The Often Overlooked Influence on Workplace Optimism

March 23, 2016
  • Shawn Murphy
  • Shawn Murphy
    Organizational Development and Talent Management Expert

After reading this article’s title, the first thought that’s probably going through your mind is “There can be optimism at work? Those two words don’t normally go together.” Unfortunately, you’re right, at least in most companies.

You might think that optimism is the overlooked element at work. This, however, is stating the obvious. What’s not obvious is the influence that is overlooked. There’s richer meaning, greater insight, and opportunity for improvement in examining the often overlooked influence on workplace optimism. More on that influence in a moment.

What is Workplace Optimism?


To ensure we’re on the same page, a definition of workplace optimism is necessary. It’s the hope that good things will come from your hard work. It’s the prudent practice of finding opportunity, or what’s possible, when confronted with a problem. Too many people idolize problems robbing optimism from even having a shot at making an appearance. Workplace optimism is the discipline of looking for what’s right, rather than focusing solely on what’s wrong in the company.

Workplace optimism is powerful because it carves out mediocrity from the fabric of a company’s workplace climate and culture. How? People perform at their peak when they have hope, focus on solutions, and examine both what’s right and wrong in a situation.

The Overlooked Influence

There are many paths to build an optimistic workplace. But there is only one path that is the heart of the leadership work needed to create such an energizing environment: belonging.

As human beings, we are wired to belong. Some researchers say that belonging is what bonds people together. It’s the bond that is either life-giving or life-depleting. Think about it for a moment. When you feel safe amongst a group of colleagues, you can be yourself. You share “crazy” ideas. You joke. You behave in friendly, welcoming ways.

Of course, the reverse is true when you don’t feel a sense of belonging. You protect your thinking. You become hyper-focused on yourself. You limit pro-social behaviors. You close yourself off to relationships. Your potential is limited.

Yet, when a leader can help someone feel like they belong to the team, the team benefits. Ultimately the company benefits. Human potential is unleashed. Mediocrity is diminished.

The Short Comings of the Almighty Dollar

A conversation about belonging most likely seems “soft” for the hard, tangible realities of business. Right? Wrong.

Successful businesses have always been built on the backs of relationships. This includes the relationships a company has with its employees.
In the 20th century, businesses pursued profit as the ultimate measure of success. In fact, many still trumpet its place as the cornerstone on which a business is built. Certainly it’s true that profit is key to a business’s success. Yet, profit is merely the outcome of the hard work of the company’s people.

Remember that in optimistic workplaces mediocrity is diminished. Creative, innovative, passionate, and talented employees thrive in optimistic environments. It’s the output of these driven employees that obliterate mediocrity. And when such limitations are dislodged from the culture, great things are possible, and the company’s bottom line benefits.

Benefits to Belonging

When a team clicks their output is unstoppable. When a team clicks in an optimistic environment, their potential is magnified. A central influence on building an optimistic workplace is creating one where people feel like they belong. A leader who intentionally creates this important characteristic of a positive work environment, benefits in the following ways.

1. People believe they are making a difference together.
2. A shared identity—one team—emerges and inspires a team to work cohesively.
3. Conscientious behavior informs the actions of the team; people want to maintain the positivity of the work environment.
4. Work becomes more meaningful when you do it alongside people you trust, admire, and respect.
5. A commitment to a shared purpose evolves from a shared sense of belonging

In optimistic environments, the team becomes more important than the efforts of any one person. We spend over a 1/3 of our life at work and most of our waking hours working. Leaders have a responsibility to shape the work context so that work is a positive influence on people’s lives.

It is no longer acceptable to let work be a life-depleting activity. It’s time for more leaders to step up and turn work into a life-giving opportunity.

Shawn Murphy writes frequently on topics just like this for Inc. Magazine, The Huffington Post and Switch and Shift, where he is co-founder and CEO. He is also the host of the Rebel Leader and Work That Matters podcasts. His book, The Optimistic Workplace, is available from retailers everywhere.

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