Creating a resilient and optimistic workplace

by Sep 22, 2020

  • Workplaces are now facing challenges of sustained resilience and optimism
  • Postive psychology offers some value but misses on two critical components
  • Go wide for context, deep for shame – both are amplified in our current times.

Creating a resilient and optimistic workforce


As the pandemic and associated restrictions drag on, the economy further declines, and the negative impacts of climate change increase, its not surprising that many people are struggling with increased bouts of pessimism.

And while it’s tempting to say it’s all in your mindset – just be positive and look for opportunities, we know that emotions like pessimism can be equally virulent. Social contagion is a thing.

And so organisational leaders and HR departments are starting to reach out and look for help in “how to make our workforce more optimistic”.

I’ve been working through this with Certified Dare to Lead™ and Daring Way™ Facilitator Kylie Lewis, founder Of Kin.  What follows is a co-written blog post – I’m very grateful for Kylie’s thoughtfulness! it represents exploratory thinking, and we welcome feedback on it!

How to make our workforce more optimistic?

It’s an interesting query as it implies there is an intervention out there that will magically uplift organisational morale and mitigate the real trauma that is being experienced. Or it implies that what we currently use (or think works) for organisational health, resilience and well-being is not sufficient.

What we think works


We know that there are many tools and approaches in the domain of positive psychology that are effective in creating more resilient workforces, uplifts in optimism and good mental health.

These include (not exhaustively):

  • Cultivating a growth-mindset
  • The use of positive reward and recognition
  • Embedding gratitude practice in your workforce
  • Connecting people to a purpose that is meaningful
  • Having autonomy over ways of working
  • Making progress on projects
  • Building a sense of belonging.

This is not a magical combination. Organisations that report strong engagement, innovation and employee value have long embedded these factors into their organisational lives.

Martin Seligman’s PERMA model is evidenced based – and many cite success based on this. We know that 40% of people’s happiness can be attributed to attitude thanks to Sonja Lyubomirsky’s research culminating in the Happiness Pie. Being intentional about mindset and belief can be highly effective.

Indeed, in a recent Harvard Business Review article “What leading with optimism really looks like” by happiness researchers Shawn Achor and Michelle Giellen,  the authors present a compelling case study of significant uplift in optimism during organisational change in a hospital by doing praise and recognition, a gratitude practice and a kindness campaign.

Despite being in the midst of organisational change, respondents who reported being happy at work went from 43% to 62%. Burnout figures halved. Employees reporting high stress dropped by 30%. 67% of the workforce exposed to the intervention believed that the organisation was going in the right direction.

Job done. Right?


Maybe not. And Kylie and I come to the similar position for different reasons.

From my perspective all research and theory development occur within a specific context. And the work of Achor, Giellen, Seligman and Lyubomirsky has not occurred in the rather unusual context of pandemic, economic recession, widening inequality and climate related destruction. I would not be dismissing their work, but I would be considering a few more factors now.

I think it can be useful to borrow from Lyubomirsky’s Happiness pie and think about a Social Identity Optimism Pie.  Let me unpack that… or slice it up and serve it.


The Social Identity Optimism Pie!

We know that organisations that recognise intersectionality, diversity and the ‘whole self’ in their workforce have highly engaged workforces and strong organisational outcomes. When we show up to work, we show up not only in our organisational role, but also as a member of a family unit, a social grouping or several, a community. We show up with tribal affiliations, and political alignments. We show up with race, gender, sexuality, ability differences. 

Each of these aspects of social identity have related levels of empowerment, and oppression, inclusion, and exclusion. These are all pieces of the Social Identity Optimism Pie. And with each piece you may have a different relationship to optimism because of how much power and agency you have in that domain.

It may well be possible to be optimistic about your work and your organisation because of strong positive psychology practices embedded but to have an over-riding pessimistic perspective as the pessimism about the future outside of your workplace overwhelms. The trauma of fear of job insecurity, social grouping treatment, family members health, lack of contact with your social groupings may be too much for the organisational programs. NB this would be countered by Lyubomirsky’s research which says context is only 10% – so I’m not sure that stands up so well.

It’s not just context

Kylie thinks there’s more work to do for another reason. She argues that without addressing the primal, pervasive universal human emotion of shame, it’s very difficult to cultivate positive emotion, be open to engagement, have nurturing relationships, find meaning in the world and feel a sense of accomplishment.

If you can’t get ‘under the hood’ with someone’s sense of self-worth and how shame (which drives the two tapes of ‘Never enough/Who do you think you are’) shows up, it’s very difficult to cultivate genuine, meaningful positive mood states. We need to talk about and develop shame resilience.  


To feel truly positive or optimistic, we need to understand how shame operates in our life – stealthy, culturally, and yes, intersectionally. How do the ‘box seats’ in our arena drive additional shame message about our sense of self-worth – gendered expectations, racial stereotypes, sexual orientation tropes, ableism, ageism, positional status etc.  


