What is workplace positivity?
Workplace positivity is a characteristic of climate. The climate feels optimistic. People are inspired by their work and the possibilities inherent in it. Workplace positivity is the belief that good things will come from hard work.
Research shows that you can transform the work experience by focusing on the best positive potential realities. Rather than spend time focusing on what’s wrong or missing in the workplace, you can choose to focus on what’s right and possible in the workplace.
Rather than ignoring the climate, you can observe how it’s influencing work quality and relationships. You can transform the work experience by simply recognizing and leveraging human nature.
Today, leaders need to recognize the impact work has on people’s overall life satisfaction. It is an antiquated belief that leaders should focus solely on the professional side of team members’ lives.
Work needs to be a positive influence, given that it consumes much of our waking time. The work we do and how we feel about it shapes our identity. Leaders have a responsibility to help their teams understand the importance of their work.
Workplace positivity is not a touchy-feely organizational theory that ignores the need for profitability or the downsides of work life. Workplaces flourish because a team’s good work yields superior business outcomes.
This, though, is where the logic breaks down. The belief that there is no time for the leadership activities and interactions that yield positivity is as outdated as viewing employees as assets or resources.
In a 2014 study by LinkedIn of 18,000 employees, 15 percent were satisfied with their jobs and didn’t want to leave. Research by Gallup from the same year found 13 percent of people were engaged with their work.
There’s not much hope in those numbers. Pair these abysmally low numbers with the aspirations of employees and you can see that a desire for a better work climate lurks, but in most organizations, there’s not much opportunity for it to emerge.
Too many leaders are waiting for someone else to start the work to improve the culture or the climate. Certainly, it is ideal to have a top-down approach to improving both. Yet today’s senior leaders are not effectively addressing people-related business concerns.
How it feels to work in your team and within the organization is a critical workforce development issue. We need more leaders who are willing to choose to set a positive tone for their teams despite what senior management isn’t doing.
THE SUN ALSO RISES IN THE EAST
Defying stereotypes of Chinese businesses, Alibaba, the site that brings together consumers, merchants, and third-party service providers to sell products to customers around the world has carved out an optimistic climate for its employees.
The company’s CEO, Jack Ma, is known to appeal to people’s aspirations for doing good in the world and not just making a quick buck.
While Alibaba’s climate has been characterized as intense, employees are loyal, self-motivated, and cheerful. Ma’s leadership style is strategic in nature, as is evidenced by how clear the company's mission is to employees. In one report from Forbes, employees are said to always have the company on their minds.
Ma’s style is also relatable. He’s known for spending time with employees to understand their needs and help them feel welcome and wanted. To promote freedom, Ma had all the punch clocks removed, a stellar example of mirroring the climate to cultural practices.
However demotivating your climate, the good news is you can positively shift what your employees experience at work. That’s what this blog is intended to do: help you chart a path forward to create positivity where you work.
You can position employees to believe that work is a bright spot in their life. It will take changing some outdated beliefs about your role and your team’s role. In my work with leaders over the years, the following beliefs emerged as essential to helping create a positive work experience:
1. The Team Is More Important Than Any Individual
Alice was unaware of how she needs to look good, be right, and be creative at all costs was undermining her team’s performance.
As a senior leader for a Fortune 100 company, Alice was overusing her strengths and talents so she could shine. Because she cast a long shadow, her team grumbled daily about Alice’s need to be in the limelight.
She took for granted her team’s hard work. Rather than focus her attention on activities appropriate for a senior manager, she interfered with her team’s efforts when she found their work interesting. Her involvement caused rework or slowed progress. The team thought her meddling was inappropriate, even unprofessional.
Alice epitomizes the traditional approach to work: Do your best so you look good. The main problem with this approach is it undermines the team’s overall performance. How is the team’s performance influenced?
The more social we are, the more satisfied we feel. Our brains are wired to think about the thoughts, feelings, and goals of other people. This is called the default network.
For positivity to be strong, a cohesive team is vital. People need to believe the team will be there for them when needed. A team is weakened when the first priority is the needs of each person, or when the ego dictates a team’s actions or inaction.
2. There’s Value to Experiencing Joy at Work
The merits of joy at work are a growing focus in organizational life. Researcher and psychologist Barbara Fredrickson has discovered that the value of joy goes beyond the hedonism of feeling good. Fredrickson found that the positive emotion of joy helps broaden what she calls our thought-action repertoires.
This is when our brain, in a positive state, can identify more ways to respond to circumstances compared to the effects of negative emotions.
The latter has a narrowing effect on our ability to determine how to respond to social interactions and situations. When our brains are opened by positive emotions like joy, we can better see connections and more options to solve work problems.
Going a step further, joy can positively shape the work environment. The emotion of joy can elicit positive action in those who feel it. Causally, how one feels affects one’s actions. In the context of work, when joy is commonly expressed, it can create a safe environment and positively shape how one feels about the workplace.
What does all this mean in a work context? When people feel that the work environment is safe, optimistic, and yes, joyful, they are more likely to contribute their best. Quite simply it feels good when you’re doing your best work.
As it turns out, joy isn’t just about finding happiness, but also about playing; play at work is useful when creativity and innovation are needed.
The usefulness of creativity and innovation to the workplace is linked to increasing employees’ knowledge and skills. Play at work can be doing work that energizes you. It means having friends at work and experiencing work-life mix and sharing personal moments.
Menlo Innovations can sustain its growth by focusing on creating joy for its customers and consequently make Inc. magazine’s fastest-growing U.S. companies list multiple times.
Expressing joy is simple. Give a proud smile when a team member does great work. Go out of your way to recognize people in ways that are meaningful to them.
Celebrate reaching key project milestones or momentous occasions in an employee’s life—buying a new house or having a baby, for example. You simply need to practice showing joy as an emotion. It’s a powerful way to strengthen the connection between you and your team.
3. Doing Good Is Good for Business
It’s advantageous to make a contribution to improving your employees’ lives. In business, this means leaders must adopt business practices that help employees have a personal life.
Despite what your company’s practice is, you can implement a policy banning team members from emailing each other about business on weekends.
In our 24/7 culture, and given the ubiquity of smartphones, we habitually respond to the chime announcing a new email. Do good by not contributing to the stress levels of your employees who struggle to find a healthy mix between their personal and work lives.
Consider, for example, BambooHR. Based in Utah, the software development company has an anti-workaholic policy. The small start-up has found that when its team members have time to pursue personal interests, they are more productive and satisfied at work.
A “Do Good” philosophy emphasizes doing what you can to help your employees bring their best selves to work. In this era when skepticism toward organizations and leaders runs high, “Do Good” provides a counterbalance, helping to reestablish trust and shape a positive work experience.
4. Relationships with Employees Need to Be Richer
While laissez-faire economic wisdom says each of us pursuing our rational self-interests will create better results, new research shows the opposite.
In fact, researchers looking to understand cooperative behavior found that 30 percent of people behaved as if selfishly, and 50 percent of people behaved cooperatively.
According to the research, the remaining 20 percent behaved unpredictably, choosing to cooperate, or not, or refusing to do anything. Studies have found neural pathways that are inclined toward cooperation; we’re hardwired for it.
Relationships are central to it as well. Conventional wisdom says that by working together we can accomplish greater, more desirable outcomes. Take, for example, the remarkable 2014 events at Market Basket, a 73-store grocery chain based in Massachusetts owned by the Demoulas family.
