A leading researcher says executives must keep hope alive -- it's actually a business imperative
It's easy to cultivate a sense of doom right now. Economists have to search ever deeper in the past for times as bad as these, and some say things could still take a turn for the worse. There are ample reasons to give up hope.
With low hope, we stop interacting with the world. We pull back. Literally, we don't show up.
But business leaders should not abandon hope, says Shane J. Lopez, Ph.D., a professor at the University of Kansas School of Business, Gallup senior scientist, and a leading researcher on hope. That's because hope serves a fundamental business purpose. Dr. Lopez defines hope as the energy and ideas that drive people to change their circumstances. So without hope, there would be no goals, no motivation, and no improvement. Without hope, work has no point. Hope has the power to make bad times temporary.
That's why it's increasingly important for leaders and managers to understand the significance of hope and to instill it in employees. In this interview, Dr. Lopez discusses the mechanisms of hope, what happens to people who lose it, and what happens to companies that keep it. He explains how managers can help people who are being fired retain their sense of hope. And finally, he explains the ultimate value of hope: It's what's going to help get us out of this mess.
GMJ: This economy has made leaders, managers, and employees fearful. Is that dangerous?
Shane J. Lopez, Ph.D.: Many people will make it through [the economic downturn] relatively unscathed in terms of their current positions. Having those folks function in a way that allows an economy to bounce back over time is important. My biggest worry is that if everybody shifts into fear mode, it will stymie innovation and growth in all sectors. Then when the world markets open up a little bit, some leaders will lag behind because they're not ready for change and growth.
GMJ: What good does hope do us now?
Dr. Lopez: In a section on hope in their book Strengths Based Leadership, Tom Rath and Barry Conchie wrote about initiators versus responders. I think folks who have high hope are both responders and initiators. They see problems and obstacles, and they knock them out. That's the responding part of high hope; responders make good things happen in good times and bad. Then there are the folks who are able to step back -- in good times and bad -- and say, "I'm going to initiate; I'm going to put that big idea on the table and try to move it forward. I'm going to attempt to take us in a new direction. I'm looking to create something out of nothing." Those folks will be the ones who will be standing tall in two or three years when things begin to bounce back in a significant way.
Hope keeps us in the game. With low hope, we stop interacting with the world. We pull back. Literally, we don't show up. We just move through life in a zombie-like state. We all go through periods of sustained low hope, and they don't lead to anything good at all. But hope for the future -- maybe even the distant future -- is what keeps people focused and moving in a direction that makes sense for their welfare and the welfare of an organization.
GMJ: When things are bad, how can managers sustain hope? How can they keep their people moving forward in spite of the gloomy economic news?
Dr. Lopez: When workers think about ideas and energy for the future, they may have energy and a big goal, but they don't have specific ideas about how to get there. This kind of low hope -- high energy and low ideas -- is the easiest for managers to fix. When workers are thinking about a goal and then an obstacle pops up, their manager can get them unstuck by showing them how others [accomplished that goal], showing them new pathways, helping them think things through.
Really, there are lots of ways to get unstuck. The energy to achieve the goals -- the force that moves them from point A to point B -- is actually harder to inspire than the ideas. You can give employees more ideas, but to energize them to the point that they can start moving again, that takes deep, mentoring relationships. But sometimes a jolt of positive emotion can help them get unstuck. A new vision of the goal, something that makes it seem more attainable, can help them get unstuck. But it's hard to breathe new life into employees. It's easier for managers to marshal the strategic resources than to energize workers.
GMJ: But can managers actually instill hope? Can anyone do this? Or is hope innate?
Dr. Lopez: The wacky thing is we're the only creatures on the planet who really have a complex view of the future. What I struggle with is when people don't capitalize on this uniquely human quality.
Hope is an antidote to fear. It gives us enough belief that good things can happen in the future.
A friend of mine has a Saint Bernard, and she has this little bitty sliding gate protecting the kitchen from the dog or the dog from the kitchen. And the gate barely works -- it's just kind of rigged up. So I asked, "Can't the dog easily knock over this gate?" And my friend said, "Yeah, but he doesn't know he can. He just stands on the other side and waits for me to open it."
And that's the thing -- managers need to know that they can take advantage of this horsepower humans have to set goals and move toward the future in a powerful way. When we experience uncertainty, which we're going through right now, we slow down. Fear puts blinders on us, and it keeps us in a smaller social space. So we don't reach out as much, and we don't socialize as much; all kinds of bad indicators go up, and all kinds of good indicators go down. When we're fearful, we shut down, and we don't think clearly about our options.
That's what's happening now, and hope is actually an antidote to all that. Hope is an antidote to fear. It gives us enough belief that good things can happen in the future that we can take the blinders off and expand our social circles. The bigger our social circles, the more resources we have. When we think about survival of the fittest, humans who have a lot of social capital actually do better than humans who have very low social capital. So if we're able to take the blinders off, see opportunities where other people see catastrophes, and make sure we maintain the social capital around us, then we're able to keep moving toward the goals that matter to us most.
GMJ: What about managers who have to fire people? What can they say to keep the people they must fire hopeful?
Dr. Lopez: Your responsibility in that situation is to be as honest and straightforward as possible. Respect the fear that the person is experiencing: "I know you're scared about your future and the future of those around you." That kicks off a psychological process in which they can manage the fear a little bit better and with a little more dignity as well.
But the reality is that losing a job can send folks into an abyss of uncertainty and give them an unfocused, damaged relationship with the future. When you have a damaged relationship with the future, that's when hopelessness can creep in. That's when bad things can happen on a personal level.
So a great way to go about helping people transition is to help them frame the future a little bit. Companies that can offer some kind of severance pay or job transition opportunity -- coaching, career counseling, something like that -- will help frame the future so that folks can remain hopeful. Retraining helps people reinvent that relationship with the future.
Sending people from the point of termination to the next place is vital. If you're interested in the welfare of the folks who are being laid off, you need to make sure they have enough pieces to start reframing their relationship with the future. And if they have those pieces, they can remain hopeful enough to keep moving in a healthy, safe, somewhat positive direction. If you throw them into an abyss and don't respect the fact that they're fearful and overwhelmed by uncertainty, then there's no real jump-start for them to start creating that new future.
Those are the folks I'm particularly concerned about because they're stuck. They don't have goals, they don't have the energy to move, and they don't have many ideas about the direction to move in. So whatever companies can do to help these employees make a meaningful transition will make a big difference on an individual level -- and it can also make a big difference on a societal level.
GMJ: A big part of being a company leader is putting on a "game face" -- projecting hope, optimism, and a can-do spirit. What would you say to leaders who, in quiet moments and in the face of this relentless economic crisis, feel hopeless themselves?
Dr. Lopez: Company leaders certainly have their dark moments, and they should share these struggles with their closest confidants. They should surround themselves with hopeful people who can get them unstuck.
Company leaders need to remember that their personal hope is a public resource. Employees look to leaders to capitalize on the spirit and ideas of the times, to dream big, and to motivate them toward a virtuous future. If you can't make your employees excited about the future, you're no longer a leader.
-- Interviewed by Jennifer Robison