Why Having Hope Matters

By Ari Weinzweig, Zingerman’s Co-Founding Partner

Creating and sustaining hope in the workplace can transform how you and your employees approach your jobs every single day.
This series is based on what St. Augustine wrote about in his classic Christian work, “Faith, Hope and Charity.” The first essay in this series dealt with the importance of belief in the workplace. Part two is all about hope. Part three will talk about “charity,” or what we call here “the spirit of generosity.”

Hope isn’t something of which I’ve been particularly mindful over the years. In truth, part of me feels like it’s more suited to children’s fairy tales than to an essay about 21st century business. But the more I’ve turned the issue around in my mind, the more clearly I can see that hope plays a far bigger role in creating a great workplace than I have imagined in the past.

The story of how hope came to play a greater part in my consciousness isn’t one that I feel proud about sharing. In honesty, it came from four screw-ups that I wish had never happened. The problem was the same in all four situations: Staffers had come forward to pursue something—a promotion, a project, an idea, a new job—and instead of responding with appreciation for the staffers’ gumption to go after something bigger and better, we basically shut them down. Our organizational answer in each case was essentially something along the lines of, “That’s not going to happen because…” or, “There’s no way I’m going to let you do that because you aren’t even doing x, y and z.”

I want to be clear that I’m using the term “we” here in a conscious way—although, in these cases, it wasn’t necessarily me who said what was said, I take total responsibility. I wasn’t clear within my own mind, let alone actively explaining, how much nurturing hope matters.

Hope Truly Helps

Here’s the bottom line: When employees don’t have hope they slowly start to shut down. They pull into their emotional and intellectual shells where they feel safer. Sure they poke their heads out now and again, and move very slowly forward, but basically they just cut their coworkers out. Often they get angry at the world around them. This isn’t helpful for them, our customers or our organization.

People without hope will probably not excel in the parts of their life in which they hold no hope. This does not mean that they’re not committed, hard working or capable. It’s just my experience that if people don’t believe that their work will make a difference, that they can make tomorrow better for someone, the work may be okay, but it’s unlikely to be outstanding.

Hope is a Two-Way Street

Quite simply, in these and pretty much all staff interactions, our responsibility as leaders is to help build hope. So backing up to where I started, where we unwittingly closed the door on hope, we could have replied with something like: “Wow, that’s great that you want to go for that. There’s a whole mess of things we’ll want to figure out so that we make this work well. Why don’t we get going?” The response is simple. It’s real. The truth is that the staffers still may not get to the success they’re seeking—there aren’t, after all, any guarantees. But the more hopeful the staff is, the more you and I believe in them, the more likely it is that they’ll actually end up being successful.

The Fear of False Hope

Many folks, I’m sure, will point out that it’s not productive to create a false sense of hope for the people with whom we work. In the most literal, narrow sense of things, I agree with them—if we truly know that what the staff member wants to do isn’t ever going to happen, it makes no sense to nurture hope that it will. But in all of the instances that I’ve mentioned where we fell short, the leader has jumped to a quick conclusion that the suggestion “won’t work,” rather than doing what I believe is more effective—helping the staff member to refine a positive, strategically sound, vision of the future. The leader then can put the pre-requisites she has in mind out in the open where the staff member has a chance to either do them, or not, as he so chooses. There may be more action steps to take than the staffer originally had in mind, but as long as we’re sincerely working to get to the same positive place in the future, I think the process is appropriate. If the employee opts out en route, that’s a shortfall of his or her own making, not a lack of opportunity nor an absence of hope.
Mind you, I’m not saying to toss hope around like some chew toy you use to keep your dog happy. This is not about doing anything in a phony or uncaring way—when I offer hope, I really have it, and I really believe that we just might be able to make something amazing happen.

Asking for Hope

For years we’ve been teaching everyone who works here about the importance of asking for help. But now I want to adapt that to my issue of the moment—it’s time for us to also start asking for hope! See, if hope is a two-way street and our job as leaders is to provide it, nurture it, cultivate it and care about it, then the staff’s part of the equation is actually to have it.

Just as it’s fine to ask people to smile if they want to work here, I think we’re well within our space to also ask folks to have hope. Being hopeful doesn’t always come easily to everyone. Hope isn’t something that just happens to you—sometimes, especially in the beginning and then again in difficult situations, you have to decide to have it. And you do have to work at it. Many folks have had so little of it in their lives that it’s almost an alien concept. To quote the great Norman Vincent Peale, author of The Power of Positive Thinking, “Practice hope. As hopefulness becomes a habit, you can achieve a permanently happy spirit.”

High Hopes to Have

What kind of hopes do people like to have? Well, from asking around, two types of hope seem to be pretty much universally sought after in the workplace:

1. The hope that one can get to a more desirable future than one’s present. It’s pretty simple—people want to have real hope that tomorrow will be good, that it will likely be better than today, that this summer will be better than the last and that next year will likely be better than this one. Mind you, “better” doesn’t necessarily mean making more money or getting a big raise. Each of us has to decide what a “better” future is for ourselves. The point here is merely that everyone wants to have hope that we can get there.

2. The hope that their work is going to make a difference. I think that people prefer that the work they do be meaningful. Most people would rather work hard and make a difference than do next to nothing for eight hours a day (even if the pay were high). People want to have hope—even if it’s not immediately apparent—that what they do every day is going to contribute.

Ways to Build Hope for the Future

What follows is a conceptual list of ways to build optimism and cultural strength that will, in turn, contribute to a better tomorrow.

1. Teach hope. It may sound silly but, in truth, teaching people that being hopeful about the future is a better way to live, can help them a lot. Few people are even mindful of hope or the lack thereof—they may have it or they may not, but they’re rarely consciously working at it. Bringing the issue out in the open can only help.

2. Provide hope. It can truly impact their lives if staffers believe they can: have a meaningfully better tomorrow; be treated with respect and dignity like the smart, creative, caring individual they are; and make a positive difference for everyone
around them.

3. Cultivate hope. Share success stories—whether it’s of people who’ve succeeded in the organization way beyond what they or we expected when they arrived, or of how we’ve contributed in caring ways to customers’ lives.

4. Seize on moments of hope. Every staff member you can help through to higher levels of engagement is a win for the organization, for the individual and for society at large.

5. Expect hope. Politely and constructively help people know that hope is happening, that part of working here is to bring a hopeful, optimistic attitude to work every day.

6. Help bring an end to hopelessness. If you have no hope for the people around you, help them move on; if they have no hope for a better future here, politely ask them to find employment elsewhere. Hope is in, hopelessness is out.

Putting Hope to Work

If the people with whom we work don’t believe in what they’re doing, or don’t believe in the business they’re working in, nothing that great will happen. By contrast, when people have a bit of hope, and when we can get them to act on it, to put themselves out there in a way that they might not normally do, a lot of good things are likely to happen. If we come through for them and help them succeed, they start to believe more in what they’re doing, which in turn grows the odds of them being successful and ultimately increases their hope. As the late, great writer and thinker Peter Drucker once wrote, “You can either take action . . . or you can hang back and hope for a miracle…Miracles are great. But they are so unpredictable.”