More money for family shareholders. Reportedly the board was unhappy about a series of bad investments that amounted to large losses and shareholders received small payouts.
Additionally, the board had grown tired of the company’s generous pay structure and pension programs. These, too, led to small shareholder dividends. The change backfired, however.
What’s fascinating about the boycott was the show of support by the picketing employees, who were standing up for a leader who had invested in them. Customers and suppliers joined the employees in their protest. Losing an estimated $70 million a day, Market Basket was in serious trouble.
5. Work Should Align with Purpose and Meaning
In Arthur T.’s praise for his supporters, he acknowledged the importance that purpose and meaning played in the showdown with his cousin.
Purpose and meaning are too often downplayed while businesses emphasize financial motivators such as salary, bonuses, and pay increases. This outdated mindset blinds too many leaders from helping employees do work that matters.
Workplace positivity thrives when people understand why they show up to work. Not only is the purpose and meaning of work important, but so, too, are the personal implications.
Achieving this is a seismic shift for many leaders. This shift requires that we reevaluate and deepen our understanding of why team members show up to work daily.
Certainly, for some, it’s a means to an end. For those who generate the greatest value for the organization, their performance is driven by a profound need to understand why their work matters and how their life will be improved having invested their time and talents for your cause.
The opportunity costs are too great to do work that doesn’t matter. Personal expression through work is a major contributor to your employees’ well-being. Doing work that matters facilitates the expression of one’s talents. It leads to optimal performance for those who believe in their purpose and find meaning in their work and in life.
6. Leaders Need to Actualize Human Potential
For now, I want to draw attention to its belief in human potential. Luck Companies believes that “all human beings have the extraordinary potential to make a positive difference in the world.” For Luck, this foundational belief shapes how its leaders treat one another, develop their associates, and intentionally spread the message globally.
Actualizing human potential is built on the fundamental belief that people are inherently good, will do good, and can be trusted. Leadership expert Douglas McGregor has advocated this perspective for decades.
We must move beyond advocation and evolve to action. Throughout this blog, I will show you ways to actualize your people’s potential. These methods are central to causing the emergence of workplace positivity. Actualizing human potential puts the spirit into workplace positivity.
Each of the six beliefs serves as a guide to help you switch your workplace to be more suitable for people. They also support your efforts to achieve expected results.
Whether individually or combined, examine them and how they can help make a shift in your team’s climate. Also important is how the beliefs provide guidance for you as you explore what actions to take to create a positive place to work.
ORIGINS OF positivity
Optimistic climates don’t follow a people-first philosophy. They don’t follow a profit-first philosophy either.
Instead, they follow a dynamic exchange among three elements that create a motivating environment: purpose, meaningful work, and extraordinary people. I call these three elements the Origins of positivity.
The dynamics among these three work like this: Purpose informs employees’ work at the same time influencing a community of people to align with their own aspirations.
The work directs what extraordinary people focus on. Simultaneously, people influence what work needs to be done, how, and when. Both extraordinary people and the work advance the purpose.
The Origins of positivity—purpose, meaningful work, and extraordinary people—interact with each other in one dynamic exchange. There is no number one. The three elements are interdependent.
For anyone element to be successful, the other two need to be healthy. Remove an element, and the dynamic exchange falls apart; so, too, does the positive influence it has on the organization. Let’s break down each element at a high level.
I’ll explain the Origins of positivity in detail throughout the blog, including how to use each element to guide your work to create the conditions for positivity. For now, however, here’s a high-level breakdown of each element.
Begin with Purpose
The purpose is the passionate drive for a cause that unites the heads, hearts, hands, and guts of your people. It’s a prime motivator.
In one study, 77 percent of millennials indicated that a company’s purpose is part of the reason they work there. What’s unique in optimistic climates is how purpose extends to individuals, too.
In optimistic climates, team members’ own purpose outside of work is encouraged. Leaders who create positive work environments expect their people to explore their purpose. It’s not necessarily a spiritual expectation, but a logical one.
Employees who are personally fulfilled are more likely to seek fulfillment in their profession. Deloitte, a global management consultancy and Fortune 100 company, believes in the business value of purpose. It views purpose as the reason managers and other employees come to work each day.
In a Deloitte survey, 66 percent of respondents from companies who don’t believe the purpose is clear don’t have a history of meeting financial performance expectations.
In contrast, 91 percent of organizations with a strong sense of purpose do satisfy stakeholders by meeting financial performance expectations.
How do you know if your employees are clear on the organization’s purpose? Check their ability to synchronize their role to why the team exists. More obvious than that, however, is their enthusiasm. Purpose lights people up. There’s an aliveness within people who have a purpose, who work with purpose, who align with a purpose.
When I ask employees at organizations about the role purpose plays in their work, answers go beyond the tactical. There is a red thread of understood significance between their efforts and the outcomes they create.
Employees aren’t satisfied to show up and do eight hours of work when a vibe of positivity thrives. They expect to make a difference. Here are some statements from employees I have interviewed about how purpose helps them in their work:
“[My purpose is to] help customers achieve greater levels of success.”
“It sets people free to do great work.”
“It makes lives better.”
“Creates an environment to let innovation flourish.”
“Be a safe harbor [for people].”
“Help people reach their goals.”
“Give information in a helpful manner so that it’s understood.”
“Be an advocate and adviser for the customer.”
What stands out in these statements and the many others from my research is how selfless the statements are. Notice that the value from purpose is centered on supporting others and is a reason for doing the work.
The purpose may be altruistic in nature, but its ability to unify a group of people is essential for organizations that want to stand apart from their competition.
Going a step further, team members who share a sense of purpose are more willing to support one another through the grind of work and celebrate victories together. Teams that lack a sense of shared purpose don’t take time to celebrate key accomplishments.
Attract Extraordinary People
The final element to the Origins of positivity is people. This element is about aligning a community of people—your team—to a shared purpose. It’s still a leader’s responsibility to learn what motivates each person on her team.
The nuance is that people aren’t singled out as the primary focus. It’s the community of people that grab the reader's attention. Care for the whole and nurture the individual. This is what helps foster an optimistic workplace.
In a positive climate, people are believed to be and treated as mature, fully functioning adults. This is an important perspective for Netflix, the online television network.
There’s a saying at Netflix that it hires “fully formed adults.” Aligning with this belief are policies—or an absence of policies—that give employees freedom that assumes they will act in the best interests of the company. For example, expense reports aren’t required, and employees have unlimited vacation time.
It isn’t readily known if the absence of a vacation policy at Netflix leads to employees acting in the best interests of the company. However, with high-profile companies like Richard Branson’s Virgin Group and the Internet company Evernote adopting a similar vacation philosophy, the business value is catching on within forward-thinking organizations.
But there is more to this than business value. Building an organization on the fundamental belief that employees can be trusted and treated like fully functioning, mature adults is common sense. It’s also an essential input for creating a positive work environment.
You may not have the authority or influence to change policies related to expenses and vacations. Instead, you can focus on where you can give employees more freedom to demonstrate your belief in their maturity and ability to show up as fully functioning adults. People do rise to the occasion when they are trusted and high expectations are the norm.
Netflix has created an environment that helps a community of people work together. They believe strongly in “[helping] each other be great.” When is the next time you will communicate this expectation to your team in such simple, clear language?
You are not a babysitter scrutinizing your team’s work. That is an outdated perspective attributed to management. Nowadays leaders are expected to continuously develop self-awareness about how their actions and words influence others. Netflix considers this a characteristic of what it calls “The Rare Responsible Person.”
