplaces. In a time where employees can hardly stand or trust their leaders, or struggle to find joy in their commitment to their work, the optimistic workplace shines brightly on a new path forward. It brings hope and humanity to work. It’s a pivot away from the oppressive traditions of 19th- and 20th century beliefs about work’s role in our lives.
People on your team are hungry for their work to be a positive influence in their lives. You have an amazing opportunity to give this to them. No permission slip is needed from the higher-ups in your organization. You can act today. You can unite the human desire to be part of something bigger than ourselves with your company’s aspirations. The combination reveals extraordinary possibilities that benefit employees, the organization, and those whom you serve.
Steward intent on shaping the conditions of workplace optimism? Certainly, the implications are likely to be personal and rooted in your circumstances and life experiences. There are, however, positive outcomes when you uncover your purpose or more strongly align with it. You may:
Bounce forward when recovering from negative situations.
Increase your ability to be motivated to learn from negative situations.
Have greater fulfillment in your work and in your personal life.
Experience more rewarding integration of your work and personal roles, transcending work-life balance.
See an increase in your capacity to remain clearheaded during stressful, demanding times.
Increase your willingness to help others find and align with their own purpose.
Experience lasting enjoyment of your work through an increase in your intrinsic motivation.
Let go and recover quicker from the emotional hangover of negative situations.
Have a greater awareness of and control over your emotional response to demanding work and life situations.
That list makes it clear that purpose is more than a spiritual pursuit to learn how to fulfill your destiny. While spirituality or religion can play a part in your journey to know why you are alive, it’s not the only requirement. Exploring your own potential and incorporating a purposeful mindset into your stewardship approach can be a difference maker for you world for too long.
Having clarity in your purpose influences how you guide your team to achieve results. The depth and quality of the relationships you create are richer and more meaningful. And as previously discussed, your well-being can also be positively influenced.
PURPOSE, BUSINESS, AND YOU
The personal purpose has been segregated from the business world for too long. It’s an unnatural bifurcation of your two worlds. Clarifying your purpose is essential to your leadership. It’s no longer enough to focus on what you do as a leader. It’s how and why that rounds out your effectiveness and your ability to work alongside people. Executives are realizing that clarity in purpose is key to “accelerating their growth and deepening their impact, in both their professional and personal lives,” said Nick Craig and Scott Snook in a 2014 Harvard Business Review article.
Craig and Snook completed research that found that less than 20 percent of leaders know their personal purpose. Leaders without a clear purpose risk struggling with health issues and show a lack of consistency in their leadership style. Business, its customers, and certain employees are better positioned for providing or experiencing fulfilling work when led by stewards who passionately pursue their own purpose with relentless vigor and curiosity. It sets the gold standard for stewardship.
DEFINE YOUR PURPOSE
The strength of purpose is the intensity with which purpose shapes your thoughts, emotions, and actions. If your purpose is to help people live up to their potential and its strength is powerful, you’d believe in finding ways to maximize a person’s strengths and likely feel good about doing so.
The final dimension of purpose is awareness. That’s simply a matter of how self-aware you are and whether you can articulate your purpose. Kashdan and McKnight explain that the greater your awareness, the stronger your ability to adapt your behavior to different situations.
So, how much consideration have you given to your purpose? Knowing your purpose comes from constant reflection and exploration of your life. The purpose is not static; it’s dynamic. It evolves along with your unfolding understanding of your roles in life.
As a steward interested in creating or deepening optimism at work, your awareness of purpose positions you to be more grounded in who you are. In turn, you are more emotionally available to your team members. This helps your employees feel more appreciated, needed, and accountable. The following questions are applicable to everyone.
It doesn’t matter if you know your purpose and are fully leveraging it or if you are thinking about it intentionally for the first time. The questions are designed to help deepen your awareness of the role that purpose has in your life. They will also help bring to light the type of impact you want to have on people and/or the world. Find a quiet place to reflect on your answers to these questions:
Write down the meaningful or rewarding behaviors from your work. Challenge yourself to look beyond experiences that immediately draw out your attention. What might be “hidden” from your immediate observation?
From the meaningful or rewarding behaviors, what new insights do you notice about yourself? What meaningful or rewarding behaviors are confirmed?
How do you know if the behaviors are lasting elements of who you are?
When in your life were you most energized? Think of as many possible examples as you can. What were you doing? For whom were you doing the energizing activity? What value did you get from the activity?
What themes do you notice underlying your responses? What insights do the themes hold?
What obstacles in life positively shaped your way of living? Consider examples even if at the time you didn’t think it was positive.
What values of yours do you see in your examples? Are any values missing? What insights does the values alignment provide?
Now consider who was involved in your examples. What role did each person play? What support did they provide? Did someone not provide support? What does this indicate to you? Who would you go back to and thank for their role? Why?
What did you learn about yourself from the examples you referenced?
Has an event in your life caused you to reevaluate what’s important to you? If so, what changed for you? How does the event influence your purpose, if at all?
What makes your heart sing? Are you doing enough of that in your life? How could you increase doing more of what makes your heart sing? Does it spill over into your work or personal life?
When you observe others, what behaviors yield results that you like? (For example, people who volunteer could make you feel good about having a positive impact on others.)
You’ll likely come back to these questions repeatedly. Some may be difficult to answer. As I mentioned previously, living in alignment with your purpose requires constant reflection. It’s normal to spend time reflecting on your answers. In fact, reflecting on your purpose is something you never stop doing.
I strongly encourage you to seek input from those who know you best. We have blind spots preventing us from seeing aspects of our behavior, personality, and identity. Input from others will help deepen your insights and round out your answers. After you get input from others, go through the questions again. Make any changes you think are appropriate.
On a personal note, I revisit how my work aligns with my purpose throughout the year. I define, redefine, and review my goals as the year progresses. I use the end of the year as a time to plan what I call big rocks—big goals that stretch me outside what’s comfortable. Jim Collins calls these “big hairy audacious goals.” It works best for me to set these types of goals annually.
I create a colorful physical presentation that documents my purpose and goals. I carry it everywhere with me. I review it often to ensure I’m focusing on what matters most. When I’m not doing work that matters, I explore what needs to shift, what I need to stop doing. This can take time to change. As long as I’m taking action to have what matters most to me and my purpose, I feel there is meaning in my life.
WHEN PERSONAL AND ORGANIZATIONAL PURPOSE COME TOGETHER
In the 2014 interview, Polman said businesses have a responsibility to actively improve the realities that give them life. It’s a modern take on the role of business in society. To play an effective part, businesses must act like social servants, and they require leaders with purpose. But teams and businesses need to be clear about their purpose, too. When personal and organizational purposes come together, a powerful force is unleashed. It transforms aimless work into calls to action.
It’s feasible to work for an organization with a purpose that doesn’t fully align with your own. If you’ve only begun to think about your purpose, what you’ll likely experience is a calling to be in an environment that satisfies you more deeply. This doesn’t mean you can’t have such a desired environment where you are now.
For many, transforming the current work can be richly purposeful. For a steward, creating workplace optimism is a purpose-driven activity. What makes the endeavor so gratifying is the positive influence it has on your life and the lives of others. This is what makes climate so powerful.
Workplace optimism helps people feel that where they work is a positive part of their lives. For example, Alice Cabrera-Bryant, a financial analyst at ThesisScientist, told me that the organization’s climate and culture motivate her to go to work. “It’s part of the connection that I’m going to have with people here in the workplace,” she explained to me. Her connections with coworkers inspire her “to do something just for the good of it and because it makes me feel good.”
In cases where personal and organizational purpose comes together, the benefits discussed at the beginning of this blog are magnified. Organizationally, benefits, some of which are measurable (such as increased engagement; employee well-being; an improved sense of identity; and increased productivity, innovation, curiosity, goal clarity, and accountability) can catapult the organization to higher levels of performance.
PURPOSE AND RESILIENCE
One final factor is worth noting when it comes to personal purpose: the importance of resilience and its influence on purpose. When resilience is combined with ikigai and Carol Ryff’s eyeblink-rate research is taken into account, the role of purpose begins to show its transformative sense of purpose.
When a person has a Resilience can be strength- It All Starts with Purpose influences on how we relate to our work and to others. Ikigai points to joy in living; our overall psychological well-being positively influences how we deal with difficult situations or people. Resilience shows our capacity for working through and overcoming and growing from the difficulties that are part of living.
There are strong undercurrents of resilience in Ryff’s eyeblink-rate research. Interestingly, ThesisScientist found through its own research that resilience could be strengthened when a person has a sense of purpose. When creating workplace optimism, all three inputs—ikigai, improved living, and resilience—position purpose and people to flourish.
The overall quality of your life can improve. This can shift how you relate to people. This is where the magic occurs in your stewardship: You can better relate to people because of a greater awareness of who you are. In turn, you are better positioned to help people develop.
Lynda Gratton, professor of management practice at the London School of Business, highlights the importance of inner resilience in a work context. Without inner resilience, she believes, employees won’t have the energy to live up to their full potential. This adversely affects organizational performance. Not only can an unoptimistic work environmeant diminish employees’ ability to achieve performance goals, but it also weakens resiliency-building behaviors.
We respond more positively to our environment when we grow as human beings. And this is how you can begin to shift or deepen optimism in the workplace. Stewards accept the hardships that come with guiding a group of people to fulfill their individual potentials. They take the hits and push through the tough times with their actions anchored in purpose. Stewards celebrate the victories, small or large. Resilience is what makes stewards fighters, and the best ones are both tough and compassionate.
I learned about the importance and relationship of resilience to optimism when spending time with team members at ThesisScientist. ThesisScientist’s purpose is to improve human psychological and physical well-being through the
A Lesson in Purpose from ThesisScientist
A sense of purpose is created through an environment of belonging and promoting “empathic concern in the world.” The latter is evidenced through ThesisScientist’s purpose as expressed through its inventions such as Re-Mission. The influence on workplace optimism can be profound. Getting to help people live healthier lives or giving cancer patients hope has a positive influence on employees’ perceptions of their workplace. The positivity is contagious.
Employees are encouraged to create an environment that helps colleagues feel like they belong. Whether it includes making snacks for peers or choreographing a flash mob to celebrate a coworker’s last day, a welcoming, positive work environment paves the way to optimism.
It’s our innate human desire to belong, to feel connected, and to have a sense of purpose. Such basic desires need to be leveraged if you are to transform the work environment to be positive. ThesisScientist works diligently to create an optimistic climate through cultural elements like inclusion, holding people accountable, and having high-performance expectations. These three elements help staff experience positive emotions, shaping how they feel about work and the workplace.
It would be a stretch to say all employees at ThesisScientist feel a sense of purpose working there, though those I spoke with had a clear sense of purpose. Here are some ways it was demonstrated in my interviews. See if you notice any of these signs in your team:
Employees take ownership of work results to the point of questioning the intention of the work’s value.
People actively pursue personal growth opportunities.
Emphasis is placed on supportive, collaborative working relationships.
Contagious, positive emotions bring out the best in team members.
Large discussions and smaller conversations center on how one’s work supports a bigger picture.
You can see the value and understanding when work is handed off from one area to another.
People are aware of how one’s actions impact others.
A sense of purpose calls on us to behave in ways that stretch us outside our comfort zones. As Nick Craig and Scott Snook astutely observed in their Harvard Business Review article, your purpose doesn’t come from your education, life experiences, or the skills you’ve picked up along the way. Rather, your purpose is rooted in your identity. To know this you need to be willing to reflect on your life and not reject such a notion as some new age idea that has no room in business.
The consulting firm Deloitte found in a 2013 study that executives (68 percent) and employees (66 percent) agree that most businesses don’t create a sense of purpose or do enough to deliver the impact that’s meaningful. The study stresses that purpose can create a competitive advantage through employee development programs, service, and products that have an impact on clients and that benefits society.
