Article main image
Oct 28, 2015
This article is part of a series called Editor's Pick.

What does it feel like where you work? What about on your team?

Today’s work environments are laden with low engagement to active disengagement. Employees’ belief in senior leadership teams are abysmally low. The work-life mix is jumbled up where employees work well after official quitting time has come and gone.

It wouldn’t be a surprise if, when you asked employees what it feels like to work in your company, that the answer would be underwhelming.

This unfortunate reality is adversely effecting turnover rates, a company’s ability to attract (and find) top talent, innovation, and profits and growth. People can’t do their best work when in a stifling workplace climate and culture.

In short, workplace environments need help.

The Optimistic Workplace

The optimistic workplace is an environment where people have hope and belief that good things will come from their hard work.

It comes about when we look for what’s right in the work environment and what’s possible. We tend to narrowly focus on all that’s wrong with where we work. We overlook the good things that make a difference. When we do this, it’s difficult for optimism in the workplace to emerge.

It doesn’t matter if you identify with being an optimist or a pessimist. It’s how workplace climate feels. Climate is what it feels like to work somewhere. It’s based on people’s perception.

Hay Group and Gallup both came to the same conclusion about climate: The leader’s style is responsible for up to 70 percent of how employees feel about the environment. In other words, climate is shaped by your leadership actions.

Creating workplace optimism

What, then, can a leader do to create a climate of optimism? Here’s a list of high-leverage leadership actions to help you have a positive influence on the work environment.


1. Create clarity

Clarity removes performance barriers to achieving great results. Four key areas of clarity should be the focus of your leadership actions:  goals, priorities, feedback, organizational/team purpose.

These four elements need to be part of your regular — daily, weekly, monthly — conversation with each person on your team and collectively.

Without clarity it’s not possible to create workplace optimism. How can people feel hopeful and believe good things are possible if they don’t know why their work matters, what’s expected of them, or how they’re doing?

2. Reinforce relatedness

Social neuroscientist Matthew Lieberman explains in his book Social: Why Our Brains Are Wired to Connect that our brains are wired to find connection with others.

What’s fascinating about Lieberman’s work is his observations that we continually make sense of our world by evaluating our relationships with others. Our brains default to this thinking naturally: We crave relatedness.

Relatedness is when we have satisfying, trusting relationships with others. We empathize with others more easily. It helps build positive relationships.

Researchers are learning that positive relationships help people manage stress levels more effectively. Feeling a sense of relatedness helps us better collaborate and is an important input into creating community. Collaboration and community help mutuality emerge.

A simple way to reinforce relatedness is by regularly bringing your team together to reflect on the group’s progress towards its goals. This conversation helps people express what’s working and not working in a timely manner. These meetings build a reliance on one another.

3. Promote positive identity

Work shapes your identity. It influences how you feel about yourself. How could it not when most of us spend 1/3 of our life working.

The question is why should you care about employees developing a positive identity? Bottom line it influences results. On the flip side, it helps with engagement, morale, and satisfaction. It also helps employees find fulfillment professionally and personally.

You can focus on four areas to promote positive identity within employees: autonomy, values, strengths, and personal purpose.

  1. We all want to have control over our life and work. Autonomy helps satisfy this need. Researchers Richard Ryan and Edward Deci define autonomy as “Means to be moved to do something…someone who is energized or activated toward an end.” Autonomy is an intrinsic motivator. It motivates us to want to contribute to something bigger than ourselves.
  2. Naming and defining your personal values promotes clarity in who you are and what you stand for. As the saying goes, “If you don’t know what you stand for, you’ll fall for anything.”
  3. It’s common to interpret strengths as something you’re good at. The strengths I’m referring to, however, are those activities and skills that energize you. By knowing what your strengths are, you can more purposefully align your work with them. It’s important to learn what your employees’ strengths are and align work assignments with them.
  4. Finally, personal purpose is key to promoting positive identity. Spend time with employees to learn what’s important to them. Help them discover the scope of their work purpose. In my book, The Optimistic Workplace, there are coaching questions to help employees, and yourself, uncover your purpose. Here are a few of them.
  • What obstacles in life positively shaped your way of living? Consider examples even if at the time you didn’t think it was positive.
  • What values of yours do you see in your examples?
  • Has an event in life caused you to re-evaluate what’s important to you? If so, what changed for you? How does the event influence your purpose, if at all?

While culture is key to creating an engaging workplace, it’s not the only influence. The climate significantly influences desired organizational outcomes like engagement.

Leaders today can shift the climate by focusing on creating workplace optimism. It’s a collaborative effort with employees that can be rewarding when leaders choose to cultivate it.

This article is part of a series called Editor's Pick.
Get articles like this
in your inbox
Subscribe to our mailing list and get interesting articles about talent acquisition emailed weekly!