Such a person is self-motivated, self-disciplined, and proactive in his actions; he acts because it’s the right thing to do. Is this person rare? I don’t believe so. They may be hidden because the climate has not made people feel safe to stick one’s neck out and stand up for one’s beliefs or big ideas.
People want to do the right thing. They want to care about their work. They need, however, an environment that rewards such behaviors.
Attracting extraordinary people to your team is easiest when team members feel there is a sense of relatedness among them. Relatedness emerges when team members help each other be great and do their share of work without being asked. As a result, rewarding relationships flourish. This adds enjoyment and brings well-being to the workplace.
The people element of the Origins of positivity is essential to foster a strong, cohesive group that can adapt to the changes demanded of the team or the organization’s purpose. In these environments, people need to be able to pivot their focus quickly when working changes or as purpose evolves.
WHAT ABOUT PROFIT?
Profit is noticeably absent from the trio of elements outlined here that includes purpose, meaningful work, and extraordinary people. That’s not due to a lack of importance. Profit isn’t listed because profit doesn’t directly contribute to the workplace environment—the way it feels.
Sure, profit helps contribute to important physical elements in the work environment. However, profit is an outcome from the purpose-driven work and from the high-performing workforce that wholly invests its strengths and talents for the good of the organization.
Another reason I’ve not included profit as part of the Origins of positivity is due to the growing awareness that profit is no longer the primary marker of organizational success.
In a 2012 Deloitte study, one measure of business success found that 76 percent of leaders said they believed the value of a business should be measured by its impact on society as well as its profits.
Forty-four percent said they believe profit margin is the primary success determinant. And in a third measure, 71 percent of leaders disagreed with profit margin being the primary success measure.
The growing trend away from profit as a sole measure of success is in part due to the millennial mindset.
Rather than pin the shift in attitudes on one generation, people of all ages are advocating for something more than the myopic perspective on profit. Purpose, societal impact, and profit together are what today’s employees and a growing number of company leaders advocate for measures of success.
Why workplace positivity?
The garage at Luck Companies is full of big rock-crushing equipment. Tires stand tall at seven feet on some. As in most garages, the smell is a mixture of oil and dirt. With a deliberate stride, Kelly comes up and shakes my hand.
Kelly is one of the mechanics. He’s a quiet, friendly man. Kelly agreed to be interviewed for this blog. “I’m not sure what I can add,” he says to me. But once he starts talking about the influence Luck has had on his life, words flow.
Like many in organizations around the world, Kelly didn’t expect much from his employer. Though he had heard great things about the company, he had no idea how his life would become so satisfying. It’s those last six words that hold the answer to the question of why you should focus on workplace positivity.
The influence positivity has on a company’s people goes beyond the confines of the office space. Work-place positivity contributes to everyone’s overall life satisfaction. This theme surfaced again and again in the interviews I have had with team members in companies of all sizes. A work environment that inspires their best work.
It’s the leader’s responsibility hope and ignites people’s potential has a positive influence on employees’ personal life.
Kelly said to me that he “can go home stress-free” because of the climate in his work team. He told me a story about the time a company executive wanted to learn the business by working at the garage.
In place of talking with Kelly about the job requirements, the executive scooted under one of the machines with him and asked to be put to work. The show of support made Kelly feel valued and immediately built rapport between the two men. In exchange for “stress-free” and respect, Kelly goes out of his way to do his best.
It’s the leader’s responsibility to create an environment that motivates. The benefits Kelly receives from work and the extra effort he puts into it are just two reasons for leaders to focus on creating an optimistic climate. There is, though, a more logical one: It’s good for business.
In the 10 years since Luck Companies has rolled out its values-based leadership philosophy to all its associates across all lines of business, the aggregate company has seen tremendous results.
While the company keeps much of its financial details private, it shared some financial metrics with me to help show how an optimistic workplace has been beneficial.
Workplace positivity is simply a place to start to make a difference for your people and for the business. It’s a leadership opportunity that can turn work into a contribution to people’s lives.
Additionally, it can positively shape how people view and experience working on your team or in your company. Certainly, there are other options to achieve results as those Kelly told me. The key is to choose to act.
You’ve now read the central elements to an optimistic climate, but what exactly does it look like? Here’s what it looks like when it takes root and positively transforms the work environment:
1. People anticipate good things will come from their work.
2. Personal and professional goals are achieved.
3. Personal and professional worlds are integrated.
4. People make satisfying progress with their work.
5. Financial metrics are achieved.
6. People are viewed as significant and the heart of success.
7. Values-based leadership guides actions and decisions.
8. Partnership and collaboration replace hierarchy-driven interactions.
9. Community building is encouraged.
10. Organizational and personal purpose guide decisions.
11. Strengths are maximized.
Keep in mind that the vibe in your team is constantly changing. So the conditions listed above may not all be present at the same time. That’s okay. What you choose to focus on based on the needs of your team will influence heavily what emerges as important.
The above conditions create a picture of a better way to work. Creating workplace positivity is about leveraging what human beings want in life and infusing that into the way you lead and connect with others.
Not all leaders will choose to improve the climate of the workplace. That’s okay. You see the opportunities. The benefits far outweigh the costs and toll that a negative environment has on people.
We spend the majority of our time interacting with others at work. In light of this reality, it’s merely common sense that we invest the time and exert the energy to overhaul how we work together, define value from our efforts, and create and find meaning in where we chose to invest our time.
In comparison, extrinsic motivators, like pay or promotions, come from outside a person. These have a shorter influence on motivation. Intrinsic motivators have a longer-lasting influence on our satisfaction and willingness to do our best work. Despite popular management belief, money is not the top performance motivator.
❏❏ Self-Acceptance. Ryff explains that self-acceptance, along with the other elements, is key to positive functioning as adults.
In the work-place, this is about having a positive attitude toward oneself. What we miss as stewards are how our actions—such as coaching and mentoring— can and must help employees learn how to view themselves positively.
This represents a significant shift in how many leaders view their role. Leaders today need to do less controlling and focus more on helping their people self-actualize through the pursuit of doing meaningful work.
❏❏ Environmental Mastery. Just as it is your responsibility to be a context shaper, each of your employees, and you must shape the environment to meet their needs. When the work environment stops meeting our needs, our well-being can be adversely affected. Performance suffers. Clarity is murky.
Relationships strain. As a leader, you have the dual role of shaping the environment to help your employees’ psychological well-being and ensuring it supports yours as well.
❏❏ The purpose of Life. The need to live life intentionally and with direction is not limited to what we do outside work. The effects of destructive management can be mitigated if the purpose is used more often to guide decisions.
The purpose is your why: Why are we doing this? How does this support our mission? How does this support your personal goals?
❏❏ Personal Growth. It’s important for employees to believe that their time working with you and others will help them grow in meaningful ways important to their professional and personal goals. People need to believe that personal growth is possible and is a choice available to them.
With a white-knuckled grip on the familiar ways of work, we overlook the importance psychological well-being plays in creating a positive work experience. Equally as important, without psychological well-being, we don’t see our purpose as stewards to shape workplace positivity.
Carol Ryff’s work serves as a call to action for workplace positivity. My goal is for you to improve your team members’ psychological well-being to help create workplace positivity.
The myriad of outdated beliefs presented in this section have one thing in common: a misunderstanding of human needs. The practices that make up the science of management have been well honed over the last several hundred years.