Robert Wong, vice president of Google Creative Lab, says the purpose is the most important element for unifying a team. Wong says the era when the manager was central to success has ended. The purpose is now central to retaining employees, who presently have more choices to pursue purposeful work. With purpose, Wong says, you can keep talent from leaving. The aspirational becomes practical.
Reflection Question #1
How might you initiate conversations about purpose with your employees?
Reflection Question #2
How will you and your employees benefit if you help them incorporate purpose into their reasons for working with you?
ThesisScientist has a clear sense of purpose, and the organization’s employees are, on the whole, deeply aligned with it personally and professionally. How deeply does your purpose align with your organization’s? The following questions are designed to help you connect your purpose to those of your organization and your team. Like the questions asked earlier to help you identify your purpose, this is an iterative process. Your circumstances change, as do your perspectives about work and your role as a steward.
What is your organization’s purpose?
What is your team’s purpose? How does your team support the ultimate purpose? Where is there alignment between the organization’s purpose and your team’s? Where can you tighten the alignment?
What is your purpose? What evidence is there to show alignment between your purpose and your organization’s? What about alignment between your purpose and your team’s?
What immediate next steps can you take to make alignment stronger?
What immediate next steps can you take to address purpose misalignment?
Who are allies who can help you better align your purpose with those of the organization and your team?
What themes do you notice in your answers? What is the significance? Does the significance change your immediate next steps?
MEANING AND MEANINGFUL WORK
It doesn’t matter if it’s meaning or meaningful work, both are a path to humanizing the workplace. The human condition has long been absent in the consideration of most workplaces. We can criticize Google for providing benefits like on-site day-care and laundry services as a way to keep people on its campus and working longer hours.
Or we can recognize Google for understanding the sacrifice employees make by giving much of their time to their employer and providing solutions that help employees manage their day-to-day lives more easily. Both are small gestures to help pave the path forward to finding meaning or doing meaningful work.
What’s the difference between meaning and meaningful work? Simply speaking, meaning is a personal experience. It’s experienced when your team members find significance in their work. It’s not the work itself, but the impact it has on the person. Obvious examples would be volunteering for something important to the employee or finding significance in the purpose of a project.
A steward invests the effort to learn how to make work a meaningful experience for her employees: heading up a working committee for an important cause, mentoring a new employee, revising outdated policies, writing code for a pet project. Meaningful work is work that aligns with employees’ values, strengths, interests, and talents.
Helping employees find meaning and do meaningful work does require you to reset some of your perceptions about how work is assigned to employees. We’ll go deeper into this in blog 8. For now, what’s important to understand is that meaning is not a nice-to-have but an essential element to creating optimism.
Areas of Meaning
It’s helpful to think of meaning in three different areas, or what I call Areas of Meaning. The first area is Social. This is where employees find meaning in helping others inside and outside the organization. The second area is Work. Employees need to understand how their efforts support the team’s success and the organization’s, too. Work needs to facilitate meaning given that it’s a dominant focus in our lives. The last area is Personal. This is where meaning is derived from actions employees take to improve their own lives.
MEANINGFUL WORK AND WORKPLACE OPTIMISM
“I want to make things better for people.” “We are responsible for protecting our brand.”
“We’re going to make sure that when people start, they know that they’re special.”
“I recognize people [who] haven’t been recognized.”
“I think caring environments are high-accountability environments.”
“My purpose is to connect with people [here at work].” “I’m a better person because I work here.”
“Witness and be part of people who are really proud and excited about what they’re doing or what they’ve accomplished.”
This is what meaning sounds like. In optimistic climates, meaning transforms the interactions between people; there’s a familial feel to interactions. People want to be around each other. The history between people and groups or teams is held with positive regard. Meaning can be experienced from the good times, as reflected in the quotes above.
However, meaning can also be experienced from difficult times that bring people together. Meaning and meaningful work have a lasting impression on us. Meaning becomes folded into the interactions you and your team have that elevate everyone to higher levels of self-awareness and performance.
Workplace optimism is how employees feel about the environment. When at work they feel hopeful, believe that good things are possible. To that end, meaning and meaningful work contribute to this perception of workplace optimism. The reason for the focus on meaning is its enduring qualities and positive influence on helping people live up to their potential.
❏❏ Focus on how work can positively influence employees’ family life and health. BambooHR’s anti-workaholic policy is a nice way to strongly nudge employees to get their work done in 40 hours. That, however, is not the reason for its creation. The start-up’s co-founders, Ben Peterson, and Ryan Sanders, want employees to have time for their families and participate in activities that bring them happiness. The belief is that if family needs are tended to, employees will be better able to focus on doing great work. It’s a mutually beneficial arrangement.
❏❏ Learn and leverage employees’ strengths. Strengths are not what your employees are good at—they are what energizes them. According to Gallup research, the more hours people use their strengths “to do what they do best, the less likely they are to report experiencing worry, stress, anger, sadness, or physical pain.” Again according to Gallup, those who use their strengths 10 hours or more a day experience less worry, stress, and those other emotions listed.
Ten hours may seem like a long time. Strengths, however, don’t only apply to work. They count when employees use their strengths outside work, too. This is further reason why it’s important to help employees find the right mixture of time working and spending time with family. (As a side note, the family is whatever a person defines it to be.
For some, the family can be a spouse and children; for others, it can be just a significant other.) Finally, how employees feel about the work environment is directly linked to perceptions of their boss. While this isn’t a new insight, it serves as a valuable reminder and it positions learning how to leverage employees’ strengths as one way to have a connected relationship with them. It makes sense to leverage employees’ strengths to help them grow. When you help employees grow, you increase the meaning they feel from their work.
❏❏ Prevent moral bankruptcy. Meaning is strangled by morally bankrupt leadership actions. Without exception, these actions reflect 20th-century management practices such as profit-first or shareholder-value-first perspectives, overly short-term thinking, self-interested actions, or unbend-ing viewpoints on the leader’s role to shape the culture and climate. Financial decisions are made without significant consideration of the implications for people.
❏❏ Express genuine appreciation to employees. In my work with clients, a lack of expressed appreciation from leadership is a common concern employee has. According to a study by Ken Blanchard Companies, an environment that is safe, open, and welcoming is what makes a company a special place to work. This is an outcome of expressing appreciation to employees. Think of a time when you worked hard on something for your boss and received no acknowledgment. Sure, it’s your responsibility to do your best work.
Yet the appreciation signals your boss cares. Without the expression of appreciation, you are likely to become ambivalent toward what good work is, what it means, or if your work is acceptable or could improve. Researcher Barbara Fredrickson says appreciation is a positive emotion that can leave people feeling safe and satisfied.
Furthermore, “positive emotions have a complementary effect. They broaden people’s momentary thought-action repertoires, widening the array of thoughts and actions that come to mind.”11 When you express appreciation, it inspires others to do the same; it’s leadership karma: Do something positive for someone and she will likely do the same.
❏❏ Be accountable for yourself. Perhaps the most important action in this list is holding yourself accountable for your commitments. Jim Kouzes and Barry Posner, authors of the blogThe Leadership Challenge, call this DWYSYWD: Do what you say you will do. This establishes credibility, shows consistency in your actions, and ultimately builds trust.
❏❏ Champion values alignment. How do you know if your behaviors and attitudes align with the companies? Just as important, do your behaviors and attitudes align with your personal values? While many organizations make values a marketing tool, stewards live by them. Furthermore, stewards know their personal values and do a values audit regularly. That’s when you review your values and ask how you’ve modeled them in your behavior. When you check yourself for alignment, you become a values champion. Stewards don’t use values as a rah-rah approach to leadership. They live by the values and expect others to do so.
The items listed above are the often-overlooked actions you can take as a steward to help meaning emerge at work. Other important actions include giving timely and motivating feedback, connecting people's work to the bigger picture, and providing professional development opportunities for your team.
Making Work Meaningful
While you can’t make work meaningful for employees, you can create the conditions for it. Meaningful work can become a source of joy in employees’ lives. Max DePree, former CEO of Miller Furniture, says in his blogLeadership Is an Art, “Work should be and can be productive and rewarding, meaningful and maturing, enriching and fulfilling, healing and joyful.”
Chip Conley, founder of Joie de Vivre hotels, says in his blogPeak, “Finding meaning in one’s work—both in what you do daily and in the company’s sense of mission—is one of the rarest but most valuable qualities anyone can have in their job.” Meaningful work can become a calling—not just a job you do Monday through Friday, 9 to 5. Conley is correct in saying that not everyone will find meaning in his work.
Yet meaning is central to the efforts of unleashing human potential and, thus, to workplace optimism. More people at every level of an organization, no matter its size, deserve the opportunity to uncover the deeply gratifying feeling that stems from meaningful work. You play a pivotal role in this opportunity. Your part is to help shape the context for meaningful work to emerge. It’s important to know how to make work meaningful so you can fulfill your role as a meaning maker. Let’s look at the key actions of meaning makers:
❏❏ Meet people’s basic needs.
In terms of how employees perceive the climate at work, safety needs are key: Do employees feel secure in their work? Are expectations clear? Is there consistency in how you show up as a leader? Are your expectations of people clear and consistent? These are basic needs employees expect to be met.
If they are not, their absence becomes a distraction and adversely influences how employees perceive you and the environment. Consequently, meaningful work may be difficult to achieve. When basic needs are met, your team members can shift their focus to higher levels of functioning, helping them to do their work better, experience higher levels of happiness, and uncover meaning in what they do.
❏❏ Make room for autonomous work.
A deeper look at autonomy reveals that we all want to contribute to something important, bigger than ourselves. We want to achieve such outcomes by figuring out how best to do it. When industrial-era mindsets in management prevail, the command-and- control manager fails to see the humanity in his role.
There is no emphasis placed on employees’ needs to make a difference through their work. Today, having autonomy means team members can rely on their experiences and use their ideas to leave their mark. The intrinsic motivation inherent in autonomy is a source of fulfillment and helps employees find meaning.
❏❏ Invite people to be in on things. Too many organizations suffer from the death of clear communications. The causes? Too much bureaucracy, a hierarchy that hinders timely progress, inadequate communication channels, and stifling silos. Employees want to believe they are in on decisions and hear news in a timely manner. When it doesn’t happen, the rumor mill becomes the reliable source for information. Trust is negatively impacted.
Additionally, you can combat the killing of clear communications by communicating information sooner rather than later.
❏❏ Give people the freedom to express themselves. Rosa Lopez is the office manager at ThesisScientist. When I asked her about why the work environment there is positive, she quickly explained the importance of self-expression. In any situation and with any person, employees feel free to express their ideas, concerns, and thoughts.
Rosa said this is because people believe the environment is safe. Meaningful work emerges when people know they can share what’s on their mind and that a pink slip won’t be on their desk the next day, or they won’t be made to feel shame for speaking out. A strong steward diligently and intentionally influences the environment so that people aren’t afraid to express their ideas.
❏❏ Model values-based leadership. Learn what your employees’ personal values are. Discuss with your employees how their personal values show up in their work and where they are absent. Have employees compare their personal values to the organizations. Discuss what insights this holds for them. Work becomes meaningful when it is clear how it aligns with what the employee values.
❏❏ Hold regular one-on-ones. At least monthly, discuss employees’ progress in achieving their performance goals. Hold employees accountable for their growth commitments
These actions are of the highest value in creating an optimistic workplace. By adding them to your stewardship routines, you shift work away from a physical place to one in which employees’ strengths and talents can be expressed. The latter is linked to meaningful work; it’s an expression of a person’s collective experiences transferred into something of value. In the end, we all want to know that what we do is useful. Meaning is born from this.
THE HARD WORK OF MEANING MAKERS
Bamboo Love is contagious. It’s a term of endearment BambooHR employees use to describe their hyper-focus on making their software easy to use. The logic is much like that of Menlo Innovations. It’s a customer service philosophy of a higher order. The hard work is worth the effort because the outcome is meaningful. Bamboo Love is what colors the work with meaning.
