Hope is a Strategy

Posted by Rebecca Dannenfelser on Fri, May 16, 2014
We need never be hopeless because we can never be irreparably broken.” –John Green

cc_employee_engagementJust last week, I reconnected with a past client who had recently left a top post. Brought to a new company with much fanfare and anticipated success, he left amid rumblings of his incompetence and struggling business results. This high flyer, who had enjoyed a serious track record of past success, met up with a culture that claimed to be innovative and dynamic, but showed itself to be much more risk averse and skeptical of outsiders.

Having breakfast together some four months after the departure, I marveled at just how fabulous this leader looked. He laughed and joked and spoke about his health and happiness in a way I hadn't heard from him in the last year. He looked better, sounded better, and had dropped weight. He wasn't even looking for a job (thanks to a nice severance package). He shared with me that the whole experience had left him with a new perspective. He swore his next job would be scrutinized with a more thorough examination of the culture, the people and the mission. He told me he would never work again in a hopeless environment devoid of respect and meaning—even if that meant taking a lesser role or changing course. 

The fact is this story is not an isolated one. We have the pleasure of working with senior executives in mid-size to large organizations and lately we've noticed a pattern of behavior that we find troubling: hopeless resignation. This trend bears out when we read about employee engagement scores registering a mere 30% of workers being actively engaged. And, a Pricewaterhouse Coopers Saratoga practice study just recently reported that top talent is now voluntarily leaving at the highest rate seen in the last 10 years, up to 6% in 2013 versus 5% in 2012. 

So what's happening here? Some might argue that the economic downturn has recovered enough for high performers to feel like they can take some risks. Or, one could point towards the continuing war for great talent being a driver of voluntary turnover. As to the employee engagement scores, while the numbers are bad, they are not that different than they have been the last few years. Yet, something feels different. We hear a lot of leaders lamenting about:

  • The feeling that some things will never change

  • The feeling that some people will never change

  • The fact that people are working harder than ever and with fewer resources

  • The fact that talented leaders were passed over for a promotion

  • The latest change initiative failure

  • The poor results with the new product

  • The company culture

  • The stifling power struggles 

  • The fact and feeling that the leaders at the top have no clue what is happening with the employees at the bottom, closest to the customer

  • The fact that bad behavior—from bullying to lying and scheming—is rewarded as long as the leader produces results

Against the backdrop of this dialog, we look to Amazon's top 5 business books and discover that positioning hope, leveraging strengths and overcoming obstacles are best sellers. "Strength Finders" by Tom Rath, a book about the power in leveraging the best things about ourselves continues its position of dominance at #1.

The book makes the point over and over again, that most managers and organizations will go out of their way to have a leader work on their "opportunities" or weaknesses. And, while Rath certainly believes we all need to work on what isn't working, he brilliantly points out that overcoming our shortcomings is often done best by leveraging our strengths. Furthermore, he makes the point, we aren't all supposed to be great at everything. So embrace that you are more analytical, while your peer may be more strategic, that will help both of you successfully contribute to the work.

New to the best seller list, weighing at #4 is Ryan Holiday's recently published "The Obstacles in the Way: The Timeless Art of Turning Trials into Triumph." This book makes the case through endless examples of past leaders who have turned difficult times into opportunities to grow and thrive. And, finally #5 "Profit from the Positive" by Margaret Greenberg offers up a new slant on how positive psychology tools can impact the work environment for the better and drive bottom line profits.

Perhaps it's in the times of struggle when we feel most hopeless that we truly learn to tap into hope. We find out what's most important to us and we learn what's most valued. In this way, we uncover the truth about our circumstances, learning that choosing hope-- by selecting the right cultural fit, or the values we hold most dear or the books we read-- is a valid uplifting and defining strategy. 
They say a person needs just three things to be truly happy in this world: someone to love, something to do, and something to hope for.” -- Tom Bodett

Topics: corporate culture, organizational change, employee engagement

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