These practices were built on a flawed assumption—that the singular focus for running a business is what’s important for the organization. Too little consideration was given to what’s important for the individuals doing the work.
Certainly, bad management decisions cannot be avoided. A decision is better than none at all if progress is to be experienced. How you help your team through the impacts of bad decision matters most. The outcomes of bad management are and will be a reality as long as humans are involved. We’re messy and imperfect.
If you are to move past the adverse effects of some decisions and create workplace positivity, you will need to face reality as it is and take action to move your team closer to positivity. You’ll need to assess where you believe your team is regarding the impacts of bad management realities.
The positivity Planner will help you determine where you might want to focus your efforts to counter the effects of destructive management. For now, here are some leadership actions you can take to set you and your team down the path to the optimistic work-place:
Bring your team together and demonstrate that you understand how the team has been negatively impacted by management decisions. Be prepared to give specific examples of what you’ve observed and the impacts. Be prepared to listen. Do not offer excuses. Do not blame management.
Meet one-on-one with members of your team and learn what’s important to them in terms of the workplace. Continue to meet with team members to show you mean business in terms of creating a positive climate.
You cannot let too many distractions interfere with scheduling the one-on-ones. Occasionally postponing them is fine. But a habit of postponing them works against your vision and your intentions.
In your one-on-ones, ask each team member what goals—personal and professional—you can support. Inspire hope that the goals are possible by helping them break the goals down into smaller ones.
As you continue to discuss what a positive work experience means with individuals and with the team, begin to talk as a group about what the team can do to support the goal of working in an optimistic workplace.
Strengthen your social leadership by building relationships with peers across the organization. The goal here is to break down silos. Relationships help broaden your understanding of the business. You’ll begin to see potential impacts when you know what’s happening outside your team.
Reduce the effects of blind impact by exploring what your team’s purpose is. As that becomes clearer, ask yourself, “What does this mean to me? What’s my role in this? What’s my purpose?”
Overcome constipated inspiration by learning what motivates each person on your team to excel. You want to learn this to tailor how you motivate each person in a meaningful way. Participate in a 360-degree assessment. The goal is to learn how your leadership style positively and negatively influences people.
CREATING POSITIVE OUTCOMES
Your most likely foes in accepting the reality Teal writes about are ego and/or frustration. You may think to yourself, “I can’t show weakness by apologizing. I won’t do it. The minute my team smells weakness, I’m through.” Or perhaps you’ll think, “I wasn’t here when these decisions were made. Why should I shoulder the blame?” Let me address the second thought first.
Regardless of your hire date, you have a team that wants to follow you, wants to connect with you. Acknowledging how difficult decisions impacted your team is part of the process of getting past any anger, resentment, or emotional barrier to achieving workplace positivity. It also helps create or deepens the relatedness your team members can experience with you and with one another.
In my interviews with employees at the model companies included in this blog, I asked what advice they’d give to managers who want to create workplace positivity. Here’s what they said:
Choose first that you want to create an optimistic workplace.
Be willing to look at yourself and decide what you need to make a positive work experience.
Constantly think about and talk about workplace positivity.
Believe that you create what you want the work environment to become.
Want a better workplace.
Get to know your employees’ needs and desires.
Shift the focus away from what you want to the benefits for the team.
Be prepared to shield your team against other managers’ negativity.
Keep your eye on the impact you want to have on your employees’ lives.
Show a positive attitude.
Show your vulnerable side by sharing what concerns and excites you about creating positivity at work. Invite the team to be part of the exploratory journey to positivity.
In terms of ego’s influence on your actions as a steward, I return to the wisdom of Peter Block. He describes stewardship as the “willingness to be accountable for the well-being of the larger organization by operating in service, rather than in control, of those around us.” We all must work to manage the influence that the ego has on our perceptions and actions.
Ego isn’t bad. It can actually be useful. You need to be willing to shift how you see your responsibilities as a leader. It’s not about what you will gain but how you can help others achieve success. Will you struggle? I do; so will you. This is why it’s important to enroll your team in the work of creating workplace positivity. It cannot be done alone or covertly.
The positive outcomes you can co-create with your team are the same characteristics of an optimistic workplace. Creating positivity is a collaborative effort. You can’t wait for top management to sanction a full-on transformation to workplace positivity. This is an effort that needs to start in the middle of the organization. You have the greatest influence on your team. Leverage this for maximum benefit.
The Power of Contagious Emotions
Work is a good thing for man—a good thing for his humanity because through work man not only transforms nature, adapting it to his own needs, but he also achieves fulfillment as a human being and indeed in a sense becomes “more a human being.” —POPE JOHN PAUL
PERSONAL BENEFITS AND UNPLANNED GIVING
Though the heart of this blog is about creating an optimistic climate that supports your employees and shows you ways to fulfill their greatest potential, it is also about you. After all, are you not also an employee? Are you not a member of a team?
You, too, deserve to have a career that helps you flourish in life, aligns with your purposes, and unlocks your potential. It’s not only your team that anticipates good things from their work. I imagine you want the same, too.
On the flip side of the personal benefits are the benefits to the organization.
To create an optimistic workplace, stewards need a strong focus on addressing people-centric needs. As I explained, meeting human needs is good for business and for employees.
Benefits for the company could be increased engagement, improved retention of key people, and even higher interest from high-potential candidates in your organization. Perhaps one of the more unique benefits is unplanned giving.
Unplanned giving occurs when employees spontaneously act in ways that benefit the business that could lead to greater organizational effectiveness. A result of unplanned giving is a positive employee mood or emotion. I’d add that the spontaneity is a result of the contagiousness of the positivity in the workplace climate.
Take, for example, a time when you felt good about how things were going at work. Your openness to spontaneously give of yourself to others was more likely to occur.
These are the positive, spur-of-the-moment actions that catch people’s attention. The contagiousness of the unplanned giving creates a virtuous cycle that pulls in more people who witness and ultimately want to mimic the mood.
Unplanned giving benefits to the organization in six ways, according to professors and researchers Jennifer George and Arthur Brief. The first is demonstrated by employees helping coworkers by acting outside of their job descriptions.
Second, these simple acts often go unnoticed, according to the researchers, meaning that help is given without wanting anything in return. It’s done merely to support a team member. One could argue it’s a selfless act. It could also be selfish.1 Either way, employees help each other make progress in their work.
A third benefit George and Brief found is that spontaneity benefits the organization by way of protection: People look out for and report things that could harm the organization—theft or fraud, for example. Providing constructive suggestions, developing oneself, and spreading goodwill are the other benefits of unplanned giving.
Unplanned giving is unique in the sense that it occurs without prompting from the organization. It represents a genuine enthusiasm from employees for what the company does or believes. It’s a powerful sign of employee engagement.
The organization must still meet key financial targets. Without measuring and monitoring them, there would be no opportunity to create optimistic workplaces.
Finally, progress in employees’ work and in key initiatives—operationally or strategically—benefits organizations by way of an engaged and satisfied workforce. Bringing a new product or service to market can only happen when there is progress in the work.
Progress in the work also happens because internal processes and policies minimize or remove the bureaucratic red tape, helping employees move swiftly to achieve outcomes.
But what’s in it for you? What do you stand to gain by pursuing workplace positivity? This isn’t a selfish question. It’s an important question to which a cogent answer must satisfy you and inspire you to take action. Therefore, I ask you this question with great interest. Naturally, only you can answer the question.
