Culture change: The importance of being hopeful

Amanda Fajak

The new year hasn’t been quite as fresh and refreshing as it usually is. Watching what is taking place in global politics has given me a sense of uncertainty.

Culture change: The importance of being hopeful


The new year tends to bring a wonderful sense of possibility, with the previous year being washed away, and feelings of excitement, positivity and optimism being swept in. However, the last year has been a little different. As someone who prides themself on being positive, this doesn’t sit well. But rather than dwell on this, a better option is to consider where it comes from and how to change it. The good news? These feelings can be shifted.

The impact of uncertainty

One of the characteristics of change I have found fascinating over the years is the impact of uncertainty on our psychology. Uncertainty during change is unsettling, it impacts to what extent people feel they can concentrate, it increases emotional vulnerability and it can sap our sense of control over our destiny. When organisational change is occurring, it is common that people feel that they lack the resources to deal with the situation ahead and start to expect that they will lose something. As a result they feel personally at risk. 

These feelings aren’t surprising given our physiology. The part of the brain that is triggered during uncertainty and change is near the amygdala. For those of you not familiar with the structure of the brain and how it works, the amygdala is the oldest part of our brain and is the bit that controls our fear responses – it is the part of our brain that put us on alert and saved us when we spotted a sabre tooth tiger.

We all sense that big changes are in store for us globally and locally in 2017 and it is likely that right now our amygdala’s are firing like crazy – I’m sure many of us feel there is a great big sabre tooth tiger heading towards us!

Does hope matter?

When uncertainty is high and our sense of personal control is low, our sense of hope can reduce and we can start to feel helpless. Hope is linked to 2 key elements – 1) the extent to which we have valuable goals, and 2) the extent we can imagine ways to achieve them (Ref: Snyder CR, Harris C, Anderson JR, Holleran SA, Irving LM, Sigmon ST, et al. The will and the ways: development and validation of an individual-differences measure of hope. J Pers Soc Psychol. 1991;60:570–85. [PubMed]).

Hope is correlated with, reduced levels of depression, engagement in organisations and improved well-being. Its opposite, hopelessness, is associated with stress, anxiety, depression and loss of self-esteem, meaning that it is not something to be taken lightly.

When I coach leaders and see high levels of dependency and hopelessness in their profile I always ask three things:

Have you recently changed your role? Change and uncertainty are most often correlated with these types of results.

How long have you felt this way? If it is a short period it is usually not problematic but long-term dependency and hopelessness have the psychological and physiological effects outlined above.

What impact is this having on you? Inevitably, even after just a short experience of dependency and hopelessness, leaders start to feel trapped and as if they cannot envisage a way out – negative psychological effects are quick to manifest.

Raising Hope

Given the uncertainty that so many of us feel at the moment, increasing our levels of hope seems like a good thing to do. Here are 3 practical things that you can do and that I am personally working on:

Exciting goals. We talk a lot in organisations about measurable goals and achievable goals but hope requires a little more. Our imaginations need to be fired, our brains engaged in a sense of possibility. Create exciting, engaging goals - even small ones can boost our serotonin levels and create positive energy.

Keep people feeling resourceful.  One of the reasons we lose hope is we feel we lack choice. That our options have been taken away from us. If we frame every event as an ‘issue’ and a ‘problem’ that is how people will perceive it – using more hopeful language like ‘opportunity’ and ‘possibility’ keeps people oriented towards the positive. ‘What is good?’, and ‘What is working?’ are good questions to focus on.

Keeping ideas flowing, asking people to think of options, keeps thinking agile. Some good questions to ask include: ‘Is there another way we could do this?’, ‘Have you ever seen this done differently?’, ‘Who else could we talk to?’, ‘Who could help us?’.

Spend time with ‘hopeful people’. The reality is some of us are more disposed to being hopeful than others – some of us view barriers as challenges to overcome and some of us view barriers as blockages. Find these hopeful people and spend time with them – it can be an energising experience. If you want to find out if you are hopeful, have a go at completing the Adult Trait Hope assessment or maybe ask a few of your friends.

Application to organisations

Let’s face it, change is a constant hallmark of organisation life so uncertainty is not something new to any of us. Being conscious of its impact however is important. Many changes - including culture change - are aimed at making the organisation a better place so proactively and decisively moving through the uncertainty with a compassion for its effect on people can create more positive change experiences.

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