Though hope may seem like a soft concept, it has hard-edged bottom-line implications for businesses. So says Shane J. Lopez, Ph.D., a professor at the University of Kansas School of Business, a Gallup senior scientist, and a leading researcher on hope.
Hopeful leaders get rid of the clumsy obstacles and processes that get in the way.
Hope is the basis of all positive change because hope is the belief that things could be better and one can make them so, Lopez writes in his new book Making Hope Happen. That belief can be learned and taught, and executives would do well to keep hope alive in their companies, as Lopez says in this interview.
Gallup Business Journal: Hope doesn't sound like something that would interest business leaders. It sounds like something that would interest poets.
Shane J. Lopez, Ph.D.: That's partly because the language about hope is sloppy. We have confused hoping with wishing. The difference between wishing and hoping is that wishing is passive, but hoping is active. Wishing actually undermines your chances of success.
Hoping involves taking positive thoughts about the future, putting a lot of resources and hard work behind them, and gauging your progress until it happens. It's really hard to be successful without being hopeful. When you think that the future will be better than the present, you start working harder today -- and you're much more likely to be engaged in your work.
Tell me about the link between hope and employee engagement.
Lopez: When people have a boss who makes them feel hopeful about the future, they are more engaged at work. Gallup asked employees whether their leader at work made them feel enthusiastic about the future. Of those who strongly agreed, 69% were engaged in their work, while only 1% of those who disagreed or strongly disagreed were engaged. This has significant business implications because employee engagement boosts productivity, quality, customer engagement, retention, safety, and profitability. Creating enthusiasm about the future is a hallmark of hopeful leadership.
How does a leader create that enthusiasm?
Lopez: Most of us are inspired by meaningful goals, and we want to be part of something bigger than ourselves. Even if we don't cast ourselves as mission driven, most of us get excited about being part of a team and pursuing a goal that matters to people other than ourselves. Great leaders know that and rally us in service of goals that we can't achieve alone.
But hopeful leaders not only are able to inspire us to work toward bigger goals, they're able to make them happen. They get rid of the clumsy obstacles and processes that get in the way. They clear the path for employees' agency, that self-renewing can-do spirit, by inspiring them to do what they do best in service of a big goal.
And hopeful leaders are honest. They are able to admit, "Hey, we've been working hard for six months on a goal that matters a lot, but I was a few degrees off. We need to refocus toward a slightly different goal -- and we'll get there." Unfortunately, too many leaders are afraid of looking weak or wrong, so they won't go back to their employees and admit they need to recalibrate. They won't re-goal. And re-goaling is where hope meets courage.
In your book, you discuss teaching hopefulness. How do you do that?
Lopez: First, you get people excited about something. Goal-setting workshops never talk about setting a goal you're excited about. They just say "set a measurable goal." But goals that don't stand out don't get people moving.
When we tell employees, "You need to raise profitability for shareholders" -- but those employees aren't shareholders -- we're telling them to work hard on goals that don't matter much to them. Instead, ask, "What excites you about the work we're doing? What makes you think that you're contributing to something more -- something bigger than yourself?" Tap into that, and you can bring hopeful energy along for the ride.
But there's one more part, which is both the easiest and the hardest to teach. It's easy to show people how to be hopeful, but they have to do it many times over before they convince themselves that they're capable of generating hope on their own. And that's putting agency on autopilot.
Hope may still seem a bit airy and motivational to some people. How grounded are hopeful leaders?
Lopez: They're much more pragmatic than you might think. They are not insanely happy people, but they are deeply invested. They know exactly where they are, how life could be better, and what it will take to get their company from one place to the next.
-- Interviewed by Jennifer Robison