6 Steps to Foster Trust, Community, and an Optimistic Workplace

OptimismWe are in desperate need for a new model of leadership in organizations. The type of leadership we’ve seen the last several decades has produced record low levels of trust and engagement in the workforce, so clearly what we’ve been doing isn’t working. Every day the spirits of millions of people die at the front doors of their workplace as they trudge through another day of work that lacks inspiration, purpose, and is disconnected from all other parts of theirs lives.We need a leadership philosophy grounded in the knowledge and belief that the most successful leaders and organizations are those that place an emphasis on fostering trust, community, and optimism. We need a new approach to leadership; we need people-centered leadership.

In his new book, The Optimistic Workplace: Creating An Environment That Energizes Everyone, Shawn Murphy, my friend and fellow advocate of human worth in the workplace, offers six straightforward strategies leaders can employ to develop a sense of community and belonging in workplaces that builds trust and collaboration.

1. Send employees to learn other parts of the business — Early in my career I worked in the funeral service business. Yes, I said funeral service, as in cemeteries and funeral homes. I worked in the corporate headquarters of the cemetery division, far removed from those on the “front lines.” In order to help everyone learn the business and build collaborative relationships with those who worked in the field, all new employees were sent to work at a cemetery or funeral home for three days. It was an experience that transformed me. I came away from it with greater understanding of the business, more appreciation for colleagues working with our customers, and an increased connection to the important service we were providing.

2. Inquire regularly into the team’s effectiveness — Peter Drucker said that nothing good ever happens in organizations by accident. It takes intentional planning and effort and that’s especially true when it comes to staying in touch with how your team members are feeling and performing. It’s easy to fall into the practice of “no news is good news.” An important way to foster trust is to have regular check-in meetings with your team members. We advocate 15-30 minute one-on-one meetings every 1-2 weeks. The agenda is driven by the team member and it can be anything on their mind: how they’re feeling, discussing how things are going at home, direction or support they need on a particular task, or just sharing an update with you about their recent accomplishments. Knowing what’s going on with your team members removes barriers that often derail collaboration.

The Optimistic Workplace3. Hire people with collaborative tendencies — In his book, Murphy shares an example of how Menlo Innovations tests job candidates for collaborative tendencies. Candidates are put into pairs, given a challenge to solve, and told that their goal is to make their partner look good. People with a tendency to collaborate make it to the next stage in the hiring process. Instead of asking your job candidates if they like to collaborate, devise some sort of exercise that allows them to demonstrate their skills. Murphy points out that collaboration is not merely an action, it’s also a mindset.

4. Develop routines that reinforce collaboration — You know those committees that get formed to plan holiday parties, team BBQ’s, or other group activities? They can be really frustrating, can’t they? But they serve an important purpose: they reinforce social and team norms that allow people to collaborate and bond with each other. Many of these practices seem out of date in today’s technology-enabled world. Who needs a committee when you can just create a Facebook event and invite everyone, right? Wrong. Leaders who foster high-trust and collaborative environments look for opportunities to bring people together.

5. Create spaces for random collisions — I love this recommendation! We all know that many times the most important decisions or creative breakthroughs happen in the hallway or lunch room conversations after the formal meeting. Murphy recommends we look for ways to structure our work environment that allow people to naturally and routinely “collide” with each other. When people collide in these natural ways, they feed off each others’ energy. It leads to deeper engagement between team members which results in more creative exploration of ideas and concepts. For some organizations the open work space concept works well, while for others it doesn’t fit their culture or business needs. Whatever approach you use, look for ways to help people interact in positive ways.

6. Make time for face to face meetings — Knowledge workers are increasingly isolated as we move to more people working virtually. It’s no longer necessary for everyone to congregate in the same location to get work done. Work is not a place you go; it’s something you do. In this environment it’s even more important to foster human connections. Webcams, Instant Messenger, and other technologies are good starts, but nothing replaces face to face interaction. It’s critically important to bring your team members together at regular intervals so they can deepen their relationships with one another. Trust and commitment to each other is built during these times and it’s the lubrication that keeps relationships working smoothly.

The climate of our organizations set the tone for how people “show up” on the job. Unfortunately, too many leaders are thermometers, reflecting the poor climate of their teams, rather than being thermostats, the climate controllers. Murphy’s book offers a wealth of tips on how leaders can take a proactive approach to being those “thermostats” that create more optimistic workplaces where people flourish.

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