Creating an Optimistic Workplace — Interview with Shawn Murphy

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Shawn Murphy is an independent consultant with 20 years’ experience working with organizations to create workplace optimism. He is the co-founder and CEO of Switch & Shift, an advocacy and consultancy focused on the human side of business, and host of the popular Work That Matters podcast. We sat down with him to discuss his book, The Optimistic Workplace, published by AMACOM.

Let’s start with perhaps a cliché question: why was now the right time to write The Optimistic Workplace?

Let’s quantify how much time we spend at work. Conservative estimates say we spend 1/3 of our life working. Work occupies most of our waking time. Now layer on some unfortunate findings shining a light on the discontent in the workplace. For example, in a 2014 LinkedIn study of 18,000 employees, 15% were satisfied with their jobs. Another study finds that 65% of respondents would choose a new manager over a pay raise. These are merely samplings of a disproportionate number of findings that reveal the time we spend at work is not typically satisfying, fulfilling, or meaningful.

I want to give leaders a path forward out of the dismal workplace realities and into something energizing. Leaders have the greatest influence on employees’ work experience. So it’s natural that they be the solution to the problems that ail the modern workplace.

One thing that jumped out at me while I was reading the book was the importance of language in the workplace, that “words create realities”. Can you explain why it’s critical to use the right language?

Words influence our emotions. Our emotions shape our beliefs. Beliefs shape our actions. So when we use words like manager—a word that has too much negative baggage—we limit our capacity to transform what isn’t working. Management isn’t working. It’s a term associated with commanding and monitoring. Today we need more from those in charge. So we need to find a better word choice to create a better reality. I choose “steward” as the replacement for manager. Steward opens up greater possibility in how those in charge are partners in helping employees do their best work.

What was the biggest obstacle you faced writing The Optimistic Workplace?

The biggest obstacle I faced writing the book was myself. I know this sounds cliché. The truth is, though, I can be a horrible procrastinator. Sitting in front of the computer and write something cogent was daunting. It was easier to check my Twitter feed.

I also had to overcome my love to gather information. It’s a sneaky procrastination tactic that kept me from writing. This is what Steven Pressfield calls “The Resistance.” It runs strong in most meaningful, creative work.

You spent a great deal of time conducting research for the book, including interviews with many important leaders. Do you recall your biggest light-bulb moment during your research, or anything you uncovered along the way that challenged your own preconceived notions?

I assumed in my interviews that optimistic workplaces operated from a people-first mentality. After all, workplace optimism emerges, in part, when there are strong relationships. I was surprised to learn that it wasn’t that simple.

The origins of optimistic workplaces comes from a dynamic interplay between purpose, meaningful work, and extraordinary people. I hadn’t considered purpose and meaningful work as key to workplace optimism.

Was there anything that you ended up implementing into your own organization, Switch and Shift?

I’m a big proponent of one-on-ones. In The Optimistic Workplace I distinguish four types of one-on-ones: career focus, work progress focus, purpose focus, and values-alignment focus. We shifted to these type of one-on-ones with our team members to enrich our already strong relationships.

I’m also more diligent in ensuring there is clarity in what we’re doing and why we’re doing it. This invites great conversations on how best to accomplish our goals. We are a virtual team, so clarity and strong relationships are vital if we are to be effective.

You write that we need to “evolve from management”. What is the single biggest hindrance to doing so?

The biggest hindrance to evolving from management is our comfort with its practices. We have centuries of practice at being managers. Unlearning some of the bad habits of management, like treating people like assets or resources, will require a willingness to learn something new.

Not everyone reading The Optimistic Workplace (or this interview!) is in a quote-unquote leadership position (although it can certainly be argued that we’re all leaders to some degree). How can employees start a dialogue with their leaders to create a more optimistic workplace?

The first step is for employees to assess how they are contributing to a lack of optimism in the workplace. Then employees need to leverage those insights to initiate a conversation with their immediate leader.

Employees should focus on facts and not idolize the problem. It can sound something like, “I want more from my work. I want it to be meaningful. Right now it’s not. I need your help to explore how to make it more meaningful.” This is a bold conversation, but they need to happen with great regularity if optimism is to emerge.

Can you briefly explain the difference between climate and culture, and why climate is easier to influence?

Culture is how and why things are done around the workplace. These are embedded into the foundation of the organization. Climate is what it feels like to work somewhere. It’s based on employee perception, and is significantly influenced by a leader’s style.

Since a leader’s style is the greatest influence on climate and employees’ perception, it’s more within the control of the leader to change. Plus, the levers to shift climate are more tangible than changing culture.

Finally, we’re all about action here at Actionable Books and your book is overflowing with great action items, both large and small. You write that creating an optimistic workplace doesn’t take much. Can you leave us with one or two things leaders can start doing immediately to create an optimistic workplace?

The first thing a leader can do to create workplace optimism is to create clarity in the workplace. This means co-creating goals—personal and team goals. It also means ensuring work priorities are clear and there is agreement on them. Feedback needs to be frequent, positive and constructive. Leaders need to increase their expression of appreciation.

The second thing a leader can do is lean on leadership. They need to learn how their style impacts people. The easiest way to do this is to have a conversation with trusted people to share how a leader’s style enables performance and where it interferes with it. I list a set of skills needed for leaders who want to cultivate optimism. I recommend leaders take the assessment in the book to learn where their strengths are and where their weaknesses are.

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