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The Hope Narrative

“Just to be clear, you’re saying that 40% of your employees don’t make it to their third anniversary?” I tried to hide the astonishment in my voice but judging solely by his raised eyebrows, it didn’t appear to work.

“For more than 2 years now,” he confirmed.

“Two years?” the words came out before I could stop myself. I genuinely didn’t intend to make things worse, but sometimes surprise overwhelms me and it’s difficult to hide.

Hope City 3

Our meting had occurred innocently enough. I had just finished checking into the high-rise hotel, exchanging a mutual “thank you” with the desk clerk and gathering my overnight bag for the trip to the elevator bank when I heard Ted’s familiar voice calling my name. He was just stepping through the revolving lobby doors, apparently headed for the reception desk himself. Ted would later call our running into one another a happy coincidence, but I prefer to think of it more as serendipity.

We were both on the East Coast for business; he was meeting his key Division heads and a few other executives, while I was coordinating an offsite for a rapid growth start-up. It was already late afternoon, so we agreed to catch up in the concierge lounge after dinner.

Once I had settled into my room and reviewed my notes for tomorrow one last time, I headed out into the city in search of chowder; at least that’s the excuse I would give should anyone care. The truth is that my creativity gets recharged when I’m out participating in the world and I really enjoy walking around the big city.

It was light jacket weather and I let the currents of the evening wash me along the busy gray pavement, visiting a few local merchants, one of my favorite college co-op bookstores, and emptying an embarrassingly large bowl of local chowder and beer before returning to the hotel to meet up with Ted.

The concierge lounge on the 21st floor was definitely a change of scene – not exactly like my hotel room, but it was close. It felt removed but still strangely nearby – like looking down into a bubble I’d just exited. The space was larger than I’d expected with leather lounge chairs and modern wallpaper under LED lighting just impersonal enough that it didn’t compete with conversation.

Ted was sitting alone near the windows, a cocktail being delivered by the lounge attendant. I ordered a beer and joined him, fortunate to end this day in such wonderful company.

One of the best features about working in a boutique consulting firm is that you have a much bigger say in the clients you work with. If it were up to me, I’d choose to spend every day with executives like Ted.

Perhaps a bit less common these days, Ted had been with the same major company for more than 20 years, working his way from junior management up to the C-suite. The advantage of this experience is that he was intimate with the company’s history – he knew first-hand the successes and disappointments of both his predecessors and his contemporaries. His lengthy time frame with the company also meant that he knew – really knew – the strengths of his management team. Of course the disadvantage of this experience was exactly the same.

What sets Ted apart in my opinion – what allows him to keep this history and experience in check – is that Ted’s never believed that he knew it all. I’m not talking about confidence or competence here, though Ted would certainly score high in both. What I respect most in Ted is his consistent desire to keep learning. He values feedback and I often thought of Ted when I was gathering the source material to The Alpine Technique.

I believe in Ted’s capabilities and I greatly regard the company he helps to manage. So when he admitted concerns retaining employees past the two-year mark, it had my attention.

“It’s not an isolated statistic,” he explained, shifting a bit in the big leather armchair. “I mean… there are certainly other factors at play.”

“There typically is,” I answered. “But 40%. What’s this costing you?”

“A lot,” he readily admitted. “Calculating an exact amount is far less important, but cost is definitely the right word. Onboarding takes advertising, staffing, processing, interviewing… then there’s the training and initial management… not to mention the infrastructure – phones, computers, networking, etc.”

He definitely had a handle on it. “Must be millions,” I thought.

“But what bothers me most is the bigger cost,” he continued. “I’m really concerned about our reputational risk.

He looked around as if making sure that no one else would hear him before continuing, “Loss of goodwill impacts everything – our ability to attract talent, our competitive advantage, even our stability with major stakeholders. But I also have it in my head that a high churn rate is only a few steps away from data breaches, behavioral challenges, and even compliance issues. I’m really worried.”

“Are exit interviews giving you anything?” I asked.

“I’m not sure,” he began. “They’re saying the job is too difficult. But you and I both know that what they’re saying and what they’re thinking and feeling are two different things.”

We’d spent some time together a few quarters back on language being the map of our world (how we communicate, interact, create symbols, and construct metaphors with one another informs and creates our reality), and it was gratifying to see how adept he had become at noticing the difference between what’s said and what’s experienced.

“What do you think they’re actually thinking and feeling then?” I asked.

“At first I thought they weren’t seeing our values in action. So we went back to our Mission and Vision Statements, paid too much to some brand consultants, and even created a training campaign targeting our new hires. And things did get a little better,” he sat back further in his chair, “but nothing like we hoped for. Next we went on a work-life balance crusade; managing their work hours and workweek – really promoting that they needed a life.”

“Oh yuck,” I wanted to say, but knew better.

No matter how well intended, these programs often lack the staying power needed to get results – a seminar that fades beneath typical workday pressure, a new policy or procedure that becomes just another task on a never ending to-do list, or a shooting star of self-help info that burns bright on paper then flames out in a work atmosphere thickened with competing demands.