PERSONAL EXPRESSION AND A MORE FULFILLING SOURCE OF HAPPINESS
Like the terms manager or management, happiness is overused and often reduced to Hallmark card pleasantries. We all want it, and we have difficulty pinpointing what it means. Yet happiness is part of the optimistic climate. Rather than taking you through a philosophical discussion about happiness, let me boil it down simply.
There is happiness that generates pleasure, which is fleeting. Then there is happiness derived from meaning, self-awareness, and growth in life that helps a person become fully functioning: the pursuit of one’s best self. Research shows that the latter type of happiness is more satisfying and has longer-term effects on our psychological well-being.
Researcher Alan S. Waterman invited 140 undergraduate and 69 graduate students from Trenton State College, New Jersey to participate in his happiness study in the early 10s.
Each student was asked to complete a Personally Expressive Activities Questionnaire, which began, “If you wanted another person to know about who you are and what you are like as a person, what five activities of importance to you would you describe?”
Then the students were asked questions measuring the two concepts of happiness mentioned previously—happiness that generates pleasure and pursuit of one’s best self.
Notice that the question Waterman asks focuses on identity and meaning. He’s not asking students what makes them feel good.
Here we can begin to uncover the ingredients necessary to know how you’ll benefit from creating a positive work climate. It starts with discovering what in your work brings you meaning.
Do you tap into curiosity to understand your beliefs and behaviors that could help you become a better human being, a better leader? How frequently do you seek out opportunities to help you grow professionally?
In all of Waterman’s research hypotheses, he forecast that the happiness that would help an individual become his or her best self would be shown to be more advantageous to the pursuit of excellence.
As part of Waterman’s research, he found that personal expressiveness was integral to and more strongly associated with the activities the students identified in response to his question. Personal expressiveness is a combination of factors: a sense of identity, self-actualization, internal locus of control, and doing what’s best for the greater good.
The presence of these four factors can positively influence the development of your potential and that of your employees. This is key to answering what benefit you’ll get from creating positivity.
In short, the benefit to positively shaping the climate for your team is getting to know yourself better and discovering how to fulfill your own potential.
You position yourself to love your work. In doing so, you set the tone and lead the way to help your employees realize their own potential and find greater meaning in their work and in life.
Leadership axioms that advocate caring for people first miss one important step: You must first care for yourself. To genuinely create a climate of positivity and advocate its business value, you need to tend to your own happiness triggers and discover meaning and purpose from your work. If you can’t do that for yourself, your efforts to help others will be limited.
Another important element to loving your work, and thus helping you positively influence your team’s work climate, is an integrated life. Stewards today diligently integrate their personal and professional lives.
CONTAGIOUS POSITIVE EMOTIONS
It may not take much to imagine being in a room with other managers positioning and arguing for employee pay increases. Such meetings can be highly contentious, fueled by a range of emotions.
For this reason, the annual conversation managers have about pay increases made for ideal research setting to help researchers at Yale University learn how emotional contagion influences group performance. (Emotional contagion is when a person’s positive or negative emotions are sensed and mimicked by other people.)
Our emotions are contagious and influence how people feel. How people feel influences the quality of their work. The emotions people experience to shape their willingness to connect and deepen relationships. It’s a powerful insight for leaders to leverage when working to shift to an optimistic workplace.
In other words, we broaden our capacity to act positively based on the good actions of another person. The positive emotions we experience that help us build new skills, connections, and knowledge, and have a positive impact on other people.
The benefit to the organization is through mimicry of the positive emotions. As the steward of your team, expressing such positive emotions as joy, gratitude, serenity, interest, hope, pride, amusement, inspiration, awe, and, yes, love can positively influence how others feel and experience work. But how does the expression of positive emotions work?
The heart of Luck Companies is blue-collar work, supported by white-collar professionals. All new employees must spend time in the quarries where the rock is mined. It takes a deep appreciation for one’s roots to keep a solid focus on the portion of the business that pays the bills.
It would be easy for marketing or finance to be absorbed by their work realities and forget about the hard physical labor that goes into keeping the bills paid.
When I talked with employees in the corporate office, the reverence and connection to their heritage were obvious in their personal stories about the time they spent in the quarries when they started at the company.
The connection to the organization’s history starts at the top with CEO Charlie Luck. Luck’s commitment to honor a long company tradition of focusing on the relationship with employees and their families is refreshing. His passion for people is contagious.
Similarly, choosing workplace positivity is a leadership activity that requires you to assess your own circumstances—good or not—and act to improve them even if no one asked you to. The tragic news for most workplaces is that employees don’t believe in their bosses’ intentions.
In a study released in 2013, Ohio-based consulting firm Root found that employees are skeptical about their leaders’ intentions and inability to develop relationships that motivate and inspire performance. According to the study:
22 percent of employees believe management has employees’ best interest in mind.
68 percent of workers think managers are more focused on their own growth than on inspiring others to be successful.
38 percent agree that their boss has established an effective working relationship with them.
26 percent agree that managers in their company embody the values desired in employees.
A steward pivots and addresses these tragic numbers through, for example, gratitude, interest, hope, pride, and inspiration. Such stewardship would be innovative. It would be provocative.
And it’s necessary to achieve sustainable business results. Your people aren’t expecting anything to be done to counteract Root’s findings. The moment you begin to do something about the dismal climate strangling your team’s performance is the moment your people begin to pay attention again.
Implications of Positive Emotions
So how do you assess your own work environment? The implications of positive emotions can guide us through this question. It’s important to note that you cannot instill emotions in people.
How others respond to you is a matter of choice and awareness. What’s key is to examine your acts of leadership and be mindful of how they might appear to others and how your actions might evoke positive or negative emotions.
Another benefit to having positive emotions is how they help you discover meaning in the work you do. While a conscious effort is necessary to purposefully shape the climate, it starts by setting an example. That’s why creating workplace positivity starts with you—the person immediately responsible for the well-being of the team and its members.
With them are questions to help you assess your circumstances and find meaning in your work. The goal of these questions is to help you uncover what you can proactively do to tap into the benefits of positivity. A summary question to ask yourself is, “What next steps do I take?”
You are the steward of the work climate. You get to help your people achieve their greatest potential through their work.
At the same time, you have your own needs and potential to tend to. As a steward, you can care for what isn’t yours by demonstrating what that care looks like by taking the steps to find fulfillment and meaning in your own work.
This is the highest-order personal benefit: Model what you want for and expect from your team, and grow from the effort. Creating an optimistic climate takes diligent personal work. It reinforces personal significance and team performance.
The Downside of positivity: Missteps and Excess
If you fall prey to the temptation to constantly search for something positive to grab on to in hopes of eliminating, hiding, or concealing negative emotions, you will lose in the game of life.
Optimistic work environments are energizing. Yet you need to be mindful about ignoring the nonoptimistic realities influencing your team. To do so will create a false sense that everything is okay.
The truth is, work can be damn right infuriating. Even though the positive climate helps employees do better work and creates joy, your team is not impervious to the downsides of work life. So it is important to know the potential missteps and excesses that can surface when cultivating positivity in the climate.
THE COMMON MISSTEPS
In my work with clients, few initially believed in the influence climate could have on a team’s performance, morale, engagement, and overall life satisfaction.
It’s no surprise, then, that the first misstep is to not believe positivity in the workplace is even possible. Certainly, doubt about the possibility is natural. So, too, is doubting that you can pull it off.
To have some skepticism is okay. In fact, it’s healthy. Yet it’s crucial that you have some belief that positivity could emerge from your intentional acts of stewardship.
