The Optimistic Workplace: A book review by Bob Morris

Optimistic WorkplaceThe Optimistic Workplace: Creating an Environment That Energizes Everyone
Shawn Murphy
AMACOM (2015)

How and why optimism energizes a workplace culture so that personal growth and professional development can thrive

Long ago, Henry Ford suggested, “Whether you think you can or think you can’t, you’re probably right.” With all due respect to a positive attitude, however, the fact remains we all need to renew our mental, physical, and emotional energy and that is especially true in today’s highly competitive and increasingly more stressful business world.

I was again reminded of that the other day when I parked in an underground garage of the NorthPark mall near my home and noticed about a dozen Tesla sedans nearby, lined up and plugged into the wall. They were being recharged. How wonderful it would be if people could also be recharged by their workplace environment. Shawn Murphy believes that is possible. As the title of his book suggests, he wrote it to share what he has learned about how to create “an environment that energizes everyone.” Those who work there would indeed be optimistic about who they are, what they do, why they do it, how they could do it better, the results their efforts produce, and — perhaps most important of all — they would be optimistic about the people they are with every day and the meaningful work they — together — can accomplish. This is what Emily Esfahani Smith and Jennifer Aacker have in mind (in their New York Times article) when suggesting that one of the defining features of such work “is connection to something bigger than the self. People who lead meaningful lives feel connected to others, to work, to a life purpose, and to the world itself.”

In other words, in an optimistic workplace, people are energized by each other.

These are among the several dozen passages of greatest interest and value to me in Chapters 1-7, also listed to suggest the scope of Murphy’s coverage:

o The Evolution of Management (Pages 3-5)
o Forget About the Culture. How’s the Climate? (7-10)
o Workplace Optimism (11-13)
o The Optimism Beliefs (14-20)
o Origins of Optimism (20-24)
o Symptoms of Destructive Management (28-32)
o Outdated Beliefs of the Workplace (32-37)
o Mindset (37-39)
o Destructive Management Impacts (39-40)
o Creating Positive Outcomes (41-43)
o Contagious Positive Emotions (50-54)
o The Common Missteps (58-63)
o Too Much of a Good Thing?: Signs of Excess Optimism (65-72)
o A Sense of Identity (85-87)
o IKIGAI (“joy and a sense of well-being from being alive”) Pages 89-93
o Define Your Purpose (93-95)
o Purpose and Resilience (96-101)
o Meaning and Meaningful Work (104-114)
o The Hard Work of Meaning Makers (115)
o Reaping the Benefits of Doing Good (116-117)

It is no coincidence that most of the companies annually ranked among those that are most highly admired and best to work for are also annually ranked among those that are most profitable and have the greatest cap value in their industry. I agree with Murphy that companies such as these have workplace optimism. He observes, “The proliferation of optimistic workplaces is undoubtedly linked to the talents and willingness who supplant the beliefs of management for those of stewardship.” All organizations need effective leadership at all levels and in all areas of the given enterprise. Leaders who are stewards are viewed as authentic, guided by what Jim O’Toole characterizes as a “moral compass” and by what Bill George characterizes as their “True North.” They see themselves as being what Robert Greenleaf calls servant leaders.

Murphy suggests that stewards share seven defining characteristics: humility, honesty, reflection, grit, resilience, sense making, and vulnerability. There is no gap between their values and their behavior. They realize and appreciate how important optimism can be. “The optimistic workplace — whether it be underground, at a coworking space, in a not-for-profit, a high-rise, or even a start-up — is a reflection of human possibility and good business. It’s a mutually satisfying pairing of the two whose time has come. You only need to decide to take the first step.”

Those who share my high regard for Shawn Murphy’s brilliant book are urged to check out two others: Michael Lee Stallard’s Connection Culture: The Competitive Advantage of Shared Identity, Empathy, and Understanding at Work, written with Jason Pankau and Katharine Stallard, and, Freedom, Inc.: Free Your Employees and Let Them Lead Your Business to Higher Productivity, Profits, and Growth, co-authored by Brian M. Carney and Isaac Getz.

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