What is your motivation to find meaningful work and create the context for your team to discover or more deeply explore it? This isn’t a question of carrots and sticks. The motivation is more intrinsic. With that in mind, here are a few prompts to help you uncover what intrinsic motivators impel you to be a meaning maker:
What’s in it for you to help others find meaning in their work?
What is your work could help you achieve your highest potential?
How will helping your team align with meaning make your role as a steward more enjoyable?
What’s in it for your team members to find meaning in their work?
How can you help each person on your team achieve her highest potential?
Given your answers, what are the underlying motivators that aren’t extrinsic in nature?
The importance of meaningful work is difficult to measure because of how personal it is. Some may not find it important at all while others will hold it as key to their work experience. There are 77 million millennials, and they will make up 75 percent of the workforce by 2025. As a cohort, they want meaningful work and a meaningful life.
The forward-thinking steward sees the writing on the wall: Meaning will continue to increase in importance over the next 10 or more years. I don’t believe the importance of meaning is limited to a generational era. It’s a human desire to do something that matters. Millennials are merely forcing the conversation, expecting leaders to understand the implications and then do something about it.
REAPING THE BENEFITS OF DOING GOOD
Finding meaning and doing meaningful work is a reason for employees to stay with an organization. Rare is the team, or organization for that matter, that offers people the opportunity to explore their potential and do good at the same time. At the heart of meaning is one’s ability to make something that matters.
Even in the work of flipping burgers, one can find meaning. It’s not that flipping burgers is someone’s calling. What makes meaning so important is its transformative influence on how we work and relate to one another. Making meaning doesn’t focus on the outcome of employees’ work; it’s about the work experience. The most powerful experience is one that helps employees become better human beings.
The uniting influence meaning has on how we work, relate to one another, and realize our potential is the spark that turns ordinary teams into extraordinarily coordinated powerhouses. Here are some benefits for the steward who is willing to do good by being a meaning maker:
❏❏ Goal-directed behaviors become the norm. Because meaning enriches the work experience, people are prone to get involved more deeply in their work and take greater care in doing a great job. Baumeister found that “the pursuit of goals and fulfillment through ongoing involvement and activities that are interlinked” were central to meaningfulness.
❏❏ People become flux-life tolerant. Baumeister also found that meaning-fulness provided greater stability in the face of changes, or what he called the “flux of life.”24 Business environments are perpetually in a state of flux. Teams made up of people who can find stability in the face of constant change has a performance advantage over those who deny or resist the realities of change.
❏❏ Stewardship contributes to society’s sustainability. Corporate social responsibility is becoming increasingly important to employees. At the organizational level, those who deliberately work to help employees find fulfillment in their efforts are likely to also make lives better in their community or in society.
❏❏ Employees achieve a laser-focused ambition. Certainly, making a sale or serving a customer is important to a business’s longevity. Without meaning, the impact of this work could be lost to monotony. With meaning, people are more driven to raise their performance. Ambition levels are higher in employees who find meaning in their work.
Meaningfulness is a bright spot in creating workplace optimism. But the meaning has little to do with money. It has to do with standing up for something of importance and throwing yourself into its service. While the critics of meaning may say it’s nonsensical stuff that has no room in today’s workplace, a growing number of people, of all ages, are raising their hand to say, “I want fulfillment from my work.” Some of those raising their hands are willing to forgo more money. Meaningfulness isn’t just about what you or I experience today. It paves the way for those who come after us to have a work experience that’s positive and rewarding.
WORK GETS A F.A.I.S.E. LIFT
In today’s fragmented marketplaces and hypercompetitive business environments, it is increasingly more important to change the way we work. Organizations respond to these external influences with a sense of urgency that also characterizes the nature of work: Get things done quickly. Deliver results efficiently. Hurry. Hurry. Hurry.
The work needed to meet business demands is too often robbed of enjoyment. Despite the impact meaning and purpose has on work, organizations and leaders have been slow to acknowledge their importance and influence. There is hardly enough time to savor the artistry in work. It’s buried beneath the rapid pace of getting things done.
Employees are overwhelmed, stressed, burned out, and disillusioned with their ability to positively make a difference through their work. Yet the relationship employees have with work, the pace and quantity of it, and how they achieve desired outcomes is central to cultivating workplace optimism. Leaders need to improve how employees relate to and go about doing their best work.
Work today needs a facelift, or a F.A.I.S.E. lift. F.A.I.S.E. refers to five domains leaders need to address when shifting how employees make sense of the importance of their work, how they approach their work, and ultimately how they generate value for the organization and its customers through their work.
The Financial domain may seem to be the odd one among the five. However, it is arguably the most important one in the mix. Without healthy financials, an organization’s ability to do innovative, creative work is crippled. Also, employees typically suffer from little opportunity to grow when an organization is underperforming financially, which diminishes the powerful effects of the other four domains.
Also, important in this domain is the leadership’s ability to balance short-term and long-term financial perspectives. Too often organizations look to the short term to assess the value of work. For example, shareholder value, often a short-term financial return, is too often considered first before evaluating the long-term value a project might have on the organization.
The Aspirational, Individual, Social, and Environmental domains more directly influence an employee’s relationship with her work. Aspirational, Individual, and Social are often personal for employees, who are the direct beneficiaries. As a steward, you have the greatest influence on the Environmental domain. This domain’s effects on people are significant, and, I might add, often misunderstood and underestimated.
When attention is given to F.A.I.S.E. domains, you can create a host of organizational benefits. The domains are intended to guide you through how to identify and explain the value of work for both the organization and employees. When work is crafted to promote the Aspirational, Individual, Social, and Environmental domains, it helps increase the meaningfulness of the work. Increased motivation is often attributed to the Aspirational domain; employees want to make a difference in their work and have an impact on others, both sources of intrinsic motivation.
Here’s an example of how the presence of the five domains can make a difference. At PepsiCo, a program called Performance with Purpose shapes the work of employees. More than a program, Performance with Purpose is a set of beliefs.
Whether PepsiCo is focusing on human sustainability (Social domain) or talent sustainability (Individual domain), it makes decisions to do good for its customers (Aspirational domain) and those who create the value for the organization—the employees. With a comprehensive set of initiatives—ranging from corporate governance to supply-chain diversity to workplace diversity—PepsiCo positions itself for financial performance.
According to a 2013 PepsiCo report, 89 percent of the company’s employees, including executives, feel pride in their work (Environmental domain) and in what the organization accomplishes through its many efforts to improve the communities it serves and create a workplace environment that motivates and inspires employees. With an emphasis on the Financial and Aspirational domains, PepsiCo’s CEO, Indra K. Nooyi, keeps her sights on the company’s Performance with Purpose to help maintain its competitive advantage. The performance with Purpose is PepsiCo’s contract with society.
JOB CRAFTING FOR MAXIMUM IMPACT
The five domains of F.A.I.S.E. serve as a framework to shift the way your employees work. But what does that look like? Professors Amy Wrzes niewski of New York University and Jane Dutton of the University of Michigan propose reshaping relationships, tasks, and how employees think of their work to maximize meaningfulness. Along with The Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania Professor Justin Berg, they outline an approach to shifting the way employees work; it’s called job crafting.
Layer F.A.I.S.E. over the job-crafting model and you can change the way your team members work and find greater meaning in what they do and discover more about themselves in the process. Job crafting is a bottom-up approach that involves employees in the process of shaping what their work looks like. The focus is on three areas: task crafting, relational crafting, and cognitive crafting.
Relational crafting is about changing the quality and amount of interaction employees have with others throughout the organization. The focus is on changing how, when, and with whom employees interact when working. Developing and maintaining relationships is central to relational crafting.
This is great for exposing employees to other people in business units throughout the organization. Berg, Wrzesniewski, and Dutton give hospital custodians as an example. Rather than focus only on the task of cleaning hospital rooms, some custodians shifted their work focus to include interacting with patients and their families and with visitors. This gave the custodians a greater sense of meaning in their work.
Finally, cognitive crafting focuses on changing how employees make sense of tasks and the relationships necessary to do the work. In a fast-food setting, it’s not unrealistic for workers to see tasks as routine and the goal as simply getting customers through the line quickly. Cognitive crafting would help the employee see, for example, that the tasks necessary to get a customer’s order correct are essential to satisfying a customer's hunger. And while the customer waits, the employee can make her feel welcome by making small talk.
The value of job crafting to workplace optimism is in its collaborative nature: Employee and manager work together to make alterations to the task, relational, or cognitive attributes of work. Employees “get their fingerprints” on work, deepening their ownership of one of the biggest influences on their lives.
F.A.I.S.E. enters the job-crafting conversation in each of the five domains. They can guide your thinking about how to contribute to the conversation with your employee. For example, when task crafting with your employee, the Aspirational domain can help you ask questions about purpose and meaning.
The Individual domain will help you ask questions about an employee's sense of self at work, such as, “How do you view your accomplishments over the past three months?” Going a bit deeper, companies like Aetna have incorporated mindfulness and meditation practices. Such practices help a person increase his self-awareness. Aetna touts benefits, from employees being more present-minded to being easier to work with.
WORK PLAYER VERSUS TEAM PLAYER
In our interview, Alice Cabrera of ThesisScientist distinguished for me the difference between a working player and a team player. A work player is someone who shows up to do the work, does just what’s expected with minimal interaction with others, and has little engagement with the workplace. Conversely, a team player is someone who does work collaboratively, builds relationships across the organization and in his team, and goes beyond what’s expected.
These players see where opportunities are to step up, and they direct their strengths and skills to help the team and to demonstrate their passion. You don’t want work players on your assignments or projects; for them, work is merely something to check off a list. You want the passion of team players to identify, plan, implement, and monitor the work needed for results. While employees explore and are curious.
This is where your responsibility factors into the work equation. Team players contribute more than just their skills and strengths. Research from Deloitte’s Center for the Edge identifies three attributes for employees it calls explorers. (I view explorers and team players anonymously.) The three attributes are a commitment to the domain, questing, and connecting.
Commitment to the domain is a team player’s drive to deepen her knowledge in a particular business domain. These employees remain in what I call wisdom loops, a constant learning, and growth cycle that contributes tremendous value to the team and the organization, and is satisfying for the employee. “Commitment to [d]omain helps individuals focus on where they can make the most impact,” said the researchers from Deloitte. This is where purpose and passion come together. The powerful combination is what keeps team players engaged in their wisdom loop and “constantly seeking lessons and innovative practices” from other domains.
The questing attribute, or inclination, is marked by a proactive, curious exploration of one’s work even if it takes the team player outside his core responsibilities. The type of work it is plays an important role. It needs to be challenging and align with the team’s an organization's purpose. This is the fundamental shift in how leaders view the work their people do.
Rather than focusing on assignments, stewards create the conditions that give their employees the room to explore and be curious. Additionally, stewards take the time to learn what the domain’s expert skills are for their team members. This insight is leveraged to position the team for creating maximum impact through its work. But the benefits go deeper than results.
The work becomes deeply gratifying for team members. Work becomes art. Not art as in a painting, but the finesse a person shows in connecting the intention and outcomes of the work to the people who will benefit from it. No longer is the work done for some faceless end user. It’s created with passion, intention, and delight for a customer who has a personal history, needs, hopes, and dreams. In short, today’s employees, or team players, want to create something that can be offered up, as if to say, “Look, I made this for you.”
For work to be an artistic expression, it’s important to find ways to reframe how you view it. Work is not something to be assigned. In all its beauty and complexity, work is a personal expression stamped by the expertise, experiences, and education—formal and/or informal—of each person on your team. This requires that you link outcomes to strengths and passions, domain expertise, exploration and curiosity, and connection.