“I take it that didn’t work,” I said instead.

“No,” he admitted. “It didn’t.” We sat silently for a moment before signaling the attendant for another round. Hesitantly, Ted continued, “I know you’re probably used to hearing people say this, but this is one of those parts to running a company that no ones talks about – at least not formally.”

“The part about dealing with people while being a person yourself?” I asked.

“Yes,” he answered with a little laugh. “That part. The thing is, I’ve run out of ideas. I really don’t know what to do next.” His eyes went wide as he said this, inviting some type of response from me.

“Well…,” I admitted. “It sounds like you need some hope.”

“I do,” he said through a heavy exhale.

“No, I didn’t mean you… well maybe you,” I smiled. “I meant that they need some hope.”

“Wait, give them hope?” He paused in thought; brows furrowed and gaze toward the ground. Then, looking back to me, he asked, “How do I do that?”

I’m a professional coach with a practice grounded in Positive Organizational Behavior, so I’ve grown accustomed to the fact that I often sound different than the typical consultant-types.

Workplace training and development has traditionally focused on what is “wrong” with the organization and then sets out trying to fix the weakness, rather than emphasizing what’s being done “right.” The more positive perspective (the one in which hope is firmly situated) is this later type of view – one that seeks to expand the skills and behaviors that already make your organization unique and successful. To be clear, there is still a focus on improving things; it’s just based on amplifying positive attributes rather than attempting to alleviate the negative ones.

When it comes to hope though, I fully understood his reaction. It’s easy to confuse hope with wishful thinking, an unbridled positive attitude, or even a naïve expectation that things will simply get better on their own.

“It’s true that hope is the word we often use when talking about our wishes, vacation weather, or maybe the lottery pick,” I explained. “But it turns out there’s a whole different kind of hope – not a verb, but a noun. This kind of hope is inextricably linked to performance, achievement, and profitability – and it sounds like it’s missing.”

“Tell me more.”

Hope: The Will and The Way

Positive psychologist C. Rick Snyder, whose research formed the basis for Hope Theory, summarizes it this way: “Hope is the sum of the mental willpower and waypower that you have for your goals.” I tend to begin assessing hope by exploring how expectations are set and then acting upon.

“In short,” I summarized, “hopeful people believe:

  1. The future will be better than the present; and
  2. I have the power to make it so.”

The first one is easy enough: to have hope for a future outcome we must first have that future outcome in mind. That much is true in my friend’s initial impression of hope. Still, he had trouble expressing it.

“So these less-than-3-year employees; what are their goals?” I asked.

“Well, they’re relatively new,” Ted began speaking as he thought about it, “so they’re learning processes, strengthening job-skills, and fitting in. I guess in the beginning we more or less give them their goals. Production numbers, the ratio of opened to closed projects – things like that.”

“Well, those are more objectives or metrics than goals.”

“Hold on,” he jokingly protested. “I know all about goals. They have to be SMART: Specific, Measurable…”

“Ya,” I interrupted, “that’s not really what I mean either.”

“You’re kidding me,” he responded. “You’re like a biz school guy and I’m pretty sure that every business school teaches that.”

“Fair point,” I conceded, “but that may be another reason for you not to settle for it.” We both got a good laugh out of this.

It All Starts With a Clear Goal

I really don’t have any problem with SMART goals. But as a coach, I regularly encounter instances where uber-analysis overwhelms the original intent. Too much attention on the process and meaningful results get forgotten.

If you have ever spent any time watching people in a shopping mall or airport then you know a little bit about behavior. The first thing you’ll notice is that folks don’t just aimlessly mill about. We’re always doing something and doing so with some purpose in mind. There is an image or idea that we first have to envision before we can take any action. Getting a coffee, running an errand, completing a task, catching a flight – you name it, we spend our time envisioning and accomplishing.

You can also try this on yourself. Just pause in reading this and think of what you’re doing tomorrow (not figuratively as in the future, but literally tomorrow – as in not today but when you wake up next). What is the first image that came to mind? How long did it take you to imagine it? How do you feel about it? Hope City 1If you’re like most people, it only took a few seconds to picture what you have to do tomorrow. There is a thought (and since it won’t happen until tomorrow, at this point there is only a thought) about some future happening and you’ve already begun reacting with a feeling about it.

Restaurant and retail advertisers know all too well how this works – taking a tangible object and conveying a desire. “What do you want?” they ask. “I want a beer and a burger,” you say, because they have first implanted the vision (and after reading this, you may be setting this small goal for yourself right now).

Humans are inherently goal-oriented thinkers – SMART or not – it’s just the way we’re wired. Our goals capture our attention from the moment we wake up in the morning to the moment we go to sleep (and even then in our dreaming). Goals give our efforts direction and meaning.