With a healthy dose of skepticism to evoke your curiosity, and the belief in the possibility of positivity to inspire you to actually do something, you can make a strong first step to correct the missteps.
Misstep 1: Believing It’s Somebody Else’s Responsibility
In the hundreds of conversations I’ve had with others about workplace positivity, invariably the point is made that it must start at the top. This belief lets us off the hook from doing something about the bad vibe hovering over teams.
A CEO’s support alone would not make the difference anyway. For a climate of positivity to be possible, it is best initiated at, and supported by, the middle layer of the organizational hierarchy, assuming there is one.
The immediate leader has the greatest chance at causing change and achieving the desired results. With this in mind, believing or waiting for someone else to take responsibility for the climate is a common misstep that can be remedied. How? Grab a piece of paper to answer the following questions:
What would you gain by creating a climate of positivity?
What would your employees gain? The organization? Your customers?
What would it feel like if positivity was present in your team’s climate?
What would happen if you didn’t do anything to create the conditions for positivity?
What’s the first step you would need to take to shift the climate to be more optimistic?
Which one or two people could you build an alliance with to support your taking action?
Ultimately it’s your belief in the value of this work that will help you avoid the misstep of believing it’s somebody else’s responsibility to create an optimistic workplace. It’s natural to question the validity of the work.
Keep your eye on why you’re doing this whenever you come across obstacles or when you doubt yourself. You will run across barriers. You will doubt yourself. That’s okay. You’re building something meaningful that can help you and your team find great fulfillment in work.
Misstep 2: Failing to Build Alliances to Support Your Effort
The last question above had you think about whom you could develop an alliance with. This is key. You want to have a support structure in place to encourage you to keep up your great work. Here are a few essential things to consider when identifying allies:
You can have honest conversations with them.
They are comfortable challenging your thinking.
They believe in action and are not all talk.
They genuinely believe the Origins of positivity—purpose, meaningful work, and extraordinary people—are important elements for an organization to be successful.
Your allies don’t need experience with creating an optimistic workplace. You only need to trust and respect them. You might want to consider choosing someone who is in your peer group and someone younger than you. Diverse perspectives are invaluable to help bring about change. Your allies’ viewpoints will help you grow, and their input will strengthen your plan.
Misstep 3: Assuming You Know How Your Team Members Feel About the Climate
While it may be tempting to draw conclusions about what your team members think of the climate, don’t do it.
You’re likely to be overly critical or downplay reality. Either one will lead you astray. You risk over- or under-engineering your plan to shift the climate. In my experience working with clients, the best place to start is to have conversations with your team.
No matter the size of your team, select a diverse group of team members. Choose a few who you anticipate would be supporters of creating workplace positivity. Then select a few who may be skeptical. Select one person who you anticipate would find fault in the idea. Be careful here, however.
Too often leaders will spend more time with those who resist new ideas, believing if they can convince the nonbelievers they have a chance. This is another fallacy. By spending more time with the resisters, you risk alienating those who would support you and the would-be supporters.
Schedule one-on-ones with those you want to talk to. Keep the conversation simple and focused on what’s possible. Here are a few questions to consider:
What three words would you use to describe what it feels like to work on our team?
How would you personally benefit if the work environment was more optimistic?
What immediate actions would you recommend I take to improve the work environment?
Of those three, the first should be the lead question. Follow it up with one of the other two to dive a little deeper into each team member's perspective. Be mindful to not get defensive; it will stop short a productive conversation.
Your goal is to encourage a dialogue. Ask open-ended questions, avoiding Why questions (for example, “Why do you feel that way?” or “Why does that matter?”).
Those questions sound confrontational or place doubt in your team member’s mind. It’s natural to want to know more. Instead of asking why, be sure you sound curious, not accusatory: “What’s important for me to understand your perspective?”
Misstep 4: Assuming People Understand the Importance of Their Work
Thought leader and author Patrick Lencioni says people need to hear the same message seven times before finally getting what you’re saying.1 Too often, however, leaders think because they said something important once, people will remember it. Certainly, this trap has snared many stewards when it came to the topic of work alignment.
Work alignment occurs when each person on your team knows how her contributions align with the team’s an organization’s goals. While this is a standard leadership belief, it’s not often put in practice.
At the core of helping employees see how their contributions fit into the bigger picture, you need to leverage purpose.
Specifically, help employees understand their purpose in the organization: why their roles exist and why they matter to the team’s an organization’s success; how their strengths and talents influence outcomes and other people. Connect each team member’s projects to key strategic initiatives or team goals.
It’s common for people to fall into rote patterns of work, leaving their hearts and minds at home, so creating a climate that’s optimistic requires a lot from you and from your team.
As adults, we need to understand why something matters or is a necessity. Merely requesting, or worse, barking your needs may get compliance. But compliant people are not loyal.
They don’t apply their talents to be creative or innovative in a manner that’s effective. Compliant employees are less adept at change; they’ve learned to rely on being told what to think and do.
When employees understand the importance of their work, they take ownership of their results. Additionally, when you set clear goals and explain why the work matters to the team or to the organization, you enable progress.
Researchers have discovered that progress in one’s work is key to engagement and is driven, in part, by clarity in purpose and direction. Employees invest discretionary effort to do their best work.
They are more willing to try different approaches when older ways of doing things don’t yield desired results. In short, when you treat your people as mature, fully functioning adults, you will have an easier time helping them see how they fit into the organization’s plans.
As a steward, your goal is to help your team develop a broad understanding of their work and the personal meaning inherent in it.
To drive the point home, research from the Hay Group found that managers in high-performing companies spent 30 percent of their time “understanding others’ needs, and coaching and developing team members.” This is how you successfully show your people the importance of their work.
Misstep 5: Unknowingly Overpromoting Individualism
No employee works alone at Menlo Innovations. Every week employees are paired with a new colleague. The pairs work on assigned projects; then each employee takes on a new partner the following week. This approach differs vastly from what happens in most organizations.
Physically separated from one another by cube walls, offices, and/or geography, most workspaces promote individualism and not team cohesiveness. Even goals are set for individual performance. Rarely are team goals established and monitored. Not only is team cohesion compromised but so is a shared mood, both of which are vital to a positive work climate.
The benefits Menlo Innovations gets from its pair-partners tactic are many, chief among them group solidarity.
Team members learn to lean on one another to deliver results; each week the work is handed off to a new pair of partners, who must be prepared to answer client questions or address their needs. Without solidarity and a strong emphasis on clear communications, Menlo’s client commitments would often fall short.
Pair partners may not be realistic for your team, but the benefits of cohesion are central to your endeavors to shift the vibe of your team.
How, though, do you shift an embedded focus on individuals to a collective mindset without jeopardizing the feeling of autonomy? This is where emotional energy becomes important.
Our memories of how enjoyable the interactions create a desire to repeat them. When emotional energy is shared among a group of people, a strong bond forms, and the desire to repeat the interactions is high. Think of a great vacation you took with family or friends.
The time you spent together often leads to a conversation about wanting to do it again. Shared stories strengthen their relationships. Mementos from the vacation serve as symbols of the trip, another way to unite people and create a shared experience.
Similarly, the key to creating optimistic workplaces is to shape the conditions and plan for the opportunities that create emotional energy.
Collins says it’s important for your team to get together physically, at meetings or conferences, for example. You should protect the team from outside influences that could undo the positive climate you’re creating.