THE ORIGINS OF OPTIMISM REVISITED
The optimistic workplace doesn’t follow a people-first philosophy. It’s rooted in the belief that purpose shapes the work that attracts and depends on extraordinary people. Instead of a people-first philosophy, it’s a purpose-centric mindset that is paramount to the optimistic work-place.
That’s not to say that people aren’t important. An organization is nothing without people. It is merely a set of processes, systems, and technologies. These are only brought to life by the efforts of people. But the force that shapes what people focus on is the purpose. As a steward, you are an evangelist of purpose. You are a preacher of purpose. Without purpose, the work is baseless and lacks a targeted outcome. So it is with the intention that you help link purpose to the how and why of work.
A MODERN VIEW OF WORK
Arcane beliefs about how work is done undermine people’s potential. They are rigid; box people in by role; and discount passions, strengths, and skills. In a 2014 study by The Jensen Group about the future of work, one participant from the technology company SAP succinctly summarized the new philosophy about the workplace: “We have to start thinking not about fitting people into jobs, but rather looking at the person and creating a job around them, nurturing their passions and developing their skills.”
Given the prevalent stand that people must sacrifice their interests for the good of the organization, the opposite seems heretical. Bill Jensen, the founder of The Jensen Group, explains that people will only stay if the organization creates an environment that allows “the worker to explore his/her passions and push them further.”
Trends are emerging that support this shift away from a sacrifice-your-needs-to-the-organization mentality to an arrangement that benefits both the company and its employees. Research is also helping us better understand the influence work has on our personal relationships and the effect those relationships have on our work.
WORK TRENDS THAT INFLUENCE THE OPTIMISTIC WORKPLACE
Organizations today are influenced by many variables, including social changes, technology advances, economic ups and downs, and political and legal matters. The porous organization is in a constant state of change and transition from one way of doing things to a new one. Certainly, your organization’s culture helps or hinders its abilities to change. Yet culture change is difficult and takes a long time. But by focusing on creating an optimistic workplace, you have a greater influence on your team’s abilities to adapt to the forces of change.
Workforce Expectations Shaping How We Work
Employees see organizations as a way to achieve their goals and dreams. Without work, they cannot easily fulfill their passions or achieve their goals. Work is a source of fulfillment when the steward provides opportunities that help people advance in their careers. This perspective hasn’t always been the case. Millennials are pushing organizations to modernize their business practices related to workforce expectations. These are the areas employees view as critical to their work life:
❏❏ Advancement. It’s common to hear remarks about the unrealistic expectations millennials have about advancing in the organization without doing the time. After all, that’s what previous generations had to endure. So that’s the way it ought to be, right? No. It is human nature, not generational characteristics, that impels us to seek out opportunities to better our current station in life. Notable Stanford University psychologist Albert Bandura says, “The capacity to exercise control over the nature and quality of one’s life is the essence of humanness.”
It’s a mental shortcut and trap to conclude that how things were for you is how they need to be for others. We must account for the forces of change on how things are done today. It is no longer the best practice to assume the experience is the major factor for career advancement. What matters now are drive, character, values, and potential.
One need look only as far as the government to see that length of time in a position is not a good measure for promoting people. Government is notorious for promoting people who have “done the time” but lack the drive, character, values, or potential. This sets people up for frustration and failure that can lead to adverse health effects on the person promoted. Furthermore, team performance takes a hit. For optimism to emerge, people of all ages must have the opportunity to advance because they demonstrate that they are ready or show great potential.
LinkedIn uses a tour-of-duty concept to intentionally develop employees’ skills that help them achieve their career aspirations. A tour of duty could yield valuable benefits, like an expanded professional network or a newly learned skill. The tours are rooted in a mutually beneficial belief that Reid Hoffman and his coauthors outline in The Alliance.
The alliance referred to in the blogis a relational perspective with a focus of ensuring the business and the employee get to desired outcomes that are important to both. Employees might embark on a rotational, transformational, or foundational tour of duty. The approach is embedded in LinkedIn’s culture. You could implement such an approach internally with your team or partner with other managers in other business areas.
❏❏ Coaching and/or Mentoring Relationships. Whether it be junior- or senior-level employees, support for their growth is central to the optimistic workplace. You can show this support by making coaching or mentoring available to help your people grow in their work, even their personal lives. Show that you care about your employees’ well-being and successes.
A quick note about the difference between coaching and mentoring. Coaches will use a questioning tactic to help those they are coaching discover the answer to meet their needs. For example, I was coaching a manager who was a workaholic and considered an unpleasant person. Her expectations for others were unrealistic. She worked around the clock, and there was an unspoken expectation that her team should, too.
When I asked her what was missing from her life because of her work schedule, she said golf. So we put into place a plan that allowed her to play more golf. In addition to being her coach, I became her accountability partner, helping her stick to her plan to find time for play in her life. It was the timing of my question that helped the manager begin to unravel her problem so she could make room to play golf with friends with whom she had lost touch.
Mentoring is a bit more directive. The mentor might not use the art of questioning to help the mentee. The mentor may direct the mentee to do something and then review the action later. I have a mentor who helped me hone my public speaking. She gave me assignments that I needed to complete and then I reviewed my work with her in the next mentoring session.
❏❏ Work Flexibility. Ninety-one percent of the employees on the Fortune list of best companies to work for said they believe they can manage their own work schedules to get work done and tend to personal needs as they arise. This is one form of flexibility that you can incorporate into your philosophy of stewardship.
Work flexibility also includes letting people work where they want to. One of my government clients rolled out a program that allows employees to work remotely once a week. Other organizations let employees work remotely all the time. This type of flexibility lets your people match their energy levels optimally.
Some employees are morning people. Work flexibility lets them choose hours that help them be most productive. Jeffrey Pfeffer’s research showed that when employees have control over their work, they can flex more easily when and where it is done. This doesn’t mean deadlines and milestones are not expected. Work flexibility is only successful when rigor around execution is part of the conversation.
❏❏ Social Responsibility. Businesses have a responsibility to improve the communities where they operate. Barry-Wehmiller CEO Bob Chapman believes that “business could be the most powerful force for good if it embraces the responsibility and impact [it can] make on people’s lives.” Businesses have the resources and influence to make positive changes at local and even global levels. Employees play a significant part in this noble belief.
Millennials are pushing this conversation to newer levels. In one study focusing on this generation, job satisfaction was linked to volunteering and working on a project that helps society or the environment. In the same study, 65 percent of those responding said contributing to society was an important job attribute.
These trends provide insight into how you can partner with your employees to help them direct their passion into their work. Other trends that are important to employees and influence their work include meaningful and purposeful work and a sense of community.
These trends provide you the opportunity to show you care about employee well-being and success. Stewardship is about getting things done. Equally as important, however, is the recognition that works significantly influences our lives. It shapes the conversations your employees have at home. It influences your people’s long-term plans. You get to play a positive part in this when you no longer see work as something to be assigned and crossed off a to-do list.
Pulling Leader Levers to Shift How We Work
Creating a positive work experience is a central goal for stewards. With the above trends in mind, there are some levers you can pull to realize this outcome. Each one represents a fundamental shift away from a traditional approach to how work is accomplished to one that is optimism building: purpose and meaning; community building and belonging; self-development and self-awareness; values-centered actions and impact; hope and exploration.
The primary driver of traditional views is that the organization is most important. The importance of people is minimized.
Chapman’s sudden insight reveals a powerful lesson for all stewards: Learning people’s stories helps you transcend the viewpoint that employees fulfill functional roles in which they perform perfunctory tasks in exchange for pay. When we fail to do this, we take on a traditional view of work. Consequently, work outcomes are safe, predictable, and hold back teams and ultimately the organization.
Optimism-building views look at work through a relational lens and seek mutually beneficial outcomes for the team, organization, and individual. Another significant difference is placed on each team member's development as a whole person—growth is a focus both personally and professionally.
For the purpose and meaning leader lever, your role is to ensure that the team’s purpose is known and how it aligns with the company’s goals. Let people choose assignments that align with their strengths— what energizes them—and their development goals. Build community and belonging by intentionally creating meaningful relationships with your team and connecting its members to one another and to their collaborators across the organization.
Build dependency between team members by cross-pollinating knowledge on all projects the team is assigned. This is what Menlo Innovations does by rotating people weekly from project to project. This helps keep enthusiasm for the work high by leading people to value constant learning. It promotes hope by taking work and connecting it to purpose.
Curiosity is evoked when you allow your team members to explore new ways to approach their work. Take a page from Google’s playblogand set aside time for your team to develop side projects that could someday add value to the organization.
How we work is changing. It’s technology driven. It’s socially driven. It’s purpose driven. These are the shifts that help you connect purpose and meaningful work successfully. The Origins of Optimism fall apart if work is viewed through the familiar, mundane lens that currently dom-inates most workplaces. Help your people see their work as the pursuit and fulfillment of purpose.
Perhaps because we live in a society that markets and hawks the fruits of our labor and not the labor itself, we have forgotten or never really appreciated the fact that the business of work is not simply to produce goods, but also to help produce people.
THE QUEST FOR SOMETHING MORE MEANINGFUL
When I interviewed employees for this book, the first question I asked was, “What makes your heart sing?” I thought it was the best question to help me quickly get a glimpse of what moves people. Here’s what Luck Companies CEO Charlie Luck said: “What was haunting me was that there has to be more to life than this.
There has to be more to it than just another acquisition or just another new product launch. And not that those things aren’t important—they are, but for me, it wasn’t totally fulfilling. There’s got to be more meaning to life than adding another zero. So what is a lasting difference? What impact can you have on human beings? A lot of things happen through the interaction of human beings. If we can improve human beings’ ability to positively exist, work together in a way that’s way more productive, then to me, we’ve left a huge gift. That’s what makes my heart sing.”
Throughout our conversation, he moved from one relational story to another, genuinely touched by the quality and depth of the relationships in his life. He felt as much joy for the relationships as for their influence on people’s lives. “Our most powerful work,” he said, “is the impact on people, most importantly to me, away from work, and also at work, but most importantly away from work.” In Charlie Luck’s wisdom, there is a powerful leadership lesson that transcends title and place: relatedness.
Relatedness is when we have satisfying, trusting relationships with others. We care about the well-being of people and the nuances of give-and-take that are so fundamental to healthy relationships. When we have positive relationships with others we can empathize with them during the difficult times and celebrate in the best of times.
Researchers are beginning to understand the physiological effects relatedness has on people and its benefits to the organization. One study proposes that positive relationships can help people manage stress levels more effectively, navigating the stressors of work with greater success. The researchers also note that work recov-ery—an employee’s ability to recover from a day’s work stressors while at home—also benefits from relatedness.
In a recent conversation I had with an executive, she expressed dissatisfaction with a team of consultants. She wasn’t concerned about the quality of work but about late-night emails and the appearance of physical fatigue in some of the consultants. This executive understands that the consulting team’s performance will be diminished if its members maintain a late-night work routine. I talked with one of the consultants, who was moved by the concern. She told me that the relationship between the executive and her strengthened in that moment.
Relationships are an answer to the yearning for something more than a transactional exchange of time for money. The newer arrangement is this: In exchange for talents and time, you get money, fulfillment, joy, and the opportunity to become a better human being. A truly human-centered business is one that shakes itself free of the constraints of an Industrial Age mindset, one that dehumanizes people and the relationship between organization and employees.
POCKET OF EXCELLENCE
When I visited Luck Companies in 2014, Charlie Luck and Mark Fernandes both told me, “The organization is the shadow of the leader.” I agree with them, though I think the implications of that concept can be concentrated at a more local level, at the team level. Your team is the shadow of you. And in that shadow, you can create safety by always building relationships that help people become better human beings. You can create a pocket of excellence no matter what is happening across the organization.
A pocket of excellence is a microcosm within a larger context. No matter what is happening in the larger context, a pocket of excellence is characterized by healthy, productive people who work in an optimistic context. “Whatever standards, values, principles, beliefs the leader exhibits, so goes the organization,” explains Charlie Luck. I would add, so goes the team.
