How Leaders Can Create an Optimistic Workplace


Shawn Murphy

Shawn Murphy is a thought leader and practitioner recognized by Huffington Post and Inc. for his contributions to creating optimistic work environments and the type of leadership needed for them.

He is the CEO and co-founder of Switch & Shift, an organization dedicated to the advancement of organizational practices for the human-side of business.

Webinar Transcript

Man: Shawn Murphy has over 20 years' experience as an organizational change and culture transformation expert, author, teacher and speaker. He's been recognized by and The Huffington Post for his thought leadership in developing leaders. Shawn is the CEO and founder of Switch and Shift an, organization dedicated to developing and advancing human-centered organizational practices. Shawn's debut book, "The Optimistic Workplace" is now available wherever books are sold. Shawn holds an MBA from Drexel University, LeBow College of Business, and a bachelor's in organizational behavior from university of San Francisco.

Shawn: So for many employees, work has become a drag. Let's take a look at some statistics that point to this dismal picture that is taking place in a workplace. First of all, let's frame it in the context, we spend a third of our lives at work, according to Gallup, and I think that's a pretty conservative estimate. But when we start to dig into what work is like for employees, we start to see some not so good trends. So for example, recently in 2014 LinkedIn did a study of 18,000 employees. And of those 18,000 employees, only 15% were happy, were satisfied with their job.

The numbers get a little worse. In a study done by, 65% of employees would rather get a new boss than get a pay raise. And in a Towers Watson study, less than 50% of employees were believing that their senior managers were interested in their well-being, less than 50%. On a flip side, when we looked at a study from Net Impact of students, college students, 91% wanted to work for an organization with values that resemble their own. So here we have a very aspirational desire set against a backdrop that isn't very positive.

Another example, 68% of workers believed that their manager was more interested in their own career development than in inspiring their team members, their employees, 68%. So when you add all of this up, it's no surprise that 70% of employees are disengaged. So what we have here is a situation where employees aren't happy being in the workplace. So the question is, well, what do we do about that? Certainly doing nothing isn't an option, so what we can do is we can actually look to create workplace optimism.

Well, first of all, what is workplace optimism? Workplace optimism is a belief that good things are going to come from my hard work. There's also a belief that there are good things that are happening in the organization. It's really easy to get down about the numbers that I just covered, but there's a lot of good that's going on in organizations, and workplace optimism works to exploit, if you will, the good in an organization. So if we want to create workplace optimism, there are six key leadership actions that you can take to create it.

So first of all, they're create clarity, reinforce relatedness, promote positive identity, gear for growth, magnifying meaning, and lean on leadership. So what we're going to do is we're going to dig into each of these six actions and take a look at what are the things that you can do to be able to cultivate, to create this workplace optimism. And it starts with clarity. Creating clarity isn't something that is a big surprise. What I found in writing the book "The Optimistic Workplace" that these organizations that I studied that had optimism, clarity was key, clarity in what the goals were for the organization, and we all want to be able to contribute to something bigger than ourselves.

We want to contribute to something that we think is important, and that contribution is often measured in goals. So the question for you is what goals have you set for your employees? What goals have been set for your employees and are they aware of them in a manner that they can integrate into their work. Secondly it's priorities. In optimistic workplaces, there's only one number one priority. There isn't this sense of everything's a priority because when that's the case, nothing is a priority. So we want to be able to have clear priorities, what is the priority for the team? What are the priorities for the organization?

Also part of clarity is clarity about how I'm doing. You know, often times here, at least at the U.S., feedback is something that is viewed as negative, and we really need to turn the tide on that perspective. Feedback actually can be positive, something that I'm doing good or you're caring enough about the employee's performance that you actually sit down and say, "Hey, look. There's some feedback that I need to give to you," and you do it because you care for the person's performance. Not giving them constructive feedback only allows for that behavior or that pattern of practices to continue. And if they're not...if it's not supporting the employee success, the team success, the organization success, we need to have a conversation with employees about that.

Real quickly about feedback. There's a simple way to remember how to give feedback and I call it CBIA. CBIA stands for Context, Behavior, Impact, and Action, so it goes something like this. Context, mark the other day in the meeting, you were talking angrily to one of your coworkers. The impact of CBIA, the impact was the team really kind of got quiet and shut down. We have to come up with a plan to be able to redirect...we have to come up with a plan to be able to figure out how do we constructively have difficult conversations. So what are the things that we're going to do? CBIA is a way that to be able to recognize how to get feedback in a constructive manner.