Ensure that the team has a shared focus and mood. Your goal is to build bonds between team members. A team bond helps shield people from any toxicity that might come from outside the group.
You also need to ensure that internal toxicity doesn’t poison the climate and prevent emotional energy. Overpromoting the rugged individual inevitably positions your people against one another. This tears at the team bond that’s important to a healthy climate.
To avoid the misstep of overpromoting individualism and undermining your plan to create workplace positivity, here are some areas for powerful action that can help you strengthen group cohesion:
❏❏ Team Goals. Have the team identify goals that encourage collaborative behaviors, for example, a targeted percentage of team projects delivered on time, improved customer satisfaction with team performance, even higher satisfaction with internal, two-way communications.
Make the measurement of goals part of the group process. Measure the goals annually or semiannually. Ensure the results are shared with the team and coupled with conversations about how to improve the results.
❏❏ Group Planning. Methods such as Agile project management rely on a team to plan work in sprints. Sprints are often 20 to 30 days long but can vary. Hold monthly meetings with your team to plan what can be done for the month given the team’s project workload. Hold the team accountable to decide what commitments it can make.
At the end of the sprint, review commitments and repeat the process. While Agile may be mostly associated with technology projects, I have successfully used it for organizational change management projects. Agile practices help slice ambiguous, big projects into smaller chunks by focusing on work that is most important at the moment.
❏❏ Broad-View Coaching. This is spending time helping each team member connect his work to his actions, to the team’s and the project’s success. It’s an intentional conversation that reinforces autonomous thinking and commitment to the team’s success.
These coaching conversations should occur quarterly at a minimum. I recommend holding them monthly for new employees or for employees adjusting to a focus on group solidarity.
❏❏ Celebrations. Successful teams execute, but they also celebrate. Celebrating accomplishments helps create and sustain emotional energy. More simply, it helps boost morale. I see too many teams and organizations that have a lopsided perspective in which the focus is solely on executing plans and achieving goals.
From a human performance perspective, a myopic view on results can lead to burnout, fatigue, and distress. The irony is this adversely impacts a person’s and a team’s ability to execute with precision and stay in a high-performance zone.
You’ll begin to see team members supporting each other more vigorously in accomplishing their goals. Individuals show their enthusiasm for the work and for what the team is accomplishing together.
Imagine this as a rush of emotional energy. Its infectiousness influences team bonding behaviors. One such outcome is that team members begin to adopt symbols that represent their relationships.
Finally, you’ll notice that there is a shared sense of what is right and wrong influencing behaviors, decisions, and interactions.8 These are powerful outcomes that you want to monitor for their impact on workplace positivity.
Your role is to encourage team members’ behaviors that support these outcomes and have conversations individually and as a team when behaviors don’t support the team’s success. No one person is more important than the team.
This is your motto as you endeavor to create positivity.
The Country Club Effect
Country clubs are exclusive for a select group of people. They have a fun, carefree environment and offer a wide range of activities. Members are spoiled with five-star service. The country club provides an experience that is not widely available anywhere else. These clubs are an escape from the realities of life.
In the context of the workplace, when a team becomes isolated from the realities of business, the country club effect emerges. Keeping people “happy” becomes more important than holding them accountable for commitments and results. People become accustomed to being special.
An excess of positivity can lead a team to feel so good about its environment that it loses sight of business realities important to the organization's success.
For example, in one organization I studied that typically is marked by positivity, a team was so focused on helping people achieve their fullest potential it lost sight of its performance goals.
The leader shortsightedly focused on personal achievement, overlooking holding people accountable. By all appearances, the team was aligned with the company’s beliefs. The team’s leader didn’t see that there were performance problems. She was blinded by positivity.
But a closer look at the team’s financial performance revealed that a lack of accountability was minimizing the team’s capabilities. Sure, the leader cared for her people, but she was failing to have important performance-based conversa-tions—good or bad.
Caring without accountability is the primary driver of the country club effect. In some cases, the goodwill and good feelings from positivity become so comforting that leaders stop holding people accountable for results. They don’t want to jeopardize the positive influence the work vibe has on people.
At the heart of this problem is a leadership breakdown. In a conversation, Mark Fernandes, chief leadership officer of Luck Companies, told me he believes leadership breaks down when a leader doesn’t hold people accountable to a commitment; it causes confusion.
For example, if I ask you to do something by a certain date and let you get by without delivering by the due date, what’s right and acceptable is muddied.
Unfortunately, the country club effect means that there is a feel-good environment where little progress is made on important work. Employees don’t clearly understand how they’re performing.
An imbalance emerges with an overemphasis on relationships needed to foster community and an underemphasis on work and results needed to advance the team’s an organization’s purpose. Purpose becomes diluted. Work’s meaning is a distant consideration. Employees view work only as pleasant and comfortable.
The country club effect is like fleeting happiness: It feels good at the moment but can quickly dissipate when something bad happens. The country club effect results from the pursuit of pleasure: Does working here make me feel good? A leader’s preference is to avoid or downplay matters that might disrupt feeling good.
While it may be tempting to settle for the country club effect, stew-ards purposefully navigate their teams away from such an alluring, shiny object. How?
❏❏ Unleash employees’ potential by finding opportunities that deepen their skills. Hold them accountable for following through on their commitments. Make the same commitment for yourself for this to be effective.
❏❏ Build a relationship with each person on your team. Get to know the whole person, not just who he is and what he does at work.
Spend time in your one-on-ones learning about each employee’s passions in and outside of work. Learn what she believes her purpose is in life and at work. And if she doesn’t know, encourage her to discover it.
We’ll explore this more in Blog 6. But for now, reflect on the business value of having employees engaged with life and how this could positively influence their performance on the team.
❏❏ Increase employees’ self-awareness. Help them find meaning in their work. Coach them to understand how they influence others, positively and negatively.
An optimistic work environment is one that brings out the best in people. Value is placed on relationships that respect the whole person, not just the employee. Research shows that work is currently an area in life that brings little richness to employees’ lives.
Where the country club effect can crumble is by helping work become a positive influence in areas that research shows are key to bringing deep levels of happiness and meaning: family, health, relationships, and personal growth.
Be mindful, however, of the dignity and respect trap inherent with the country club effect. Treating people with dignity and treating them with respect are justified behaviors in overcaring environments.
The problem with dignity and respect is they’re not enough. They need to be paired with a commitment to help people achieve their goals or, as Mark Fernandes told me, “become the best version of themselves.” Dignity and respect may make people feel good, but the feelings evaporate when there is little else to accompany them in the workplace.
Sign of Excess #3: Overreliance on Advocates
positivity bias occurs when you interpret an event in a way that benefits you, ignoring other realities or truths that may refute what you want to see or believe. In this case, a steward’s positivity bias favors advocates over pragmatists.
Advocates for workplace positivity are important. However, advocates can fall into the trap of blindly promoting its importance, ignoring contrarian perspectives. The favoring of only advocates shapes team members’ perceptions and signals that contrarian viewpoints are not welcome. In other words, don’t upset the climate by speaking ill of it.
Remember, the immediate leader has the greatest influence on how employees perceive and experience the climate. Therefore, your behaviors have a significant influence on how your team members make sense of the work experience.
The preference for advocates sends an unintended message that going along with the program is expected. The overly rosy climate can silence pragmatic employees—those who may need more information or evidence of progress before supporting the importance of workplace positivity.
Just as positivity bias can cause you to overlook what you don’t want to see, cognitive dissonance can prevent you from taking the actions to counter the bias.