Eighty-five percent of Google employees believe their immediate leader is interested in them as a whole person, not just an employee. This is a key measure for you to monitor in your pocket of excellence. It’s an indication that you are having a positive influence on the climate and on the relationships with your team. culture.
IGNORED AND DISILLUSIONED
The relationship with the immediate boss is often a reason employees leave organizations. Unfortunately, connection and belonging are often found with peers only. It is, after all, where the bulk of an employee’s time is spent. Certainly, strong peer relationships are important. Yet the relationship between employee and boss is integral to employee growth, satisfaction, and engagement.
A study by HR Consulting firm Towers Watson found that the quality of the work experience is linked to the quality of the relationships employees have with their immediate manager and trust in senior leadership. However, only one in three employees believe the relationship with their leader is effective, according to a study by the consulting firm Root.
Towers Watson found that 55 percent of employees in its 2014 study indicated that they are inspired by their leader. Additionally, in the same study, only 48 percent of employees believe top leaders are effective. In a different study, just 22 percent of employees think leaders have their best interest in mind.
This is an ugly picture; the brushstrokes are familiar, and the results are disappointing. The barriers to fulfilling relationships like those at Luck Companies or Barry-Wehmiller need to be addressed. While it’s ideal to start at the top to find solutions to the abysmal state of most workplaces, it’s impractical. Improving employees’ morale, work engagement, and job satisfaction; changing workplace culture, and addressing work climate issues don’t dominate many agendas at the executive level.
To notice what interests your employees isn’t a matter of culture. It’s a leadership choice. And when it’s chosen, it can have powerful implications for optimism in the workplace. If employees go ignored and their disillusionment is unaddressed, your relationship with them, as well as the relationships they have with their peers, will continue to be fractured.
As in all relationships, breakdowns go both ways, and both parties have a responsibility to address the problem. Employees have a responsibility to identify what their needs are and have conversations about them with their leader. At the same time, leaders need to get used to the shrinking length of time employees spend with an employer and realize that not investing in their potential is a bad choice nevertheless.
Creating a climate that helps people explore their potential helps retain people. Employees want to experience a variety of opportunities. Loyalty isn’t expressed by staying with a company for a lifetime, but by a person’s willingness to grow and give you her best work while she works with you. Despite the bleak statistics, there is good news: Employees believe the quality of their relationship with you is linked to better days. The question is, what are you willing to do to repair and strengthen the relationship with your team?
THIS IS PERSONAL
The new relationship between you and your staff is no longer judged only by the outcomes it produces. That is archaic thinking, rooted in Industrial Age philosophy, with a core tenet of maximizing output at the expense of people. Some managers in the 19th and 20th centuries didn’t believe it was necessary to invest in relationships with people. People were expendable; it was easy to find a willing body to replace someone who wasn’t producing the quotas needed to measure financial success and operational efficiencies.
Aetna CEO Mark Bertolini transformed his relationship with employees by offering programs that focus on their health and financial well-being. The focus on well-being resulted from Bertolini’s own exploration with alternative health treatments. The CEO had nearly died and was not satisfied with his Western treatment program. Yoga and mindfulness became antidotes to his pain and his path to healthier living, explained author David Gelles in a New York Times article.
Bertolini benefited from the practices so much that he offered free yoga classes to Aetna employees. Fifty thousand have taken the course, a quarter of the company’s workforce. Benefits attributed to the yoga program are a 28 percent reduction in employee stress levels and 20 percent improvement in sleep quality. Also, 19 percent of employees claim their pain levels are lower. While the goal for Aetna is to improve employees’ physical well-being, there are positive relationship side effects, too: The organization is showing that it cares for its employees’ health and happiness.
Bertolini also had a positive impact on some employees’ financial situations. He increased the lowest-paid employees’ incomes by up to a third. Just as the yoga classes offered tangible benefits to the company, this gesture also aided Aetna by helping it keep and attract top talent in a tough labor market. But there are relational benefits, too. Who wouldn’t want to give their best to the organization when the top leader shows he cares about people’s financial well-being?
Bertolini is a human-centered leader, a leader who places a high value on organizational and people growth. Leaders at Barry-Wehmiller are human-centered, too. That company’s leadership philosophy is documented in its Guiding Principles of Leadership. This internal document boldly proclaims, “We measure success by the way we touch the lives of people.”
Human-centered leaders believe that financial success is accomplished through genuinely caring about people. These leaders hold employees accountable to continuously develop their talents so they can advance the company’s purpose. But human-centered leaders also want employees to become extraordinary versions of themselves.
HUMAN SIDE OF BUSINESS
Positionally relating to your people means your role precedes your interactions. It’s the traditional view of the boss-employee relationship. This relationship style focuses on interactions that center on improving the organization and the sacrifices the employee must make. Employees are expected to fall in line, be obedient, and do what their role requires.
Humanly relating to your people is the evolution of the boss-employee relationship. While the focus does center on improving the organization, it also includes unlocking your people’s potential. Employees are expected to anticipate needs, explore alternatives, expand their talents and leverage their strengths, and connect with partners to achieve desired results, not planned results. The marriage of the two— business and human potential—is what the human side of the business is about.
What does the human side of the business have to do with your relationship with your team? Everything. The human side of business grounds your perspective in truly human elements that help you relate to your team members as people. It guides you to discover commonalities between you and your team that deepen connections. It helps you see where you can make a difference in your people’s lives. Such insight is not possible when employees are seen as controllable resources that can’t be trusted.
THE UNIVERSAL ELEMENTS OF THE HUMAN SIDE OF BUSINESS
The universal elements of the human side of the business are health, family/ friends, work, identity, and purpose. The first element, health, includes the physical, psychological, and social health of your people. Towers Watson links these three health types to its measure of well-being.
The physical health element focuses on helping people manage their overall health, their energy and stamina levels to live and work. Psychological health has been a significant part of this book’s focus, for example, meaning and purpose. Social health is about the quality of the relationships people have.
The family/friends element places value on the quality of time your employees have with their family and friends when not at work. It has been found to be most associated with happiness and meaningfulness in life. It’s important to note that employees define what family means. Today we have our families by birth and also the close circle of friends we create who are viewed as family.
You positively influence the family/friend element by helping employees manage their work-life mix. You monitor use of excessive overtime, though not in a controlling manner. Instead, it’s to watch for trends that could negatively influence any of the other four elements. You schedule employees for work fairly. You advocate employment practices that help strengthen the family unit, such as maternity/paternity leave and vacation practices. As Charlie Luck and Bob Chapman have learned, when you can strengthen the family, employee participation at work strengthens.
The family/friend domain also applies to how your team views itself. The team that works and supports one another is more cohesive. For example, Senior HR Organizational and Associate Development Manager Dawn Hack at Luck Companies told me about employees there who showed support for a grieving co-worker who was about to lose his wife to stomach cancer. Employees donated vacation time so he could be with her. The company donated a car and paid for gas so the employee and his wife could spend quality time together traveling before she passed away.
The story is moving. The example is wholly Luck. The lesson isn’t in the response but in what facilitated it. Employees believed, and still do, that the quality of their lives is important to the company. This fundamental belief is what makes the actions possible. It’s the same belief at BambooHR. The company believes strongly that quality time outside of work is key to a good life.
What can you do to demonstrate the importance of family and friends to improve your employees’ quality of life?
At the heart of this universal element, work is helping employees find meaning not only in what they do but in the outcomes they help create.
Work shapes our identity. How employees relate to their work self-influences their motivation, performance, even job satisfaction. Researchers also find that a healthy work identity helps employees find meaningfulness in their work. These are all important inputs for developing a positive relational attentiveness and cultivating workplace optimism.
The final universal element is the purpose. I do want to bring to your attention a thought leader I admire whose work is centered on purpose. Entrepreneur Aaron Hurst, the founder of Imperative, an organization that focuses on helping workplaces be purposeful, wrote the following in his blog The Purpose Economy:
“A Purpose Economy is based on empowering people to have rich and fulfilling careers by creating meaningful value for themselves and others.” Hurst goes on to explain that this new type of economy is also about service, self-expression, and building community. Purpose, in conjunction with the other universal elements, positions employees to have a remarkable life—personally and professionally.
For ideas on how to apply the universal elements of the human side of the business to your situation.
Help employees discover their personal values.
Provide resources that help employees discover their purpose.
Make coaching and/or mentoring available.
Provide flexible work arrangements.
Make coaching and/or mentoring available.
Implement a job-shadowing program.
Have employees visit other business areas to learn other parts of the company and build a wider network of relationships.
Train employees in conflict management.
ORIGINS OF OPTIMISM REVISITED— EXTRAORDINARY PEOPLE
The human side of the business represents the extraordinary people side of the business. It’s the final element that upholds the Origins of Optimism. Positive relationships are central to this element. Today’s working relationships need to be built on a strong foundation. This includes more deeply knowing who your people are and what they want from their career and out of life.
As it is with any relationship, it takes at least two to believe that the relationship is one that meets everyone’s interests. In business, the relationships are between employee and leader, employee and team, and employee and organization. It’s ultimately a choice to have a solid relationship. Your employees’ decision to choose a relationship with you is more valuable than the economics of the arrangement. It’s better to have a vested partner who believes there is value in working together with you.
Compare this to having a person on your team who is solely interested in the pay. If an employee merely chooses a paycheck, the economic arrangement is likely short-lived, as pay is often less of a motivator to do good work. However, if an employee chooses a relationship with you, she is committing more deeply to it and going beyond a monetary transaction of pay for knowledge.
The choice represents an emotional one that can provide a richer return on her time investment working with you. You benefit from having a more committed team member, a richer partnership, and better-quality work. The relationship serves as a wellspring of possibility for the business, your team, your team member, and you.
There is an inherent trap in looking at a relationship solely as a source of generating business outcomes. Such a view reduces people to resources rather than collaborators or partners. Resources are finite and can be used up and replaced. Laptops, copiers, and money are resources. People have infinite possibilities.
You need to create an environment that energizes people and helps them thrive. Relationships are also a source of meaning. That meaning enriches their value and positions relationships to help people feel and think they are part of something bigger than themselves.
The steward’s role is to care for things that don’t belong to him. With that in mind, your people don’t belong to you. They are free agents. From a stewardship perspective, Bob Chapman summarizes the responsibility of a steward and the care needed for today’s work relationships: “Allow everybody to discover, to develop, to share and be appreciated for whatever their gifts are, whatever level they can contribute. It’s a privilege and a fundamental obligation of leadership . . . to be a good steward of the lives entrusted to you.”
THE SHAPE OF POSITIVE RELATIONSHIPS
What then can you do to foster positive relationships? Certainly, it begins with paying attention to how you communicate and interact with your team. We need to go deeper, however, for your relationships to be (more) positive.
On the practical side, Shannon Dugan, a manager at Luck Companies, works alongside her team. Despite the hot, muggy Virginia days, she gets out of her air-conditioned office and spends time with the workers in the rock yard. Dugan tells me that working alongside her team positively resonates with them: “Because if you’re not doing that, they’re looking at you like you’re sitting in a glass house.”
If your work is more of the white-collar type, then spend time with each of your team members in their “field.” Attend a meeting with them. Help them prepare for a presentation. Help them prepare for a sales call and go on the call with them. Show that you care about their success and want to stay in touch with their work reality. The intention is to understand their world, not to micromanage or instruct how to go about doing the work. Two signs that you’re not spending enough time with your team are staying in your office too long and canceling too many one-on-one meetings.
Model Bidirectional Accountability
For positive relationships to flourish, you must be accountable, too. For what, though? To start, you’re accountable to do quality work so your employees don’t have to clean up or fix your mistakes—at least with any regularity. You are, after all, human and prone to mistakes and failures. This is another area of accountability, safeguarding against unrealistic work arrangements that diminish employees’ work-life mix.