Perhaps the less important element of clarity...excuse me, not less important but less known is organizational and team purpose. I think we take this for granted, and it's not necessarily the mission, but what does the team exist to do to support the mission? A lot of us have team members who show up, do their time, 9 to 5, 8 to 4, whatever it happens to be and then they leave. And they don't have a keen insight into how what they're doing contributes to the bigger picture. And having clarity around organizational or team purpose is absolutely essential for clarity. So goals, priorities, feedback in organization and team purpose, those are essential activities that you as a leader can take to help develop clarity, and clarity is linked to creating the optimistic workplace.

Now, what's the next piece here? So the next part is relatedness, and reinforcing relatedness is made enough of what I call the equation for community. And there are three parts to this community, collaboration, connection, and ultimately community. Now, it works something like this. As human beings, we are wired to want to have relationships that are important to us. In fact, there is in our brains what's called the...what neuroscientists called the default network. And the default network is simply when we are not thinking or when we're just kind of processing information, our brain is on default, is thinking about the relationships in our lives.

And this goes back to our ability to survive back when we were hunters and gatherers. I know it sounds a little strange but back then, in order for us to survive, we had to have a strong network of friends, a strong network to be able to live. We may not need the network to survive but we have kept this need to be able to connect with others, so the sense of relatedness is important to who we are as people and we need to be able to create that sense of relatedness in the workplace. One way to do that is to make sure there's opportunities for collaboration.

There's a difference between cooperation and collaboration. Cooperation is you and I are working together, we might have different agendas and we just get together, do what we need to do, then we go our separate ways. But for collaboration, the distinct difference between collaboration is we have a shared interest in the outcome and we're going to work together to be able to achieve that outcome. So the question is how do you infuse collaboration into what your team is doing?

So do of my favorite companies, Menlo Innovations, the CEO Rich Sheridan, who was actually speaking in part of the series. What they do is they actually pair people up, and they work together throughout the week. Now that's a pretty unique approach to collaboration, but it's satisfying that need to have a sense of relatedness with coworkers. You want to look at how are you bringing people together to collaborate by bringing them together on projects, on short-term assignments. Collaboration is key to be able to help create a sense of relatedness, and it's the first part to the equation for community. So collaboration and then connection.

And connection is simply, "Do I have friends at work?" Gallup has asked, and quite controversially, "Do you have a best friend at work?" And it's not because it's some kind of touchy-feely HR thing, and I know I'm speaking to a lot of HR folks, with an HR background, I totally get it. Connection, again, is part of what we need to do to be able to feel a sense of relatedness. So friendships is a way to be able to have that sense of relatedness at work, so connection is our way of finding friends within the organization. When you bring collaboration plus connection, that's when community starts to evolve. And community isn't something that you can force, it's an outcome from collaboration and connection.

So we've talked about creating clarity, we've talked about reinforcing relatedness. What's the next action that a leader can take to be able to actually create and cultivate the optimistic workplace? Well, this is probably a little more surprising and not as obvious, and it's creating what I call promoting a positive identity. Now, let me share a story with you.

I was responsible for the tuition reinvestment program for a company that I worked for. And one of the things that I thought was important was to be able to pay for employees' classes that did not relate directly to their work. And I thought that was important because if we can help someone pursue something that they're passionate about or important to them, we would be promoting a positive identity, we would be promoting people pursuing things important to them. So a positive identity actually has a benefit to the organization, because if I feel good about who I am and what I'm contributing to work, then that's going to help me improve and increase my performance.

So what are the things that a leader can do to create positive identity? Well, there are four things. Autonomy. We heard from Dan Pink the importance of autonomy. And quite simply it's, "Do I feel like I have control over my circumstances? Do I have a choice in how I go about doing my work?" Believe it or not, in some organizations where there are leaders who are micro managers, they're telling people how to do their jobs. That is not going to help create a positive identity in employees. Autonomy is key to helping people figure out how to best go about doing their work, getting the results that are important to the business.

Less obvious here to a positive identity is helping employees know what their values are. And I'm talking about their personal values, not the organization's values but what are their personal values? Because if I know what I stand for and I'm going to be able to bring to the organization a greater sense of who I am, and there's an increased confidence that shows up in the work that I do. Now, I'm going to share with you a site that you might want to Google. I want you to Google Igniter, I-G-N-I-T-E-R and Luck Companies.

And what you're going to find is a site that actually will take you through an automated process of identifying your personal values. So again it's Igniter, Luck Companies and you're going to find, if you do a Google search or Yahoo search, you'll find the website that will take you to this automated tool to figure out what your personal values are. I encourage you as a leader to do this yourself, and then make it part of your one-on-one conversations with your employees to have them identify what their values are.

