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By Shawn Murphy

It’s a traditional belief that the needs of the organization trump employees’ needs. This belief has become a barrier for many leaders to adapting a more modern leadership perspective.

The opposite belief – that employees’ needs trump those of the company – isn’t true either. Today’s leader needs to adopt a belief that’s rooted in mutually beneficial outcomes: how do leaders meet the needs of both the organization and its employees?

When leaders maintain the traditional view that the organization is mightier than anything else, it blocks a critical work reality from emerging – workplace optimism.

What Is workplace optimism?

Workplace optimism isn’t just a part of an organization’s culture. Workplace optimism is a characteristic of the organizational or team climate. Climate is how it feels to work somewhere. It’s based on employees’ perceptions of the work environment.

Climate is significantly influenced by a leader’s style. According to the Hay Group, a leader’s style has the greatest influence on employees’ perception of the work environment. Employees in a positive climate, or an optimistic workplace, outperform those in negative climates by 10 to 30 per cent.

Outdated beliefs aren’t the only barriers to workplace optimism. There are four other major barriers that interfere with creating a positive work climate.

Blind impact

If a leader’s style is so important to creating workplace optimism, it becomes more dubious when she is unaware of the impact she is having on her team. A leader unaware of her impact doesn’t use the motivating importance of purpose, organizationally or personally. Additionally, she doesn’t connect the dots between people’s work and the organization’s direction. The consequence of this is minimized impact to the organization’s goals and employees’ personal goals.

Workplace optimism will struggle to emerge if a leader doesn’t understand the influence she has on people and results. Instead it causes confusion and frustration.

Antisocial leadership
This isn’t antisocial in the psychological sense; rather, this is about a leader’s resistance to embrace social behaviours illuminated by the growing influence of social technology. Antisocial leaders don’t encourage, build or evolve a community of people united by a shared purpose.

This barrier also prevents a leader from seeing the importance of belonging. According to Gallup, we spend one-third of our life working. Shouldn’t a major part of our lives be a positive influence? Belonging helps employees feel positive about where they work.

Profit myopia

Another barrier to workplace optimism is the outdated belief that profit is the primary success measure for business. Leaders with profit myopia are focused primarily on the short-term. Their teams chase solutions that satisfy stakeholders and/or short-term goals, alienating customers and employees.

Employees will likely struggle to find work meaningful, a major contributor to the optimistic workplace, when chasing profits is the predominant message a company’s leaders send. This isn’t to say profit isn’t important – it’s vital to a company’s ongoing success. However, a leader with profit myopia fails to recognize the influence of intrinsic motivators on people and their work product.

Silo syndrome

Silo syndrome afflicts a leader when he cannot see beyond his immediate responsibilities. This barrier prevents a leader from collaborating with other departments. It also blinds a leader from seeing the impacts of work on other people’s lives.

With this barrier to optimism, a leader is unaware of – or doesn’t care – how work affects employees’ family lives. The ubiquity of smartphones and tablets keeps employees plugged into work well after they leave for the day. While this is helpful, it can lead to fatigue or burnout. Neither of these outcomes will help optimism emerge.

Overcoming barriers to creating workplace optimism

What, then, can a leader do to overcome the barriers to workplace optimism? Here are three actions a leader can do to shift how they lead their team to help cultivate optimism.

Lean on Leadership

Leaders need to know how their leadership style influences – positively and negatively –people’s performance. The best way to do this without investing money is to identify three to five people that the leader trusts. She can then ask for feedback on her leadership style and effectiveness.

Leaders can then use the feedback to identify changes to her style. She can also lean on some of these leadership skills that are linked to cultivating workplace optimism: humility, honesty, reflection, grit, resilience, sense making, vulnerability, noticing, connecting, experimenting and prioritizing.

Reinforce relatedness

To overcome the silo syndrome, leaders can focus on creating a sense of relatedness between employees. CEO of Canada’s Tangerine Bank, Peter Aceto, spends the first 10 minutes of all of his meetings connecting with employees. Leaders can adopt this practice to deepen the connection between people on the team.

Create clarity

When employees don’t have clarity on team goals or work priorities, confusion, chaos and frustration set in.

Leaders can create clarity by sharing the company’s goals with employees. They can also co-create with employees team goals that align with the company’s. This builds buy-in and support for what’s important to the organization. To make it a mutually beneficial arrangement, leaders can work individually with employees to determine how they can best contribute to the team goals.

Essential to maintaining clarity is providing ongoing feedback – what’s working and not working. Employees want to know how they are doing. Without feedback, little growth professional growth will occur. Without growth, high performing employees will leave.

Mutually beneficial relationships will thrive when a leader’s style inspires and motivates, when relatedness is reinforced and there is clarity in expectations and performance needs. Not only do these areas promote workplace optimism, they also help the team and, ultimately, the company achieve great results. It starts with leaders shifting their beliefs about how to meet the needs of both the company and its employees.

Shawn Murphy is an independent consultant with 20 years’ experience working with organizations to create workplace optimism.

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