Cognitive dissonance occurs when you encounter new information that conflicts with what you believe, value or holds true. For example, let’s say you realize that the advocates are overly rosy in their outlook of the team’s climate.
You know you should listen to other perspectives to get a balanced understanding of how the climate makes people feel, but that might conflict with your own rosy estimates, so you don’t. And if you do get a more pragmatic take, you might not accept it for the same reason.
This sign is more difficult to overcome than the previous two. It requires that you be open to hearing information that you might not want to hear. Additionally, someone from your team or a trusted peer needs to feel comfortable talking with you about a preference for advocates. The reality is that both advocates and pragmatists are important.
The solution for this sign is in building and nurturing authentic relationships with peers and team members, relationships where confidants can freely share their thoughts, even if unpopular or difficult to hear. The consequence of this is that someone will likely feel more comfortable pointing out the bias in your perspective.
Another solution is asking for feedback. When you take on the work to shift the climate, you need feedback and input on what is and is not working. Asking for feedback not only develops trust, but it also deepens it, too. It gives you credibility. If ever there was a secret weapon to steward development, it’s seeking feedback—positive and constructive.
Sign of Excess #4: Inflexible Methods
Research from Hay Group lists flexibility as a key dimension of climate that positively shapes employee perception and performance. The consulting and research giant explains flexibility as the absence of rules, policies, and procedures that make no sense and only interfere with people doing their best work.
It’s Netflix abandoning its expense report policy and procedure and trusting people to act in the best interest of the organization. But let’s look at the opposite: inflexibility.
Inflexibility is a result of too much comfort with the way things are. It's changed inertia; there’s little willingness to adapt to the shifts triggered by exterior and interior business influences.
Management innovation expert and theorist Gary Hamel explains organizational inertia this way: “[Organizations] are frequently caught out by the future and seldom change in the absence of a crisis. Deep change, when it happens, is belated and convulsive.”
You are the steward of the work climate. You get to help your people achieve their goals and aspirations. Too much control and inflexible rules and policies hamper people’s performance and, consequently, diminish positivity in the workplace.
It’s a natural human desire to want to control one’s circumstances, even at work. Hampered performance leads to people feeling frustrated. Bloated methods— policies and procedures—go unchanged despite their growing irrelevance.
When an optimistic climate goes unchecked, it’s possible to be reassured by its benefits and overlook changing what no longer fits in the workplace. Eyes that were once watchful grow sleepy. Arrogance creeps in and challenges arguments for changing what has led to success: “Why fix what isn’t broken?”
In short, inflexible methods signal that leaders have become too comfortable. The policies and procedures necessary to run the business become outdated. The benefits of workplace positivity become threats when inflexible work practices fail to adapt.
Further evidence that this excess example is undermining a positive workplace can be found in what employees talk about. If employees regularly express frustration with archaic rules or policies, it’s time to look into revising or eliminating them.
At some point, the complaining stops when no action is taken or no evidence of change is on the horizon. The vocal dissatisfaction goes underground, which is not good.
The rules and policies in question here are those that hamper your team’s ability to do great work. When employees can’t do their best work, the positivity in the climate is diminished. Let’s say your company doesn’t allow employees to work remotely.
Despite the growth in technology to help remote workers be productive and the trend that employees want this flexibility, your organization fails to revise its policy.
Not only does this make it difficult to attract top talent because so many organizations offer this, it frustrates existing employees. It becomes a distraction that unnecessarily interferes with the cultivation of workplace positivity.
What’s intriguing about this research is the importance placed on lasting, meaningful work elements. Contrast the high percentages related to the importance of values and meaning against prestige.
Values and meaning win hands down. With students representing the future of work, there is a message of change for all managers: Shift your mindset and actions to reflect the changing tide in worker attitudes and expectations or risk being irrelevant.
We all have personal values. Most of us live by them intuitively. If you were asked what your values are, you’d probably recite some ubiquitous ones that may or may not be part of your core identity.
Personal values require reflection on your life events to know them deeply. Values require purposeful action to integrate them into how you live and lead. To know your values is to have insight into why you make decisions, with whom you make friends or the type of work you pursue or don’t.
It’s been said, “If you don’t stand for something, you’ll fall for anything.” Knowing your personal values helps you know where your line in the sand is— what you’ll tolerate and what you want.
Research categorizes personal values into two groups: terminal and instrumental. Terminal values reflect the outcomes of your actions. In the example that opened this blog, my desire to help employees improve their overall life satisfaction was the goal. The terminal values of service, meaning, and purpose underlay my intention.
Behaviors feed into the second type of values, instrumental. Instrumental values are the modes of behaviors or the means to achieve the goal. For example, my value of creativity and risk-taking helped me re-imagine the tuition reimbursement program to be more inclusive of what would be considered eligible for the program.
For me, the assignment to overhaul the tuition reimbursement program strongly aligned with my values. So the response from the chief human resources officer cut deep for me. Her inability to inquire into my thinking was offensive. The situation was exacerbated by her unwillingness to look into her own biases.
I would be remiss if I didn’t acknowledge the chief human resources officer’s values set and its influence on her interaction with me. Admittedly, I can’t say what her values were. In hindsight, I could have sought to understand where she was coming from before shutting down.
However, I share this example to illustrate the powerful influence values have on our lives, whether we’re aware of them or not. At the time of this example, I hadn’t done the personal work to identify, know, and show my values. Intuitively, I knew that the interaction was a deal breaker for me.
Loyalty Is Not Dead
Loyalty isn’t dead. People need a reason to be loyal. We don’t readily give loyalty to others. It needs to be earned through a trusting exchange of opportunities for results. Too often, old-school managers hide behind their titles and assume loyalty is given to them.
Stewards don’t assume it’s automatically given because of positional authority. It has always been something given after proving one’s worth it. It’s about trust. It’s about results on a human level. It’s based on efforts and intention. Loyalty is given when we honor our word and promises.
You build loyalty through knowing and showing your values. Loyalty is key to an optimistic work environment. It’s what keeps people from leaving when times are tough or a better opportunity presents itself. More importantly, however, loyalty helps create and deepen.
People are less likely to leave an organization when they invest time to get to know others and to be known. In today’s talent wars, you can’t afford to lose good people. Use your values to be your genuine self and ultimately build loyalty by attracting people who want to work with you.
Give people a reason to share that which they reserve only for those trusted enough to earn it.
Define Your Values
Now that you’ve identified your values, it’s important to know what they mean to you. While it’s essential to work for you as a steward to unleash each of your team members’ potential, it’s also important to explore what unleashes your potential.
Knowing yourself is a vital pursuit for anyone interested in shaping the climate to be marked by positivity. Here are a few things to consider when developing definitions for each value:
1. Use your life’s events to define each value. Looking up the definition of the word is a shortcut and only limits your connection to the value.
2. Use words that resonate with your experiences. Imagine explaining the value to other people. Would they associate the value with you?
Hold a team meeting to discuss insights.
Ask your team members how knowing and living by their personal values could be helpful to them in their work.
In your one-on-one with employees, explore more personal ways they can live and work by their values. Help employees identify where their values aren’t present in work and where they are. Build a plan to strengthen the alignment.
The awareness significantly influences how you show up as a leader. Consequently, you begin to create the stickiness that holds your team members together and helps them begin to see a positive picture of the workplace and of their team.
Connecting the dots further, this helps shape the climate and supports your effort to create workplace positivity.