The Optimistic Workplace

"When we allow somebody to walk into our organisation we have an obligation as stewards of that life to continue to allow that life to be everything they were meant to be"

- The Optimistic Workplace, page 132-133

Stewardship in the workplace is becoming an important component of leadership development. Current research clearly shows that employees are not satisfied in their workplace and newer generations expect more than just a financial reward from their work—they need meaning.

Workplaces have become outdated and can soul destroying, life sapping, boring means of passing the day away for a wage in exchange to get something done. Shawn Murphy, in his excellent book The Optimistic Workplace, describes a new concept in leadership allowing us to overcome the boredom of an outdated workplace and create an optimistic workplace.

If people are valued at a personal level, where they feel their contributions are recognized and their core values are aligned with those of the employer then a new dynamic emerges: the optimistic workplace.

Leaders must think of their role as stewards of people’s lives, both at a personal and business level. We must go beyond expectations to make sure everyone is aware of their contribution to the mission of the business.

The Big Idea

The Big Idea: The biggest takeaway from the book

Values Based Leadership

"To know your values is to have insight into why you have decisions, with whom you make friends, or the type of work you pursue, or don't. It’s been said, ‘If you don’t stand for something, you’ll fall for anything.’"
- The Optimistic Workplace, page 76

Values are an integral part of all of us and most of us live by our values intuitively. Shawn Murphy takes values leadership personally and describes an incident where he left an organisation because of a lack of attention to values. Values are a means of describing what is important to us individually or within a group to achieve an organisation’s goals within the boundaries of appropriate standards of behaviour. Values based leadership, centered on the framework of employee wellbeing (stewardship), allows us to achieve personal wellbeing, fulfillment, growth, and rewards.

Values begin with identifying the beliefs that resonate with you such as: Accountability, accuracy, achievement, aesthetics, appreciation, challenge, collaboration, community, competence, creativity, curiousity, decisiveness, effectiveness, excellence, fairness, family, freedom, fun, generousity, growth, hard work, harmony, health, integrity, joy, justice, learning, loyalty, privacy, prosperity, relationships, resourcefulness, responsibility, results, serenity, and stability

Once you have identified your five top values, ask whether they are present in your current work or not and what differences would be made if they were. Once clear on your values, allow them to be seen within your organisation by changing your behaviour. This is where your values come to life, and Murphy suggests making time to reflect and discus your values with the organisation’s employees during regular one-on-ones.

The key point is to get the employees involved in group discussions around values, to develop their own and then identify where values are or aren’t being met within the organisation.

For example, by creating a connection to values such as family, stewards will be aware of the importance of team members’ personal lives and allow a more balanced work/life connection and, for instance, make changes to allow for more free time.

Insight #1

An actionable way to implement the Big Idea into your life

Employee Centric Leadership

"The human side of business grounds your perspective in truly human elements that help you relate to your team members as people. It guides you to discover commonalities between you and your team that deepen connections."
- The Optimistic Workplace, page 141

Focusing on the bottom line mentality can be detrimental to the success of a business on a whole. You are ultimately not in control of the market or your customers, but what you can be in control of is your relationship with your employees on a daily basis. If people feel valued they want to communicate with you; if management is open and transparent then employees recognize that you respect them. To value, respect, and give meaning to your people, it’s important to nurture positive employee relationships. The universal elements of a human centric based workplace are centred on health, family, friends, work identity, and purpose. Murphy identifies means of applying these elements in the workplace such as:

  • Provide health benefits, gym membership, flexible work hours, and leadership training.
  • Celebrate milestones and achievements, hold after work events.
  • Match employees’ strengths, stretch their abilities, job craft employees work, link interests to assignments.
  • Identify employees’ values and purpose.

People like to feel valued and they want their opinions valued. Relatedness within a workplace is when we have a trusting, satisfying connection to others and care about their wellbeing, and this is what Murphy describes as human centric leadership, where a high priority is placed on positive relationships with employers and colleagues. What differentiates human centric leadership is the movement away from business needs only to include the individual employees’ needs as an integral part of the business structure.

Insight #2

An actionable way to implement the Big Idea into your life


"Purpose sits on your shoulder and whispers in your ear what the ethical thing to do is. A strong steward listens and acts according to purpose"
- The Optimistic Workplace, page 88

Stewardship based leadership focuses on building a values based climate or mood. Employees work hard mainly because they believe it’s the right thing to do, they respect company values, and find meaning and purpose in what they do. Murphy describes the origins of optimism as purpose, meaningful work, and extraordinary people.

Purpose is the reason you do something, related to your values and ethical decisions or, as quoted, “the tendency to derive meaning from life’s experiences and possess a sense of intentionality and good directedness that guides behaviours.”

Research has shown that having a deep sense of purpose gives clarity in difficult times and guidance throughout life, generating motivation and fulfillment.

To understand and generate your own feelings of purpose, the following questions help to create understanding:

  1. Write down meaningful or rewarding behaviours and clearly identify how these behaviours give insights at a deeper personal level.
  2. Think of instances that energized you. Who were you with, what values did you get from this?
  3. What values and themes resonate from your responses?
  4. What makes your heart sing? Are you doing enough of this behaviour and how could it be increased?
  5. What behaviours of others could you adopt?
  6. Has an important event redefined what’s important to you?

The answers are intrinsically difficult and take time and patience to develop and align with the purpose of the organisation on a continuing basis.

Together with meaningful work and supporting each other to be extraordinary people, purpose is an integral part of the three origins of optimism.

Murphy illustrates how purpose can be discussed in one-on-ones, for instance to address work life balance and then develop plans to address a more integrated work life mix. Leaders should also enquire into passion areas that may be linked to their employees’ purpose and develop plans to allow the employee to pursue these areas.


Shawn Murphy has grasped the concept of transformational leadership elegantly and has given us the first steps towards achieving an optimistic workplace. Give it a try.

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Peter Taylor

ABOUT Peter Taylor

I have owned and managed a veterinary based business on the west coast of Australia for 18 years. No one at Veterinary school gives us any clues about running a business and it is only in the last few years that I have started to study business and management...
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