The question is, well, what do you care about that? Why should you care what your employees' personal values are? Then the conversation in your next one-on-one after they've identified their values is, "All right, so how are your values present in your current job?" And if they're not present, that is going to affect the person's performance, so we want to be able to align their values with what they can contribute in their job.

Strengths, okay. So strengths is routed in positive psychology and this is something that Marcus Buckingham has brought to the conversation. And what we know about strengths is it's not necessarily linked to a person's ability to do their best job. Strengths actually are something that energize you or energize your employees, and when we can do work that aligns with our strengths, we actually can stay in what we call peak performance longer, and the action item here for you as a leader is to know what are your employees' strengths and does their work align with their strengths.

I'll give you an example. One of my strengths is creativity. Now, I'm not a great painter or a great graphic designer, but when I get to actually express my creativity in my work, I'm more likely to experience what we call flow. And flow is that state of being when everything just seems to click and fall into place and time kind of falls away. Strengths help us get to flow, and flow help us stay in peak performance, and peak performance helps us to our best work.

Finally personal purpose, "What is my purpose in life? What is my purpose here at work?" Again, a lot of employees don't know this and I think strong leaders, especially those who are interested in cultivating workplace optimism, strong leaders help employees understand what their purpose is and how that contributes to the organization's success. And even more close to that is how my personal purpose helps contribute to the team success.

All right, so those four key things help a person have and develop a positive identity. And the positive identity is key to be able to improve a person's overall performance. All right, so we're moving through the six different actions a leader can take to be able to promote and cultivate workplace optimism. The next one is gear for growth, and what gear for growth is, it's really just helping a person grow in their work.

Now, there are three influences here on gear for growth, and one is actually we're going to do a little bit of a deep dive. So first of all, work-life mix, and we're going to actually talk about, actually what Bamboo HR does to help support this, and I think it's a valuable lesson that we all can learn from. Advancement. Advancement is, "Am I able to actually grow from the work that I do?" And then give work a facelift, and we'll talk about what that acronym is.

But first, let's look back to Bamboo HR. So Bamboo HR, if you're not familiar with who they are, they are a HR software development company in Utah, and what I have learned is they have...Bamboo HR has an anti-workaholic policy. Now, first of all, anti-workaholic policy, what is that? And it's simply this that if an employee works more than 40 hours on a regular basis, it's time for a conversation. What's going on in the employee's day-to-day activities that's preventing them from getting their work done in 40 hours? And then secondly what can we move, remove, and help the employee do so that they can get their work done in 40 hours?

Are employees eligible or can employees be fired for working more than 40 hours? It's possible. It's not obviously what Bamboo HR wants to do, but I think if we look under the hood of this policy, it's really more of a philosophy. And the philosophy is that as an employee, it's important for you to have a life outside of work. And when you have a life outside of work and can actually do things that allow for you to replenish your energy that aren't work-related, you're going to bring more of your A game to the organization.

And a good work-life mix allows for the employee to actually find some sense of mix that works for them, where their personal and professional lives are very gratifying. Now, you notice that I don't say work-life balance, because balance is bunk. Balance assumes that something in your life, something's going to lose, whether it's your personal and professional life. And I don't believe that that needs to be the case. Work-life mix assumes that at some point at some times in your life, your personal life is going to need more attention than your professional life.

And then there's the reverse of that, your professional life might be taking more from your personal life. And we have this kind of dynamic exchange between the two worlds, and it's important to be able to find the mix that works. As a manager, as a leader, it is our responsibility to have conversations with employees when that work-life mix isn't allowing them to be their best at work. Advancement, I think, it's pretty straightforward but I think what is important to point out here is that advancement looks different for each employee.

Some want to move up the hierarchy, someone want to just continue to get more responsibility in their current position. You need to know what that is though, what is important to your employee and then how do you have a growth conversation so that they can actually achieve what they're looking to accomplish.

Now, a work facelift attempt to be able to help you understand how do you gear for growth and have work that is meaningful to employees. So that's what this next chart is. The FAISE is an acronym for financial, aspirational, the I is individual, social, and environmental. And as a leader, you want to be able to make sure that a person's work falls into this acronym of FAISE. Simply stated, the F is, "How is the work that I'm doing supporting the financial performance of the organization?" And also the financial demands of an organization will place priority on work. So looking to make sure that that's clear to employees, is it clear that the project that they're working on is key to the long-term financial success of the organization? Or maybe it's short term.

