Hope Rising: On Becoming More Human

June 20, 2006
This revolution is a silent revolution – one in which you will likely never know why the best people choose not to work for you and your best employees choose not to stay.

There will be no picket lines, no protests, no violent uprisings. No conference calls, no memos, no PowerPoint slides. No announcements, no guidance, no explanation. Unlike other revolutions, this one will not come dressed in the traditional accoutrements.

This will be an invisible revolution. Its root cause will be guised in stories intended to cover up the truth. Don’t worry. It’s not that you will be unable to attract employees. You will. You just won’t get the best. It’s not that all of your current employees will leave. They won’t. You’ll only lose the best. This revolution is a silent revolution – one in which you will likely never know why the best people choose not to work for you and your best employees choose not to stay.

This is the meaning revolution. In its wake, Human Resources is about to undergo the greatest cultural and academic revolution in its history, but it doesn’t know it yet. Then again, this is how most revolutions begin. Silently, yet with the ambition of David, revolutions surprise everyone. Although in hindsight, they surprise no one. All revolutions share a common calling. They make us more human. This silent revolution is one caught between apathy and the eternal search for meaning. It is a revolution taking place in the most complex and least understood places on the planet - inside the human heart. At this point in the arc of history, Human Resources will be valued much more for its humanity than for its resourcefulness. Here’s why.

Measuring the Meaning of Life

The coming revolution is a revolution of hope. What does it all mean? Why am I here? And what are you [my employer] going to do to help me figure it out? We’ve helped re-structure, re-organize, and re-engineer. We’ve innovated, executed, and gone from good to great. We’re fully-outsourced, outspoken, and outside the box, but now what? Isn’t there supposed to be a pot of gold at the end of every rainbow? Why doesn’t the stuff in my pot shine? Where has hope gone?

Although you cannot see hope rising, you can see its effects. Consider this. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the average 18- to 34- year-old invests only 2.9 years in a job before looking to greener pastures. If young people have lost hope, have we all? Do they lose faith in themselves or in their leaders; in the present or in the future? Regardless, they leave. And when they do, for them, hope is restored. And then, the cycle repeats itself.

Add to employee churn the disturbing findings of the Occupational Safety and Health Administration. In its annual study of workplace fatalities, OSHA reports that the fourth leading cause of workplace fatalities among men (No. 2 among women) is homicide. No wonder despair is the single largest drain on workplace productivity on the planet. According to the World Health Organization, depressive disorders account for the greatest cause of disability in the world. In the WHO's annual World Health Report titled Mental Health: New Understanding, New Hope, researchers discovered that over 36 percent of all years lost to disability are due to mental illness. This is a crisis—an ominous cloud hanging over leaders, organizations and human resources professionals. However, it is not only those who suffer from clinical illness that are members of the meaning revolution, it includes all of us. As Xavier Frapaise, vice president of research and development for TAP Pharmaceuticals, observed in our conversation, “I have found that most people struggle with the meaning of life. The least that I can do as a leader is to help them find meaning in their work.” We are all in search of hope, including the financial community. Take a walk down Wall Street.

Why We Love to Fire Leaders

We love to fire leaders. It’s good for the stock. According to Burson-Marsteller, the average stock price appreciation of an S&P500 company increases 1.5 percent on the announcement of a new CEO. And when a changing of the guard is forced by the board of directors, its stock price increases a full 3 percent! Is it any wonder that leadership tenure has fallen to less than five years? Not only does Wall Street welcome new leaders, it rejoices! But why? The new leader, by virtue of his or her mere novelty (and the fact that the new leader is anything but the old leader), is a sign of hope. Could this leader be our savior? Is there hope for us? Wall Street loves hope, particularly when it works— when expectations translate into earnings. The question is: Why wait? Why wait until your best employees leave and leaders are fired to send a message of hope? Why not learn to use hope to your advantage, now?

Becoming a Bearer of Meaning

Having spent the past two years of my life researching and writing a book on the role of hope in the context of human and organization performance, I believe I have the answer— because we don’t know how. We, in the business community, are not comfortable discussing things as hope, belief and meaning. These topics are better left to theologians and philosophers to preach in vespers and ivory towers—places where hope can’t hurt anyone. Business, on the other hand, is business. It is about tangible things such as manufacturing, operations and sales. The goal is clear. As playwright David Mamet suggests of the goal of business, “Get them to sign on the line which is dotted.” Execute. Get it done, yesterday. In the business community, we admire those who work hard. It’s a badge of honor to be stressed out. Who would claim hope as a competitive advantage? Herein is the paradox.