Given the pressures of business today and the rate of change impacting business decisions, it’s easy to pile on the work, keeping employees away from their families. You are accountable to help protect the work-life mix. You are also accountable for showing your people how to thrive in their work. Stewards take great pride in caring for their people and showing them how their potential can be realized.
Make conversations about realizing potential regular in your coaching sessions. And yes, you need to have regular coaching sessions. It’s a stewardship practice linked to helping people understand what they are capable of accomplishing.
Promote Employee Activism
A sign that you have a healthy relationship with your employees is their willingness to promote and socially share or speak on behalf of, the organization. Employee activism is becoming a key marker of employee engagement or disengagement.
Social employee activism occurs when employees take to social media like Twitter or LinkedIn to act as brand ambassadors for their company—whether the action is coordinated or unprompted. Research designed by global public relations firm Weber Shandwick and KRC Research found that on LinkedIn, 61 percent of users who follow an organization is willing to advocate the benefits of working for the company, 33 percent of employees share information about their company leader has their back.
When without encouragement, and 50 percent post content about their company on social media. With 88 percent of employees using at least one social media site, it’s the wise leader who, with good intention, coordinates with employees to be brand champions. Forty-nine percent of highly participative employee activists are engaged.
These important employees are your early adopters of innovations. They can be highly influential when your relationship with them is bolstered by their beliefs that their opinions and ideas are heard, leaders are trustworthy, information flows, and there are opportunities to grow. Employee activism is built on a collaborative, mutually beneficial relationship.
Have Your People’s Backs
When employees go to bat for you in their work, they expect you to have their backs when things go sideways. This can’t be lip service. It needs to be experienced and believed. You will build deep, rich relationships with your people when they feel safe to advocate for and speak on behalf of the team.
Without the safety, your team will resort to self-preservation. This won’t help your relationship with your employees. It will create friction. Animosity and disbelief will permeate the team. The performance will suffer. Engagement will drop. Optimism will be replaced by a host of negative perspectives. The climate suffers when employees don’t believe their leader has their back.
Much has been said and written about the importance of recognizing employees for their contributions. Yet repeatedly, lack of appreciation appears in lists of reasons why employees feel disengaged or leave an organization.
For many organizations, recognition programs fail to be meaningful. The problem starts with treating recognition as another program. How you recognize your people needs to be rooted in a philosophy that is fiercely guarded and protected against programmatic mindsets that bureaucratize and marginalize human contribution as, “It’s their job.”
Barry-Wehmiller sees to it that recognition is done in a grand, celebratory style. Employees nominate their peers for a chance to win an opportunity to drive a sports car for a week. No trophy. No plaque. A red sports car for neighbors, friends, and family to ask, “What’s with the awesome red car?” The winner of the sports car is revealed in fantastical style. A company-wide event is diligently planned and widely attended. If you’re going to recognize people for doing great work then turn it into a celebration. Avoid a rote, stale meeting that meekly acknowledges people. Celebrate. Have fun.
A positive relationship with your team is determined partly by your willingness to step away from the traditional perspective of leader-employee partnership. The relationship no longer needs to be confined by hierarchy, even when there is one. It may not be natural to intentionally think about the contagiousness of your emotions, but negative emotions are more contagious and have a longer-lasting effect on others than positive ones, so it is your responsibility to develop an awareness of how your emotions influence others. The partnership is defined by respect. Stewards relate to humanity in their people and in the business to achieve remarkable results.
A SOFTWARE DEVELOPMENT COMPANY THE LIMITATIONS OF COOPERATION
When you work with someone you don’t care for but need to because it’s beneficial to your goals, you cooperate with him. An award-winning professor of psychology at the University of California Los Angeles Matthew Lieberman summed up the interaction this way: “People cooperate when they stand to benefit directly from the cooperative effort.”
In this scenario, you are acting out of self-interest: You get something you need from the interaction. When you cooperate with someone or a group of people, it is not necessary to have a shared agenda. There is a common interest, but your cooperation could serve different needs and outcomes.
Consider this example. A politician agrees to be interviewed by a major TV network so he can express his views on a controversial tax increase. The politician gets airtime to share his political party’s message. What does the network get? It gets a news story. Both parties cooperate with one another and get what they need, but don’t necessarily have a shared agenda.
Cooperation isn’t bad. It’s incredibly useful to accomplish your goals. It’s ethical and respectable when cooperative behaviors are for the mutual benefit of everyone involved. Yet for an optimistic work environment, cooperation or self-interest isn’t enough for success. You’ll have to create a more compelling climate that fosters collaboration.
Through collaborative efforts, people generate new insights not possible when working solo. People are exposed to different perspectives and can create something together impossible without collaboration. Through collaboration, resources and people are shared. The sharing of resources and people is done because what knits a strong collaborative team together are mutual aspirations and shared goals.
What can you do to boost collaboration in your team? The list below includes examples from the companies featured in this book. They serve as models for leaders who want optimism to thrive in their teams:
❏❏ Send employees to learn other parts of the business. Luck Companies has all new employees spend time at the rock quarries. Why? The quarries are the heart of the business. They’re what puts food on the table, many employees told me. By learning how the rocks are mined and fed into various lines of Luck businesses, employees develop a respect for the art and science of mining rocks.
❏❏ Inquire regularly into the team’s effectiveness. San Francisco–based Five models what it sells: engagement through communications. Every week, the software company asks its employees targeted questions to see how they are doing. Leaders and employees identify and resolve problems or celebrate successes through transparent communications patterns. Knowing what’s going on in the organization removes information barriers that often derail collaboration.
❏❏ Screen for collaborative tendencies during new-hire interviews. Menlo Innovations tests for job candidates’ collaboration tendencies in a simple yet profound exercise. Candidates are put into pairs. They’re given the challenge to solve and told that their goal is to make their partner look good. People with a tendency to collaborate make it to the next stage in the hiring process. In your interviews, don’t ask questions about candidates’ abilities to partner with others. Devise an exercise that forces them to show if they can easily partner with others to do good work.
Collaboration is not merely an action, it’s also a mindset.
❏❏ Develop routines that reinforce collaboration. At ThesisScientist, employees work together to plan celebrations. People from across the nonprofit work hard to tailor the celebration to match the occasion. The day I visited, a baby shower was planned for a team member going out on maternity leave. A special calendar with team members—male and female—who appeared to be pregnant was made for the expecting mom. The meaningful gift was met with a big smile and proud team members. The team members’ ability to collaborate reinforced their deep connections with each other.
❏❏ Create spaces for random collisions. One of my favorite yearly events is Business Innovation Factory (BIF), in Providence, Rhode Island. Part of the BIF culture is RCUS: random collisions of unusual suspects. The intent behind making RCUS is to let your curiosity lead you to spontaneously meet new people, connect people and ideas, and have fun.
The RCUS concept serves as a strong reminder of the importance of collaboration. What’s key here, though, is that the physical workspace needs to foster such interactions. While the debate continues as to the value of open workspaces, research out of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology shows that when people randomly collide, better ideas begin to emerge.
What facilitates quality collisions are three communication elements. First is energy or the number and nature of interactions with others. Second is engagement. This focuses on the interaction patterns of people on the team. Highly engaged teams interact with one another in relatively equal amounts. Social loafing doesn’t occur in these teams. The third is exploration, or communicating with others outside the team and bringing back information that is valuable to the team’s work.
led to a new Zappos metric: “collisionable hours.” The metric measures the number of potential collisions per hour per acre. It’s a numbers game: The more collisions the higher likelihood of people finding solutions that benefit Zappos and the community. The insight for stewards is to stop using meetings as an excuse for not colliding (collaborating) with others.
Meet with internal and community stakeholders. Experiment with open workspace environments. Co-locate project teams to encourage collisions and collaboration. Your organization could see an increase in creative and innovative solutions.
❏❏ Make time for face-to-face meetings. It’s hard to achieve and maintain quality collaborative relationships when the interactions are mostly virtual. While such interactions help organizations be flexible with remote working arrangements, they need to find a balance between working remotely and on-site.
Collaborative partnerships need strong relationships. Despite geographic constraints, make time regularly to bring your team together for in-person meetings. At this time, researchers are split about the effectiveness of remote working arrangements. Still, nothing can replace the supremacy of interacting with a team that’s bodily in the same room.
Cooperation and collaboration are not two sides of the same coin. The unifying influence of collaboration is strongest on the work environment. Researchers Jane Dutton of the University of Michigan and Emily Heaphy of Boston University write that “high-quality connections literally and figuratively enliven people.”4 The adept steward knows when collaboration is necessary and when a situation calls for cooperation. Your focus should be on which two will best yield mutually beneficial outcomes with maximum impact on all involved.
EQUATION FOR COMMUNITY
Collaboration is part of a critical equation important to the optimistic workplace. Not only is collaboration key, so, too, but is also a connection among people, including the leader. When collaboration is combined with the connection, a community emerges. All stewards need to remember that:
Collaboration + Connection = Community
I call this the Equation for the Community. If the Origins of Optimism are the bones to creating workplace optimism, and purpose and meaning-fulness are the heart, then the Equation for Community is the blood that oxygenates the entire system.
The three parts to the equation are important by themselves. When you combine them, their influence magnifies. Collaboration is the active participation of people working jointly together. The connection is a relationship between people focused on and held together by evolving shared interests. The community is a unified group of people with a shared interest. Each part of the equation feeds naturally into the other.
While too often groups of people develop a self-interest in winning and success, the Equation for Community helps people move past it. How? The very nature of each element of the equation strengthens only when the focus is on the group or the team. As I said earlier, no one person is more important than the team. The Equation for Community reinforces achieving success for the greater good, not for the select few.
CONNECTION IS IN OUR BIOLOGY
What I hope you see is that honoring the human side of the business as expressed through belonging and connectedness is not only good for people and business but also addresses the biology of human beings. Like belonging, the need for connection is a result of how our brain is wired. Neuroscience is revealing fascinating insights that can shed light on leadership activities that will foster belonging and connection. As a leader, you can intentionally create a safe, caring, and optimistic environment by knowing a little about oxytocin.
First, always be sure your people know each other and know what everyone is working on. This builds awareness of the team’s shared focus and reduces the chances of isolationism. You can accomplish this by holding daily team huddles or stand-up meetings.
Next, when you bring on new hires, pair them with someone from your team. Be sure the formal partnership lasts at least three months. This gives the two team members time to discuss the nuances of the culture and other work realities that shape how things get done on your team and in the organization. Use technology to help communicate updates that help people make sense of what’s happening or that will influence their work.
WHEN WE IGNORE OTHERS
Imagine you are a new team member and you walk into the lunchroom alone on your first day. The laughter and conversation are at a peak; it’s shortly after 12:30 p.m., the busiest time. You find a spot at a table full of men and women talking. You sit down, open your bag lunch, and begin to unpack it, all the while overhearing several interesting conversations. You don’t want to add to any of them out of concern for being rude. After all, you don’t know anyone.
As you eat your lunch, no one acknowledges you, not even with a slight head nod. After lunch, you head to the conference room for your next meeting. You’re early. People slowly trickle in and look at you. Some smile weakly. Promptly at the top of the hour, the meeting starts. No one officially welcomes you. Disappointed, you busy yourself taking notes but have no clue what is being discussed because the conversation is filled with corporate jargon.
New research in the organizational sciences is studying the effects of being ignored (also known as ostracism) versus being harassed to learn which of the two is more damaging to a person’s psychological well-being. In the above scenario, you are ostracized. Most of us believe that harassment is more damaging than being ignored. After all, if you are verbally harassed, that, too, is damaging psychologically, right?
The findings of the research might surprise you. For starters, ostracized employees have a higher turnover rate than do those who are harassed. Researchers learned that some attention is better than none at all, even if it’s negative. When a person is harassed there is at least some interaction. While relationships are damaged by harassment, there is no relationship when a person is ostracized. And this turns out to be more difficult for us to handle.
