Creating a Culture of Possibility – Libby Gill

The most significant – and often overlooked – element in the workplace today, hope is the critical component that drives success.

There’s an old joke… “If you’re leading and nobody’s following, maybe you’re just taking a walk.”

So what are those elusive qualities of leadership that create the kind of engaged and collaborative followship that drives high performance? That’s a question that has been discussed and debated by everyone from Alexander the Great to Jack Welch.

I believe that there is one leadership quality that is simultaneously the most significant and the most overlooked. That quality is hope. And for the nearly thirty years I’ve been involved in helping shape excellence in the workplace, first in the corporate world and now as an executive coach and leadership consultant, I’ve observed how hope, or the lack of it, affects performance. And I’m not alone.

In a Gallup poll of more than 10,000 workplace participants, the four traits cited most often as what followers wanted from their leaders were compassion, stability, trust, and hope. Needless to say, absent those leadership qualities, as is sometimes the case in the midst of growth or change, employees are often not at their most productive. When Gallup asked workers if their managers and leaders made them feel hopeful about the future, among those who said yes, 69% also scored high on a scale of engagement in their work. Of those who said their managers did not instill a sense of hopefulness about their futures, only 1% scored high on the engagement measure.

Willpower and Waypower

The word hope is derived from the Old English word hopian and literally means to “leap forward with expectation.” Hope plays such a pivotal part in our lives that scientists have endeavored to define its role in what’s known as “hope theory.” The concept was pioneered by the late Dr. C.R. Snyder, a professor of psychology at the University of Kansas at Lawrence. Encouraged by the noted psychiatrist Dr. Karl Menninger, who once spoke about hope at a conference of the American Psychiatric Association only to have his concepts derided by his colleagues, Dr. Snyder became intrigued with the significance of hope and its role in helping us reach our goals.

Dr. Snyder defined hope as based on both “willpower” and “waypower,” where one is able not only to create the pathways to realizing a vision, but also to sustain the mental energy and perseverance to travel those pathways effectively. He likened this process to the old adage of “where’s a will, there’s a way,” citing both elements as critical to success.  Today, with the workplace focused on ideas and innovation, rather than merely output, the most successful employees are often the most hopeful. One of the primary reasons is because they see multiple pathways, rather than the way, to arrive at a successful outcome.

Among the advantages of having a high level of hope (not to be confused with optimism which is a generalized outlook on life independent of one’s actions and circumstances), Dr. Snyder’s research showed that hopeful people are more likely than non-hopeful people to:

  • Set a great number of goals
  • Have goals which may be more difficult to attain
  • Be more successful at reaching their goals
  • Have less distress and greater happiness than low-hope people

Belief and Expectation

Adding to the pioneering work of Dr. Snyder is Harvard-trained oncologist Dr. Jerome Groopman, one of the world’s leading researchers on cancer and AIDS. Author of How Doctors Think and The Anatomy of Hope, Dr. Groopman believes that hope is based on two key components: belief and expectation.  More specifically, belief that change is possible and the expectation that the actions of an individual can result in a better future.

As a clinician, Dr. Groopman learned that when he gave cancer patients too much information regarding their prognoses, he often robbed them of hopefulness, which he and other scientists believe is instrumental in the healing process. On the other hand, when he gave them too limited information, he ran the risk of creating the false impression that they had little about which to be concerned. It was the challenge of finding that delicate balance between true hope and false hope that propelled Dr. Groopman to advance the hope theory research.

How Belief Drives Behavior

Although Snyder and Groopman approached hope theory from different perspectives – medicine and psychology – it is clear that both saw it as a combination of feelings and actions. Or as I witness it in the workplace, it is the interconnection between beliefs and behaviors. If you believe that change is possible and that your actions will have a positive influence on outcomes, you’re less likely to defend the status quo and more likely to take positive risks, inspiring others with your behavior. Conversely, if you believe the opposite is true, that change is impossible and it makes absolutely no difference what actions you take, you’re apt to stay stuck in mediocrity. Or, as Henry Ford famously put it, “Whether you think you can or think you can’t, you’re right.”

So why are some companies eternally energized with a sense of hopefulness, while others are perpetually stuck in the hope-starved doldrums? Why do some leaders naturally inspire an anything-is-possible confidence in their teams, while others struggle to keep employees even marginally engaged? And what can you do to inspire positive beliefs that result in effective behaviors? It’s not as difficult as you might imagine. Try these strategies for starters:

Find opportunities to feed hope, rather than starve it, within your organization. Leaders who inspire hopefulness by listening deeply to others, taking suggestions seriously, and granting ownership and authority to team members, help infuse hope into the corporate DNA.

Encourage “original mistakes.” While you don’t want your team members repeating the same mistakes over and over, when you allow risk-taking and even failure, you reduce fear and foster innovation. Applaud the big, bold, and “original mistakes” from which you and your team can glean new insights.

Recognize the difference between True Hope and False Hope. Set realistic standards and measure outcomes rather than just processes to ensure that you are moving aggressively toward pre-determined goals. Focus on what you can control and remain positive despite inevitable setbacks, but don’t hide behind rose-colored glasses.

Be tough on outcomes and tenderhearted toward your team. Being hopeful doesn’t mean you have to coax, coddle, or worse, simply hope that people will do their jobs. It means that you can hold them accountable to extremely high standards and measure them on results while still treating them with trust, respect, and kindness.

Libby Gill is an executive coach and consultant and the former head of communications and PR for Sony, Universal, and Turner Broadcasting. She is the author of four books, including the award-winning You Unstuck: Mastering the New Rules of Risk-taking in Work and Life and Capture the Mindshare and the Market Share Will Follow. Libby will be a keynote speaker at the Lucy Hobbs 4th Annual Celebration in Dallas in June.

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