We don't often have those conversations with employees, we just give them assignment and say, "Go forth and do it," and that's it. I'm saying that we need to have a much richer conversation. Now, the other thing that we want to be able to look at is meaningful work. Meaningful work is going to be very different for each of your employees, and you want to be able to know what does meaningful work look like. And that's the aspirational domain of facelift, is making sure that the work that employees do, some of the work is aligned with what is important to them in terms of doing meaningful work.

"Individual" is helping to promote self-awareness, this goes back to that positive identity, how does work shape your employees' understanding of who they are. We're kidding ourselves if we don't say, if we don't believe that work is actually shaping our identity. Work is a huge part of how we make sense of who we are, so we want to make sure that we are helping employees have this positive identity that I talked about just a few minutes ago.

Now, the next piece is social. So employees make sense of work by developing relationships and giving that sense of relatedness. Are you building into the work ways for people to collaborate? And we talked about that a little bit earlier.

And then finally environmental. Now, the climate of the workplace needs to bring out your employees' strengths and minimize distractions to be able to increase clarity. That's the facelift, what's the action item here? Is you want to use this acronym to be able to say, "Does work hit these elements so that people actually get the most out of their time that they spend working with you?"

These five areas help employees find growth in their work, because the work becomes rich, becomes fulfilling, becomes meaningful. It aligns with purpose, and it aligns with the organization's strategic initiatives, operational initiatives, whatever it happens to be.

All right, so we've got just a couple more items to cover here for how to cultivate workplace optimism. And the next one is to magnify meaning, and simply I mentioned meaning just a few minutes ago as part of giving work of facelift. There are three areas that I think about when I talk about meaning with people. There's meaning in my social relationships, there's meaningful work, and that there's meaning in my life, and that's the personal.

As a leader, what we're learning is employees want to have meaning and meaningful work. The millennial generation is requiring this, they have this expectation, not requiring. They have an expectation to do meaningful work, to do purposeful work. And the savvy leader is the one who recognizes that this is an important contribution to a person's life, and what the action item here is not so much knowing the definition of social work and personal meaning, but is to infuse into your conversations with your employees what meaningful work looks like and what meaning is.

So what does that mean? So career development, conversations can certainly help a person have and find meaning in their work. Knowing what is meaningful work to the employee, you're not going to know that, you're not a mind reader. So it's sitting down and actually having a conversation with them to be able to understand what does meaningful work look like.

All right, so we're to the final action item or leadership action that a leader can take to be able to cultivate workplace optimism, and this one is, out of all of the six, this one is the most personal. So I want to share with you what research is showing around the leadership impact that you have. So I mentioned the word "climate" a little bit ago, and there's a distinction between climate and culture. Climate is what it feels like to work somewhere, culture is how things get done in an organization. And climate, you as a leader, have the greatest impact on your employees' experience of the work environment, or the work climate.

Your leadership style has the greatest impact, so you've got to know what impact is your leadership style having. How do you know? Well, you can do a 360 but that might not be practical for you. So it's sitting down and having a conversation around how your performance is as a leader with your employees. Is that difficult? Absolutely, but if you want to create workplace optimism it's a key area for you to focus on is knowing your impact on your workplace climate.

It could sound something like, "Jon, I want to be able to get your input on what it feels like to work here and how I'm contributing to that. And then I'd like to explore what could I do differently to be able to help make this a good experience for you when you're here Monday through Friday, 9 to 5," whatever it sounds like. Now, there are some skills with this and I'm not going to get too detailed into this, I will say that in my book "The Optimistic Workplace" you'll find a whole host of skills. But the key thing here for the time that we have is to know that the skills are broken into two categories. Know your self-skills, and these are skills that are related to you knowing who you are.

So for example, one of the skills that is really key for leaders who cultivate optimism in the workplace is do you have time for reflection? I was talking with the CIO the other day and he was lamenting over the fact that he's in meetings from 8 to 5 and doesn't have time to reflect. And so what we ended up doing was finding time in his schedule to be able to reflect on, where is the department going? What's needed from him? How does he get out more and talk with employees so that he knows and how the pulse of what his organization is doing?

So you've got to have time for reflection, that is a key, know yourself, leadership skill. For the greater good, this is about other people, and this is one key skill that I have observed in all of these organizations that I studied that create workplace optimism is noticing skills, and do you notice what's important to employees? Do you know what is helpful to someone to be successful?

All right, so those are the actions that leaders take to cultivate workplace optimism. The key here is creating energizing workplaces that unleash human potential. Optimistic workplace environments are what you can create to be able to unleash human potential to achieve the results that you are responsible for, that the organization is expecting of you. Workplace optimism is a facilitator of that performance.