Our brains are wired to seek out groups to which we can belong. Ostracizing people prevents them from belonging. Being ignored at work is more damaging than being bullied. Ignoring people isolates them, causing pain and discomfort. It signals to people that they are not worth the effort to say hello to and that they are inconsequential. These are charged words and disturbing findings. If you’ve ever been shunned by a group or an individual, the memories can be painful.
The pain of being ignored is deeply rooted in our biological need to belong. Belonging is a human motivation. When we can’t form long-term, caring relationships that are reciprocal, our motivation is negatively influenced.
In a work context, this leads to lower morale, higher turnover rates, and negative feelings about working for the company. This is precisely why stewards must work diligently to create an environment where people are welcomed and feel a sense of belonging through strong, mutually beneficial relationships.
Belonging is a deep sense of connectedness to a group and to select individuals. It is through connectedness that we can find meaning in our work. Connectedness makes us smarter, as we’re exposed to a more diverse set of perspectives and can learn from people’s experiences. Researchers have learned that relationships are key to our physical health, advancement in our thinking, and finding meaning in life.
Team solidarity and positive team and self-identities are possible when people can bond. The human drive to bond is linked to positive emotions like love and caring. These are two taboo topics that have historically struggled to find their place in corporate vernacular. Leaders have shied away from using these words, given the perceived awkwardness of letting their actions reflect that they care about, and even love, their people and customers. Their denial in the workplace goes against human nature and limits the depth of connectedness you can create for your team.
When you intentionally create a connection, there’s no tolerance for ostracism. The expectation and demonstration of love and caring establish that all people will be welcomed and honored.
As a steward, you create the conditions for connectedness and model the behaviors so that it can emerge, as in the example from Zing-erman’s. A deeper connection with your team, customers, and even suppliers are integral to influencing the climate to be marked with optimism.
Out of this deeper connection comes a sense of greater relatedness. Employees feel understood by you. They also engage in meaningful dialogue with each other; there is no room for gossip that shreds the bonds that form. People are having fun together as demonstrated by celebrations, showing small gestures of gratitude, going out for coffee together, and even pausing during the day to chat with peers about nonwork topics.
THE TRUST GAME
There’s a well-known experiment in the social sciences called the trust game. The game works like this: There are two players, and each is given $10. The game is played without the players seeing one another. Player 1 initiates the game by deciding if he will send some of his $10 to Player
2. Money decisions are entered into a computer. It’s important to note that if Person 1 sends money to Person 2 the amount sent is automatically tripled. Person 2 then decides if she will reciprocate by giving none, all, or some of the money back to Person 1.
Person 1’s first move is an act of trust. Person 1 doesn’t know Person 2, so he must have some level of trust that his transfer will yield some return. If Person 2 returns some of the transferred money, this is an act of trustworthiness; after all, to be sent money by a stranger and to return some or all of it signals that Person 2 can be trusted to play the game. But why would Person 1 even send money to Person 2? Why not just walk away with $10? Why would Person 1 send money that would triple in value to someone he doesn’t know, or can’t see?
These are the questions scientist Paul Zak sought to answer in an experiment using the trust game. He found that 85 percent of people in the Person 1 role sent some money. Those who received the money reciprocated 98 percent of the time.
The idea that trust is central to forming and deepening connections may not be a surprise. A metaphorical handshake takes place when you extend trust and the person responds in a trustworthy manner. This handshake encourages you to trust the person more, which in turn encourages more trustworthy behavior on his part. Analyzing the research, I noticed a pattern that helps complete the handshake between truster and trustworthy partner. I call this pattern the Triad of Trust. A giver seeks to find ways to help people fulfill their needs, understand their wants, and realize their hopes.
TRIAD OF TRUST
A way to influence meaningful connections among people on your team is through the Triad of Trust. Its elements are a mindset, an emotion, and a behavior: giver’s mentality, empathy, and reciprocity.
A giver’s mentality takes the perspective of the other person. Rather than focusing first on what you can get or how you can benefit from a relationship, this mindset centers on how you can help the other person. You’re still interested in a mutually beneficial arrangement. The nuance, however, puts the other person’s needs, wants, and hopes first. A giver seeks to find ways to help people fulfill their needs, understand their wants, and realize their hopes. This is a powerful way for a steward to show trustworthiness.
Empathy is understanding another person’s emotions and caring enough to imagine what those emotions might be like for him. It shows a deeper commitment to not judging the person for how he might be feeling but instead showing understanding.
Finally, reciprocity is simply showing your willingness to pay forward kindness that was shown to you. In reciprocal relationships, there is no one-to-one count for paying back someone’s good deed. The act of reciprocity is done merely because it was extended to you or you observed someone extend it to another. Woven together, these three elements help you deepen connections within your team and in your relationships.
Are you worth trusting as a leader? You need to be seen as trustworthy, too. In Zak’s experiments, Person 1 trusted partners more when they shared some of the money they were sent. This holds a key insight for you as a steward.
In the experiment, money is a metaphor, representing something highly valued and desirable. In the workplace, this can be success, recognition, or a high-profile project. It varies for each person you lead. Learn what is important to your staff members and then help them achieve their goals. It doesn’t matter if those goals are professionally related or not.
If your employees want to be promoted off your team, help them develop the skills to do so. You cannot control how long your employees stay with you. Make the most of the time you have with them. By showing that you want to help them live up to their potential, you may have them as team members longer.
Show that you are worthy of trust by providing feedback that helps employees improve. Remove barriers to progress in work. Hold regular one-on-one with each team member. Build trust by being trustworthy. Remember Jim Kouzes and Barry Posner’s DWYSYWD: Do what you say you will do. Receive trust by developing a mutually beneficial relationship with each person you lead.
As Emmy Award-winning journalist Kare Anderson advocates, find the sweet spot. This is the place where your interests and those of each person with whom you collaborate come together to create something beneficial for everyone involved. Can you deepen connection without trust? Sure, but it will take an exhausting level of effort that is unsustainable, and the results will be limited.
❏❏ People step in for each other naturally. In a community, people step in to cover for each other when a member cannot fulfill a commitment. Community members must know each other’s skill sets and be able to carry out each other’s tasks.
❏❏ Sacred objects unify the team. Connected team members will naturally find through the course of time an object or objects that represent an important moment in their history. These sacred objects become part of the team’s history and its culture. They are ritually shared by older team members with newer ones.
❏❏ Emphasis is placed on mutually beneficial relationships. Personal agendas don’t dominate the growth of relationships. People can shift their focus to what’s best for the growth of the community.
❏❏ Knowledge and growth unify the community. When people come together in a community, they learn from each other’s diverse perspectives and bring about better results together.
❏❏ Productive conflict is practiced. Productive conflict is rooted in respect for the relationship and for the other person’s or people’s perspective. Differences within the community are brought to light and dealt with. Drama triangles are not tolerated.
❏❏ Social loafing isn’t tolerated. In a healthy community, people participate to advance the cause and create results that matter to it. Social loaf-ing is when people are allowed to ride the coattails of others. There is no room for this in healthy communities.
Consider the influence each of these elements of the community has on climate. When they are viewed positively, each one, separately and combined, leaves people feeling good about their place in the community, and in the work that the community does together. Ultimately, these elements give people a sense of optimism—that good things are possible from the work the community does. It’s also about the work each person contributes. We all want to believe and feel that we’re part of something important.
Stewards weave together these various practices to make a place of work worth coming to each day. Your people have a choice where they work. Make that choice meaningful. Make it fulfilling. Make it count for them and for their families, too.
THE MIGHTY START SMALL
Start small. That was one piece of common advice I received when I interviewed employees on what they would recommend to leaders who want to create workplace optimism. Forget about the “big bang” approach to shifting the climate. Don’t plan a big announcement trumpeting the arrival of the next thing that will make work great. This over-used management play has done nothing but tune employees’ BS detector to “highly sensitive.”
The other common advice was to show that you care about the conditions that shape how your team perceives the workplace. Start small and show you care. Notice what’s common here? The advice is intimate. It’s genuine. It’s relational. The richness in the two seemingly simple pieces of advice is weighted with significance: It reflects a shift in the quality of relationship employees hope to have with you. It also sheds light on the skills you need to co-create an optimistic workplace.
The skills required represent a subtle shift in how you show up. The shift is away from dominant management beliefs and actions to those needed of a steward who is responsible for shaping the context that helps everyone on the team do their best work. In part, the shift relies on traditional leadership skills—motivate, inspire, coach, for example. Yet the subtleties for stewardship require added finesse in not only creating an optimistic workplace but also in creating “the best outcomes, even if it’s uncomfortable,” says BambooHR cofounder Ryan Sanders.
Thirteen years of data show that employees are not using their talents to do their best work. It will take small and consistent actions from you to contribute to reversing this dismal data point. Underlying the shift to stewardship is a fundamental belief that people can be trusted and are not lazy.
The belief that people want to make a difference in their world and be part of something bigger is a driver for a stewardship approach that inspires and motivates people to do their best. Money is rarely the prime motivator for employee performance. You can have a significant influence on your employees’ performance if you relate to them as human beings.
The skills included in this blog will help you achieve strong relationships with your team, help you create and shape an optimistic work environment, and help you achieve desired results together. What’s unique about the skills is their specificity to creating workplace optimism.
The proliferation of optimistic workplaces is undoubtedly linked to the talents and willingness of leaders who supplant the beliefs of management for those of stewardship. Relying on “old tapes” of how things once were will limit your growth as a steward. Organizations will remain hindered in their adaptation to the changing realities of organizational life.
Wisdom loops will help you remain relevant. There are three elements to them, starting with your unlimited potential. As you explore your potential—or your employees’—you learn (the second element) more about yourself and your craft. This helps you grow (the third element) as a human being and leader and expands your body of work.
As you grow, you expand your potential, starting an upward spiral that elevates your potential. The wisdom loop repeats itself. The rhythm of the loops goes like this: Your potential helps you learn, which in turn helps you grow, which in turn unleashes more of your potential. By developing any of the skills and traits listed below, you enter into a wisdom loop.
PORTRAIT OF A STEWARD
Skills and traits categorically linked to strategic thinking, global thinking, and design thinking are important for a well-rounded steward. Those, however, are not the focus here. The skills and traits included in this blog fall under two categories: Self and Us. Those listed under the Self-category are the highest-value skills or traits that are needed to bring optimism to the forefront of people’s experience at work. Those in the Us category rely on skills or traits necessary to deepen connection among members of your team as well as to create a sense of belonging that people experience while working in your team.
Some of the items below may be familiar, while a few may be new to you. The contents of the lists come from a variety of sources. I reflected back on my 20-plus years as an organizational change management practitioner and looked for themes that surfaced for leaders who were willing to create a great work environment.
I then closely examined the interview transcripts for this blogfor themes about skills necessary to create an optimistic workplace. Also, I examined how change triggers influence the way organizations to operate now and in the future. Over time, the things employees want from their employers have changed; technology is shifting how and where we work, shaping the nature and quality of our interactions.
Finally, great thinkers of our time like Angela Duckworth and Martin Seligman influenced my thinking about what it takes for stewards to be effective in their role as optimism makers. I synthesized these varying elements to create the portrait of a steward captured below. They reflect a mixture of experience and input from people in the trenches and academics doing quality research that help us relate better to and understand people.
I purposely avoided identifying strengths. Strengths are different from skills. Skills reflect competence. The philosophy of strengths contends that when we focus on our talents, our growth is greatest, as opposed to the limited growth that comes from a focus on weaknesses.
Relating to human beings is troubling when you choose to not become more self-aware. Your ability to shape an energizing environment is crippled. To create workplace optimism you must know how to assess the way your presence influences your team, both positively and negatively.
