The Optimistic Workplace

Creating an Environment That Energizes Everyone

The Optimistic Workplace

Author: Shawn Murphy
Pub Date: October 2015
Print Edition: $24.95
Print ISBN: 9780814436196
Page Count: 240
Format: Hardback
e-Book ISBN: 9780814436202

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Studs Terkel's classic 1972 book Working opens with a drab,

sullen note that still seems too familiar today: “This book, being

about work, is, by its very nature, about violence—to the spirit as well

as to the body.” For centuries, workers have endured treatment that

belittles their pride and robs the artistry from their craft. All the while

“the man,” sticking it to his employees, kept a greedy eye on profits

while ignoring working conditions. People were merely a means to a

profitable end.

This is not Terkel’s tome continued. This is my shot across the bow

against the archaic beliefs still squandering people’s hopes, ideas,

humanity, and access to meaningful work. I’m not the first to fire, but

one of many emboldened by the belief that work can be a source of

fulfillment, joy, and happiness. Business leaders like Menlo Innova-

tion’s Rich Sheridan, Luck Companies’ Mark Fernandes and Charlie

Luck, Zingerman’s Ari Weinzweig, and Barry-Wehmiller’s Bob Chap-

man are uniting balance sheets and people-centric business philo-

sophies to astonishing results. They are infusing a different heart and

soul into their companies and rewriting the rule book of what business

success looks like and what it means. For these leaders, success is

also defined by how employees experience the workday in their

organization. These leaders and many others are featured in this

book as examples of what human-centered businesses look like

on the inside.

I don’t like the term manager. In a conversation with CEO Bob Chap-

man at Barry-Wehmiller, he asked me to promise I wouldn’t use the

word in this book. I nearly fulfilled my promise. The role of manager is

long associated with command and control, a better-than attitude that

is hauntingly recounted by Terkel. We don’t have time or room for this

type of manager anymore. Work is personal, and it needs to be a con-

tribution to people’s lives. And it’s not managers who make that hap-

pen. Now I know this might be alarming, especially given that this book

is written for those of you pushed and pulled in the middle layer of a

hierarchy. I’m not advocating that the work of those once-labeled

managers go away. I’m advocating that you fulfill a higher calling than

looking over the shoulders of your employees to see that they get their

work done.

The higher calling that I’m whispering not so quietly into your ear is

to create an environment that positions people to do their best work

and also become better human beings. I know that some of you will find

this book supporting what you’re already doing. In short, you’re not

commanding anyone. You’re coming alongside people and learning how

best to support them. I believe you’ll find the elements of an optimistic

workplace to be a good addition to your leadership repertoire and philo-

sophy. Whenever I told friends and strangers the idea behind the opti-

mistic workplace, I heard the same response: “We need that where I

work.” Even without explaining the nuance in what I’m writing about, this

response told me one thing: We long to feel good about our work. In his

brilliant way of writing, Studs Terkel explained over 40 years ago what

people wanted from their work efforts: “It is about a search, too, for

daily meaning as well as daily bread, for recognition as well as cash, for

astonishment rather than torpor; in short for a sort of life rather than a

Monday through Friday sort of dying. . . . To be remembered was the

wish, spoken and unspoken, of the heroes and heroines of this book.”

When we show up at work we want to be seen, as Pat Christen, CEO

of the nonprofit HopeLab, told me. If you think about it, we all want our

work-time investment to matter. You hold the key to this. Instead of

work robbing your employees’ souls of something good each day, you

can play a positive part that helps them live up to their potential.

Throughout this book are ideas to help optimism emerge in the work-

place that are plucked from the companies featured in it, from my con-

sulting work, and from what research is uncovering in terms of positive


This book is about modeling the expectations necessary to contribute

to the emergence of optimism in the work environment. It’s not

about being or becoming an optimist. Optimistic workplaces need di-

versity in perspective and in people from all backgrounds and inclina-

tions. What unites them is a workplace mood that gives hope that

good things are possible from applying one’s experiences to ulti-

mately help the organization create value for its customers.

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