The Meaning Revolution

What we fail to discuss—hope, meaning, belief—is what we most value in our leaders. Sure, we want our leaders to be smart, but mostly we want our leaders to believe—in us, in the future and in the promise of a new day. And we want our leaders to communicate those beliefs in ways we can understand. We want to know that if we choose to follow them, things will be okay. We want to know that our work is meaningful.

Therefore, this silent revolution—the coming revolution of hope rising—will be managed best by individuals who are able to identify, harness and use meaning as a competitive advantage to attract, retain and inspire people. Contemporary leaders must bring more than their vision to work. They must bring their beliefs. There is a difference. It’s not about thinking differently. We’ve done that. It’s about believing differently. The most effective leaders of our time will be remembered as much for their beliefs as their ideas. They will be remembered for their hope.

The challenge to human resources professionals is one of training and development. The good news is that some mindful leaders have figured it out. They see the revolution coming. In fact, they saw it coming long ago. And, as I have discovered from studying this phenomenon, hope can be learned.

Putting Hope to Work

There is no better time to think about believing than now. Start a new conversation. Here are a few things you may want to try.

  1. Conduct a Beliefshop. Tom McCoy, Chief Administrative Officer of Advanced Micro Devices, suggests the following exercise to apply hope. Gather together a group of your rising stars and have a conversation about what they believe. Do not talk about your expectations. Talk about their aspirations. Do not talk about your objectives. Talk about their beliefs. Ask them: Why are you here? What does it mean to you to be working for this organization? What are your fears? What is your hope—for yourself, for this organization, for the future? The first time you have this conversation, you will likely get mixed stares. They will likely not tell you the truth. In part, this is because they may not know what they believe. It takes time and trust to get to truth. Keep asking why. Next, have each person create a Belief Statement. This is not a mission or vision statement. Nor is this a set of goals. This is simply a list of what each person believes. Ask each person to focus on why, not what. Why do you do what you do? Why do you work here? Why are you not doing what you most enjoy? And what can we [the company] do to make your job more meaningful? As Charles Schwab said to me, “I want people who work for me to believe as much as I do about our role in this world.” Great leaders help others to internalize and learn to lead themselves through their own beliefs—they promote meaning. Great leaders give hope.
  2. Practice the Art of Wayfinding. Where there is a will, there is a way. This is the confidence mantra. It sounds good in theory, but it doesn’t work in practice. Confidence fails when “the way” is no longer a viable road to the future. Nothing is more pathetic than watching an overly-confident athlete or employee run through walls never stopping to look for an open door. Hope, on the other hand, is a combination of willfulness and to borrow psychologist C. Rick Snyder’s term, “wayfulness.” Triumphant leaders think in portfolio terms—there is no single way to get it done, no single path to a desired future and no single solution to a problem. There are many cul-de-sacs on the road to the future. It is in these dead ends of life when confidence is often broken, but hope never dies. Why? Because hope has the capacity to find alternative routes to a desired future. Hope is creative. Hope is wayful. It is a guide. And Wayfinding is a technique to help you apply hope. Try this. Write down a goal, any goal. Now, write down all possible paths to achieve that goal. Next, throw away the list. What if none of those paths were available to you, what would you do? All humans are endlessly creative. You just need to force your self to think beyond the obvious. This is the art of Wayfinding. Combined with willfulness, Wayfinding promotes hope.
  3. Create and Distribute a Campaign of Symbols. Unsung hero is an oxymoron. Hope cannot reside with you alone to be an effective tool. You must get the story out. Triumphant leaders bring hope to life through a campaign of symbols. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Mahatma Gandhi, John Lennon, Lance Armstrong, Nelson Mandela all used symbols as signs of hope. Mandela used sandwiches to fight apartheid. Armstrong uses his ubiquitous yellow wristbands to fight cancer. The CEO of one of GE’s industrial businesses, who recently won Jeff Immelt’s turnaround award, grew his business—in part—using swords. Placed strategically outside his office door, these swords communicated desired messages. As he put it, “word of those swords outside my door spread more rapidly around the globe than email.” It should come as no surprise that we [humans] respond to symbols. It’s why we throw coins in fountains and salt over our shoulders. Symbols are physical expressions of our hope. They make the intangible, actionable. Find ways in which to translate your hope into tangible symbols. Whatever your goal, create a campaign of hope.
A Call for Corporate Consciousness

The coming revolution is a call for corporate consciousness—a call for meaning. If you believe that people are your greatest asset, then you must understand how to lead through this silent revolution. Become a porteur de sens—a French term meaning “bearer of meaning.” The Germans share this philosophy translating it directly into Sinnträger. Think of it this way: Anything that the French and the Germans can agree upon must be good for humanity. Try it. Answer the call for corporate consciousness. Help others learn to become more human. Help hope rise.