It’s important to recognize that you already are talented in many of the skill areas. Likewise, you probably have some of the traits listed below. It is not egotistical to believe that you demonstrate or possess any of them. Give yourself credit for what you do well and who you already are. The confidence will help you build stronger relationships.
❏❏ Humility. It’s fitting to list first the trait of humility. The success and joy you experience watching people flourish and live up to their potential can be deeply gratifying. It can stroke the ego. Humility helps keep you grounded. It helps you build stronger relationships, a key factor in fashioning the optimistic workplace.
It’s also a key ingredient to seeing your flaws and strengths and appreciating them in others. The pursuit of success, while important to your own aspirations, is also done for the greater good. Research shows that the humble CEO gains acceptance from her team and those in the middle layers when she appeals to shared interests and downplays a dominating influence of ego.
If this is true at the upper levels of an organization, imagine the powerful influence a humble manager has on the team. Keep in mind that employees’ immediate managers have a greater influence on their perceptions and work experiences than do CEOs. Humble stewards establish an expectation of behavioral norms that are key to creating an energizing and empowering climate, for example, inclusive decision making, sharing the power to help others be successful, even expressing and showing that the leader needs others.
❏❏ Honesty. There are two dimensions to honesty: being honest with yourself and with others. Self-honesty helps you assess situations and your response to them realistically. This can be done with positive or uncomfortable realities. Take, for example, a situation in which your team landed a major client for the firm.
You helped coach the team on effective relationship-building approaches that contributed to landing the new contract. A person being honest with himself would take some credit for the win. Certainly, a principled steward would also admit some fault if he hadn’t provided the needed coaching to support the team’s efforts.
The other side of honesty is how you express your thoughts and feelings to others. Do you show a sincere side of your personality that builds and deepens relationships? Are you respectful but honest when sharing difficult feedback? An honest steward builds trust and credibility. Others can predict with some accuracy what you might do and say. Trust, credibility, and predictability are outcomes you want to create by being honest. Using honesty to damage relationships and partnerships has no place in an optimistic workplace.
❏❏ Reflection. This can be my personal Achilles’ heel. When I’m on auto-pilot, I can easily overlook the need to reflect on what’s happening around me. I’ve learned after several difficult situations that it’s important to find the pause button, step away from my first reaction, and quiet my mind. Take time to reflect so you can connect the dots between people and events to make sense of what’s happening around you. You don’t want to overlook patterns that can interfere with your work to create optimism.
❏❏ Grit. Researcher Angela Duckworth, who studied spelling bee participants, defines grit as “perseverance and passion for long-term goals.” Students who went farther in the spelling bee practiced more and were grittier than students who didn’t spend as much time practicing. Duckworth’s initial conclusion is common sense: Invest more time and you will do better than those who don’t practice.8 Upon deeper review, however, she found that happiness also plays an important role in a person’s grit.
Duckworth and her research colleagues discovered that grittier people pursue deeper levels of happiness, like engagement and meaning. The fortitude to withstand difficult circumstances and the passion to overcome them to achieve goals requires a deep commitment to doing the work. This is what Duckworth refers to an engagement.
And rather than chase after pleasures to find happiness, gritty people seek meaning, or to be of service to others, to experience a more fulfilling type of happiness. Undoubtedly you will face challenges in cultivating optimism at work. You’ll set goals, miss the mark, and recover by reflecting on what went wrong. Grit can help you endure the hardships and find greater enrichment in living while pursuing meaningful personal and professional goals.
❏❏ Resilience. The ability to recover from, adapt to, and grow from setbacks is resilience. Positive emotions like joy, interest, and pride help build resilience. Resilience helps generate positive emotions. Is resilience something you just have, or can you grow to be more resilient? The good news is, the answer is yes to the latter. You build resilience through-out your life. Positive emotions help you strengthen your ability to learn from life’s troubles.
The dual relationship between resilience and positive emotions helps increase your life satisfaction.11 So what’s important about resilience in relation to optimism? Frankly, your efforts will likely meet some level of resistance from skeptical employees. Your peers may think it’s not possible for your workplace. Resilience is necessary to help you persevere through the doubt and frustrations. Positive emotions will help see you through the difficult times.
Now, these statements are based on the assumption that workplace optimism is not part of the climate. For those who have some level of optimism in the workplace, resilience and positive emotions are key to help you overcome challenges that threaten to minimize the positive vibe that you and your team have created. This trait is a remarkable source of happiness that can lead you to great achievements that can make a difference for you and those you lead.
❏❏ Sense-Making. A skill related to reflection, sensemaking is your ability to inquire into, not judge, a situation to learn its meaning.12 For example, you learn that your team has doubts about your efforts to improve the work environment. One of your employees confides in you that several others felt your speech about needing to find purpose in work and believing that good things should come from it was just talk. Most didn’t believe that you’d really follow through.
Even a few views work solely as something necessary to put food on the table; they don’t need meaning and purpose in their work. Rather than react to the feedback, you decide to observe the team’s actions and learn the meaning behind their doubt. You avoid blaming and labeling your employees. (The very act of labeling limits your scope of sense-making. Labeling the team as lazy or closed-minded only puts up barriers to understanding. The labels are judgments and personal.
Both will prevent a richer relationship from forming.) Learning the meaning behind their doubt better positions you to connect with your team members and help them overcome what is causing the suspicion of your intent. Your approach to observing helps you learn what is important and what is merely noise. Ultimately, sensemaking is about understanding so you can take action to respond in the best manner possible to a situation or circumstance.
In the above scenario, a strong way to respond would be to meet individually with team members and inquire into their thinking. Test your conclusions against what you learn from the conversations. Adapt your conclusions as you gain more information, remaining open to realities you hadn’t considered.
Different perspectives are invaluable to sense-making. By showing your interest in learning the meaning behind people’s words and actions, you create a path for mutual understanding and greater chances for collaboration. This is invaluable for cultivating optimism.
❏❏ Vulnerability. In the machinations of business, many of us have gained the ability to present a strong demeanor. Don’t let people see you upset. Maintain a facade of strength; don’t let people see your weaknesses. This is outdated chicanery and certainly will not help bring about the optimistic workplace. A human-centered workplace makes room for vulnerability. We can relate more deeply to people when we know they also have struggled. We all experience it.
Many deny its influence on our thoughts and actions. But vulnerability cannot be quieted. It’s most influential when we accept its presence. It’s destructive when we deny its gut-wrenching existence. The vulnerability is not a weakness. It takes strength to show it. Despite feeling vulnerable, you show up. We all must be willing to show vulnerability if we are to have meaningful relationships with others. Showing vulnerability is essential to exploring purpose.
It’s essential to making decisions that may not be what you want but what’s needed. It may involve sharing information that does not represent your best side. Conversely, it may involve sharing something that is great but that you worry about being judged as “better than.” Showing vulnerability takes grit and courage.
The skill is in silencing the committee in your head that says play it safe, don’t reveal your hand. The beauty of showing vulnerability is that it allows people to get closer to you. This helps you be a more relatable and perhaps stronger leader than the one hiding behind a facade of strength.
For the Greater Good
Where Self skills and traits focus on raising awareness of who you are so you can have a greater impact on people and results, Us skills and traits aim to make life better for human beings. Those listed below help you unleash people’s potential. They support your work as a steward in helping people uncover and live up to their purpose and discover meaning in their work. I’m including some that are less obvious. Notably excluded from the list are coaching and mentoring.
These skills are vital to helping people grow, but I’ve not listed them because they are more obvious. Also not included are skills that have been thoroughly examined throughout the book, for example, collaboration and making meaning. One final point: You can’t create an optimistic workplace by yourself. It’s a community effort. The skills below reinforce this philosophy. Creating change can’t be done in a vacuum or in secrecy.
❏❏ Noticing. BambooHR cofounder Ryan Sanders explains this skill as paying attention to the overt and subtle ways people positively contribute to the team and its goals. The skill of noticing is nuanced and unique to each leader. For Sanders, noticing includes sending a thank-you email to a group of new employees doing great in training. This noticing act carries profound significance when it comes from a founder. For Sanders’s business partner, Ben Peterson, noticing included customizing a sincere thank-you for a sales employee who hit a milestone in his goals.
This employee loves shoes. Knowing this, Peterson bought him two pairs of basketball shoes to add to his collection. Sanders and Peterson take time to notice what’s important to people. Underneath the act of noticing is a genuine curiosity about people and learning what’s important to them. Noticing also is helpful during difficult discussions. Dan Cawley, a chief operating officer at ThesisScientist, uses noticing as a way to help people live more fully into their potential.
In interviews with me, Cawley and those who work closely with him gave numerous examples of his asking inquisitive questions when he notices another person’s discomfort.15 There are four key behaviors linked to the noticing skill: asking open-ended questions; recognition, for example for accomplishments or milestones; showing appreciation, and having compassion for people’s well-being and happiness. It’s a selfless skill. The four behaviors help express how you care for others.
❏❏ Connecting. Business has been and always will be built on the backs of relationships. Thankfully, human beings are still essential to doing a majority of the work needed in organizations. As I’ve said previously, the one relationship that has been largely ignored is the one between employee and employer. The employer is mostly represented by the employee’s immediate boss.
It’s been a contentious relationship that no longer fits today’s realities. The demands on people are greater as competition and the rate of change keeps organizations on their toes. What is needed today is a relationship innovation. Your relationship with employees needs to go from transactional to relational.
A skill critical to such innovation involves connecting your people to the resources they need to reach their potential. You are an advocate for their growth. If your employees need access to people, go to bat for them. If they need resources like money or time and the business case is strong, advocate for the resources. The days when employees’ ideas and requests died with the manager and went unheard ended when human potential became a paramount concern for stewards.
❏❏ Experimenting. Menlo Innovations CEO Rich Sheridan likes to say, “Let’s run an experiment.” It was his willingness to try new ideas that might make his business a better place to work that led to allowing new-born babies in the workplace. Or consider Zingerman’s approach to expanding into new business areas. When approved by the company’s partners, the associate who thinks of a new business is given some money to see if she can make the business grow.
These are examples of big experiments and may not reflect what you may do. They hold insights that are key to the skill of experimenting. First, shape the conditions in your team that signal to employees it’s all right to experiment. Leaders at Menlo Innovations and Zingerman’s make failure acceptable by encouraging people to take risks in how they approach their work and to learn quickly from mistakes. Show your team how you are experimenting. Openly share what’s working and not working.
BambooHR uses what it calls an Oops Email that goes out when people make a mistake that has a serious impact on others in the organization. There is no policy about when to send such an email or what to include in it. It’s intended to remove the shame and embarrassment of making mistakes. The premise is simple: Explain what went wrong and how it will be fixed.
If people are allowed to hide behind mistakes, it reduces the likelihood of people experimenting to make the organization stronger. You’ll rely on experimenting when you work with your team to give shape to a strong optimistic culture. You’ll run experiments with your team to see what works and what doesn’t help people have a shared, positive experience at work.
❏❏ Prioritizing. At first glance, this skill may seem unrelated. But it is the most crucial in creating workplace optimism. Competing demands and priorities threaten to erode whatever goodwill exists and to cripple the positive environment. Against a backdrop of too much work and not enough resources, you cannot afford to have employees unclear about what work is important, why it’s a priority, and how it creates value for the team and organization. Your ability to prioritize with each of your employees their workload positions them to make progress on what matters. A lack of progress in work will also erode and cripple the effects of workplace optimism.
How do you determine which skills to develop or traits to strengthen? That depends. You need clarity on what optimism looks like in your environment. If the quality of the work experience is not where you need it to be, then select two to three skills and/or traits that will help you get closer to what you want. If you’re unsure of what the environment is all together, then select items from the list that will help you get the clarity you need. It will guide you through a process to help you map out what needs to be done to create an optimistic workplace.
What Self and Us skills and traits have in common is their humanity. They help you become more relatable and more understanding of your employees’ aspirations. Cultivating workplace optimism is something you’ll go through together with your team.