Inspiring Hope in the Workplace

“We must accept finite disappointment, but never lose infinite hope.”
Martin Luther King Jr. spoke these words nearly two months before his assassination on April 4, 1968, and they serve as a powerful rallying cry for hope in the face of obstacles — including obstacles in the workplace.
King’s work inspired many of the anti-discrimination laws we know today, but there are still many “finite disappointments” in the workplace that call for King’s “infinite hope.” In honor of Martin Luther King Jr. Day, this is the first of a series on the subject of hope in the workplace. Today’s post will examine some of the obstacles in the workplace today, explain what hope means in the workplace, and highlight a few of its benefits.
The Finite Disappointments Today
During these tumultuous times, hope can seem elusive. We hear about disengaged workers and the “loneliness epidemic.” Dystopian predictions about the future of work abound. The headlines remind us that robots are rising up to steal jobs and could become overlords of humans in the not-too-distant future. For years we’ve been hearing various predictions of extreme job loss in the U.S. due to automation ranging, for example, from 47% (Frey and Osborne, Oxford University) up to 80% (Elliott, OECD.) A 2017 PricewaterhouseCoopers study found that 37% of workers are worried about losing their jobs due to automation.
Organizations are under increasing pressure to keep up with relentless disruption in a complex and volatile world. Predictions warn about an impending skills deficit resulting in yet more extreme income inequality and a lack of qualified workers. All the while, increasing warning bells about the devastating impact of climate change sound and communities grow increasingly polarized.
Unsurprisingly, all this uncertainty and negativity leads to feelings of fear and hopelessness. Hope won’t change the fact that fear-inducing headlines and stories will continue to fill our newsfeeds, but hope can help change our reaction to them. Realistic hope can serve as an antidote to the inertia that can result from hopelessness.
The Meaning of Hope
There are many ways to conceptualize hope. Hope can be viewed as a life-sustaining force that is rooted in an individual’s relationship with the future. Philosopher Mary Zournazi states that hope is “built on belief and faith, and the trust that there is a life worth living in uncertain times.” Psychologist Shane Lopez says hope can be described as “the golden mean between euphoria and fear…where transcendence meets reason and caution meets passion.” Lopez further states that hope is “the belief that the future will be better than the present, along with the belief that you have the power to make it so.”
In the context of work, hope can mean that, despite obstacles, employees believe they are heading in the right direction and have confidence in the future direction of the company. Hope can mean that employees believe their employer cares about their future and wellbeing. Hope can result when leaders tell positive stories about the future, and employees are empowered to be involved in creating the path to get there.
It’s important to distinguish hope from optimism. Blind optimism can create complacency and a failure to take action. In contrasting “wise hope” from optimism, Joan Halifax, anthropologist and Zen teacher says, “Optimists imagine that everything will turn out positively. I consider this point of view dangerous; being an optimist means one doesn’t have to bother; one doesn’t have to act.”
In contrast, hope can be a catalyst for action, and it often motivates an individual toward specific goals, contributing to an action-focused optimism. Strategy and innovation consultant Deborah Mills-Scofield says, “Hope supports realistic optimism, a necessary component of success.” A hopeful person doesn’t necessarily believe that a specific desired outcome will actually transpire. Hopeful people understand that there will be obstacles to face and are open to changing course where needed. They take responsibility for the path they take to move forward.
The Benefits of Hope for the Workplace
Researchers have found many benefits of hope that can positively impact the workplace. Hopeful people accomplish more at work than less hopeful people. A study that compared the relationship between hope and productivity concluded that hope “accounts for 14 percent of productivity in the workplace—more than intelligence, optimism or self-efficacy (Journal of Positive Psychology, 2013). People with low levels of hope are more apt to shut down in a crisis, but, according to psychologist Randolph C. Arnau, “a high-hope person tends to have more goals and is quicker to focus on another if they fail.”
While hopelessness has been associated with suicide, hope is a strong predictor of positive emotions. High levels of hope have been linked to numerous health benefits such as reduced levels of depression and anxiety and lowered risk of death. High levels of hope have also been linked to increased social competence, lower levels of absenteeism, and lower levels of loneliness. It’s possible that creating an organizational culture that inspires hope could improve employee wellness and help alleviate the “loneliness epidemic” in the workplace.
Thankfully, according to Dr. Lopez, hope is an “equal opportunity resource.” It doesn’t relate to IQ or income, and there are no consistent findings of one racial or ethnic group being more hopeful than others. The ability to have higher levels of hope can be learned. We’ll talk more about how to inspire and build hope in future blog posts.
The Role of Leaders
In his 2017 book The New Leadership Literacies, futurist Bob Johansen, former President and Distinguished Fellow at the Institute for the Future, says that it will be critical for future leaders to be able to “seed hope”:
“Leaders in the future will be in the seeding hope business, whether they like it or not…I believe that the next ten years will be twisted and splintered — the most turbulent years in all of our lifetimes — and the most hopeful, if we play it right.”
Johansen goes on to say that seeding hope will be especially important for those born in 1996 and later (i.e., those age 24 and younger in 2020): “Hope has always been important, but it is likely to be much more difficult to achieve over the next decade [through 2027]…Over the next decade, the biggest negative disruptors will be young people who are hopeless — and connected. The biggest positivedisruptors will be young people who are hopeful and connected. The key variable will be the degree of hope young people experience.”
However, as stated in Strengths Based Leadership, if leaders “are not creating hope and helping people see the way forward, chances are, no one else is either.”
Most people spend a significant portion of their life at work. Organizations that encourage leaders to inspire hope and consider hope an integral part of the culture will ultimately have not only more productive and inspired teams but also a positive impact on society at large. In building higher levels of hope at work, organizations can contribute to the overall good and a brighter future.
There’s good reason for hope too! Writing in Harvard Business Review, Deborah Mills-Scofield says, “After a few decades of helping organizations create highly actionable, measurable, living strategic plans that adapt to the changing world instead of leaving our companies stuck in concrete, I’ve seen hope achieve marvelous success for customers, employees, communities, stakeholders, and shareholders.”
As Martin Luther King Jr. did in his time, leaders today can inspire infinite hope. Every team will face obstacles, difficulties, and disappointments. Plans don’t always work out as we’d like. But when we have hope, those obstacles, difficulties, and disappointments don’t get the last word. We do.

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