Joy and optimistic peopleWhen it comes to work these days, we’re all expected to do more with less–but is this nose-to-the-grindstone philosophy the best way to run a business? Alarmingly low employee engagement numbers indicate otherwise.

So, if pushing everyone harder isn’t the path to productivity, what is?

I believe that our best work is the product of a positive environment. How it feels to work within an organization is a critical workforce development issue.

We need more leaders who are willing to choose to set a positive tone for their teams despite what senior management isn’t doing.

Destructive management is like a disease, draining people and infecting the whole workplace.

I’ve identified six core symptoms of destructive management—leadership practices that crush workplace optimism.

6 symptoms of destructive management

Symptom 1: Blind Impact.

A leader who is unaware of how her actions, attitude, and words impact others damages any opportunity for workplace optimism. She consistently underestimates people’s value and often fails to connect the dots between their work and organizational direction.

Symptom 2: Antisocial Leadership.

An antisocial leader lacks the ability to encourage, build, and evolve a community of people united by a shared purpose. Autocratic and even distrustful of people, he often dictates what workers should do and rarely praises or even credits them for their good work. Creating a void of connectedness, this symptom tends to leave people feeling used.

Symptom 3: Chronic Change Resistance.

What’s destructive about this symptom is the leader’s unwillingness to initiate change to help her team and organization remain relevant. If change is adopted, it’s usually late in the adoption curve. With this leader in charge, only incremental change is possible.

Symptom 4: Profit Myopia.

Leaders with profit myopia cling to the outdated belief that profit is the only success measure. Their teams chase solutions that satisfy shareholders and/or short-term goals, alienating customers and employees. Taking a chink out of the optimistic workplace is this leader’s narrow focus on his or her own personal income and rewards.

Symptom 5: Constipated Inspiration.

When a leader is too focused on her own needs and insecurities, she gives little attention to what her employees experience at work. As a result, she doesn’t see what inspires or demotivates them. This symptom stems from ignorance to personal values. When a leader knows what she stands for, she has greater capacity for learning about the people on her team.

Symptom 6: Silo Syndrome.

A leader afflicted with silo syndrome cannot see beyond his immediate responsibilities or see how work affects employees’ family lives. Also common is seeing people merely as a role—for example, people in sales know nothing about marketing. This mental shortcut makes it easy for a leader to devalue, disrespect, or ignore employees, which makes it impossible for optimism to thrive.

Overcoming resistance, deepening personal interest, motivation, commitment and loyalty—all of these things are possible when you deliberately and strategically focus real effort and make employee optimism a real and measurable metric. You can position employees to believe that work is a bright spot in their life.

You can position employees to believe that work is a bright spot in their life. ~Shawn Murphy Click To Tweet

I recommend that managers learn and deploy these critical strategies:

  • Understand the team is more important than any individual.

It’s a fact of neuroscience: our brains are wired to think about the thoughts, feelings, and goals of other people. Working as a team to achieve desired outcomes makes people feel good about work. For optimism to be strong, a cohesive team is vital. Managers and leaders need to avoid relying on the usual suspects, the same few superstars, to handle high-profile projects.

  • Know there’s value to experiencing joy at work.

Joy can open brains to better see connections and various options to solve work problems. In a joyful workplace, people are more likely to contribute their best. Expressing joy is simple. Give a proud smile when a team member does great work. Celebrate reaching key project milestones or momentous occasions in an employee’s life—buying a new house or having a baby, for example.

  • Recognize that doing good is good for business.

It’s not just about philanthropy. When leaders adopt business practices that contribute to improving employees’ lives, business prospers. Do something crazy—have an anti-workaholic policy. When team members have time to pursue personal interests, they are more productive and satisfied at work. Implement a policy banning team members from emailing other about business on weekends.

Do something crazy--have an anti-workaholic policy. ~Shawn Murphy Click To Tweet
  • Make your relationships with employees richer.

Relationships are central to cooperation, collaboration, and successful outcomes. Take, for instance, the remarkable 2014 events at Market Basket, a 73-store grocery chain based in Massachusetts. When the board of directors ousted the company’s CEO and steward, Arthur T. Demoulas, in favor of his bottom-line driven cousin, Arthur S. Demoulas, employees responded by orchestrating a massive boycott. Strong relationships between employees, suppliers, and customers resulted in a collaborative effort that restored a beloved CEO and saved a company.

  • Make work align with purpose and meaning.

Why does work matter to your team members? For workplace optimism to thrive, organizational leaders must strive to find the answer to that question and then continually invest in making sure that work remains meaningful. A focus on financial motivators blinds leaders from helping employees do work that matters.

  • Have leaders actualize human potential.

Luck Companies, an aggregate business headquartered just outside of Richmond, Virginia, believes, to quote CEO Charlie Luck, that “all human beings have extraordinary potential to make a positive difference in the world.” For Luck, this belief shapes how its leaders treat one another, develop their associates, and spread the message globally.

Actualizing human potential puts the spirit into workplace optimism, which in turn inspires business leaders to put this belief into action.

How have you created more optimism in your workplace?


Today’s guest contributor is Shawn Murphy, CEO and founder of Switch & Shift, an organization dedicated to the advancement of human-centered organizational practices and leadership. His book, The Optimistic Workplace, has just been released. When not consulting, Shawn can often be found in the classroom teaching, speaking to audiences, or interviewing top thought leaders on his Work That Matters podcast. 

Image credit before quote added: MorgueFile