We must be able to equip ourselves with the tools to reality check the messages that shame drives, and that are also sometimes used as management tools.  


Having studied the findings of shame and courage researcher Dr Brené Brown, I don’t think we can have meaningful conversations about optimism until we understand how shame shows up in our own stories about ourselves and our experiences of the world.  


We need to understand how the physical, emotional and behavioural messages of shame get in the way of being prepared to fully show up optimistically with others. We also need organisations who deliberately invest in building a culture psychological safety and understand how vulnerability works.  


I genuinely believe we can’t get to PERMA without a strong foundation of shame resilience. It’s the groundwork for positive self-regard.

Optimism also can sometimes get a bad rap for magical thinking or being Pollyanna-ish. This is where Jim Collins’ ‘Stockdale Paradox’ is useful, because it’s being able to hold the paradox of confronting the brutal facts of a situation and also have unrelenting faith that we will prevail; that we can tend to shame that resides in all of us in not knowing how ‘best’ to lead in a pandemic AND lean into the vulnerability of figuring it out as we go along, accepting mistakes will be part of the process; that we can admit to the shame of climate-wrecking behaviours AND have agency to change them, that we can be made redundant AND find a new job/pathway.

 Go wide for context, go deep for shame.

And here’s where our two positions converge, as readers of this blog know shame has come up as a challenge in change before! The context of pandemic, racial inequity, economic recession, and climate change result in two of the most powerful triggers of shame.

  • I am not enough.
  • I am not relevant.

The pressures of working virtually, home-schooling, withdrawing social support for the people we love trigger big reflections of unworthiness. I am not enough to ensure that my children can succeed with their education from home, I am not enough to stop the tsunamic of climate change damage, I am not enough to protect my family from what comes next. And in the workplace disruptive change has meant that every organisation has had to re-evaluate their relevance in a commercial setting. Managers and Team Leaders have faced the prospect of being irrelevant if they are not in the same physical setting making sure that their people are doing their work. We would question how is that playing out in workplace cultures right now, during so much uncertainty? Are we having those types of conversations? Are we prepared to? Are we equipped to?

 What can we do at an organisational level about this?

We start by recognising that the there are two elements at play here: the individual and the organisational, and that they are interlinked – while the individual can work on personal level to become aware of their own shame behaviours (and an organisation can support this in their resilience programs), more broadly organisations do  need to address how they uphold and use shame, and how they contribute to systemic inequity.

The context means that people in our workforce will be deeply impacted by the shame triggers of fear of irrelevance and concern of unworthiness, more so than perhaps six months ago. In recognising that people are intersectional and have multiple social identities and that their optimism is influenced by arenas outside of the organisational boundaries, they will bring those mental states with them to work. To elevate optimism, we think it is important to build shame resilience, and capacity and capability to engage in other areas where they feel less optimism.

 Build shame resilience

Researcher Dr Brene Brown tells us we build shame resilience by

  1. Being able to recognize, name and understand our shame triggers.
  2. Developing critical awareness about our own shame webs and triggers.
  3. Being willing to reach out to others (rather than hide and isolate ourselves).
  4. Having the ability to speak about our experiences of shame with those who have earned the right to hear them.

Kylie notes that Brown builds on this with the use of Snyder’s Hope Theory Snyder’s Hope Theory includes goals, paths, and freedom of choice. According to him, there are at least three components that people can relate to hope, being:

  • you need to have focused thoughts
  • you must develop strategies in advance to achieve these goals
  • you must be motivated to make the effort required to actually reach these goals

The more the individual believes in their own ability to achieve the components listed above, the greater the chance that they will develop a feeling of hope.

 Build capability to have brave conversations

The courageous conversational skills you build in your workforce that leads to innovation, engagement and creativity can be used in other arenas (family, social, parenting, community). Deliberately running programs that bolster these dialogic capabilities and help your employees leave work and be more active participants in conversations or arenas that make them pessimistic will have a flow on effect. Give your people training and techniques in having future defining conversations and opportunities to have more control or influence.

Create capacity for difficult conversations and new ideas

Organisations have infrastructure and resources that can be repurposed to create space for difficult conversations or situations and new ideas, radical recasting of organisational purpose. These resources include enterprise social networks, physical spaces now not used as much with increased work from home.

  • Community interest groups hosted within the organisation
  • Family spaces e.g. onsite learning labs for people with kids who need a better place to home school
  • Political interest groups
  • Healing spaces to process the trauma that is happening outside of the organisation

When you help your people build shame resilience, capability, and capacity to increase optimism in the other slices of that social identity pie of optimism, it has amplifier perhaps multiplier effect on your organisation, its culture and its impact. A rising tide lifts all boats. All aboard?  



A change management Jiminy Cricket, sitting on your shoulder coaching you on the way forward. I know you’re capable of greatness. So drop me a line.


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