Committing to Goals

You likely don’t need another voice to confirm the connection between goal setting and performance. And while there are plenty of resources out there to help you with setting your goals, let me just point out that success is undeniably linked to the level of commitment that is made to achieving the goal. So it stands to reason that goals that are self-set (and self-regulated) are the most powerful. But unfortunately, most businesses (my friend’s included) don’t operate that way – goals get assigned – and therefore goals must be explained in a way that others can buy into them, not because “the boss says so” but because the goal makes sense. We commit to things that we believe in, so above all the goal must be logical and clearly defined.

When working with teams to encourage hope, I favor “stretch goals” – those we consider difficult enough to stimulate real thought and yet are still perceived as achievable – the kind of goal that requires tapping into that extra, reserve potential within each of us. A stretch goal isn’t a requirement for hope, but it certainly helps illustrate the point. When the goal is important enough, we get creative, setting the conditions for inspiration, innovation, resourcefulness, etc. High-hope people accept more challenging goals.

When it comes to retention, however, we have to take goals (even stretch goals) a little farther by looking at the conditions that best enable their achievement. Which brings us to the second belief of hopeful people:

“I Have the Power…”

I have the power to make the future better than the present requires us to see ourselves as the lead actors in our own story – that things don’t simply happen to us that are beyond our control.

“Consider this example,” I began. “Two managers have each been given a project to coordinate and complete. The first manager views this as a wonderful opportunity. ‘I finally get a chance to show others what I can do. The freedom and responsibility is great and it’s up to me to take full advantage of it. I’m going to make sure that everyone feels valued, that we complete the tasks on-time, and under budget. And I’m going to do a first-rate job in leading by example.’”

“Those are some tough goals.” He snickered.

“Exactly!” I exclaimed. “Tough goals that the manager believes can be achieved.”

“I get it,” he suddenly sat forward in his seat. “This manager is a high-hoper. She’s selecting more difficult goals, but she doesn’t see it that way. High-hopers see goals as challenges; as successes waiting to happen.”

“You do get it,” I agreed. “Now consider manager #2: This manager believes that he is smart enough, but isn’t sure the new project means very much. ‘I already feel I’m struggling to keep up with my current workload and now I’m going to be saddled with everyone else’s problems. And now…’”

“Now I’m going to be compared to the other managers with projects,” he continued the narrative, “someone’s going to take more notice of me, I may not be good at it…”

“So I guess I’ll do it,” I concluded, “but I’m not really going to enjoy it.”

“I know this manager. Well… I know both managers… but this second one is a real problem.”

“We should probably talk more about this then, “ I offered. “But before we do, how might you summarize what you know about hope so far?”

“I would say that High-hopers are bullish on goals. They go after their meaningful objectives and believe they will obtain them. Low-hopers are more bearish. They don’t actively pursue goals and are more concerned with protecting themselves from losses.”

“I couldn’t have said it better myself,” I congratulated him with a clumsy high-five over the glass coffee table.


Admittedly, I first had some difficulty accepting the term hope – mostly due to the common usage of the term. In response, I dove into the material; increasing my understanding so as to find an alternative, more appropriate term. Somewhere along the way, I don’t know exactly when it occurred, and having found no better term to express the process myself, I simply began to accept its accuracy. All that remained missing was personal relevance.

I’m a proponent of Mindfulness and have a daily contemplative practice, so I’m fairy primed when it comes to noticing my own thoughts. This seemed like a natural place to explore hope for myself. Shane Lopez talks about doing something similar in his book Making Hope Happen, and my results were somewhat close to his. I found that most of my thoughts about the future fell into one of four categories:

  1. Fantasizing – imagining and story-telling for fun and entertainment, like flying my own plane to a distant island or summiting a remote peak. I get a quick high on these mental trips (although sometimes they are followed by a quick low when I realize how distant they are).
  2. Role-playing – this one takes on several forms but it generally involves imagining a future conversation. My mind tends to think of this as a rehearsal of some kind, in the off chance that I find myself with the perfect opportunity to say what I’ve always wanted to say (for an example of this, check out Combatting the Fear of Acceptance). I get quick bursts of highs and lows with this one and often replay the scenario over and over again like another go at an amusement park ride.
  3. Dwelling – this happens when I get “stuck” focusing only on bad outcomes – those things that I don’t want to happen, most want to avoid, or find particularly painful. These thoughts only produce anxiety.
  4. Balancing – a little of all three. When I’m balanced about the future I’m entertaining exciting thoughts or outcomes, considering possible hindrances or obstacles, and the many ways that I could respond. I tend to harvest some energy in the challenge itself. I’m hoping.

Hoping feels different. It’s like I’m ready, almost compelled, to take action and it’s often accompanied by a rush of plans and possibilities. An appreciative coach psychologist might say it this way:

“You Can Get There From Here”

I really believe in this expression and it’s quickly becoming a staple in my coaching dialog – not because it’s a feel-good word track for blind encouragement, but because it offers significant insight. Take a closer look yourself.

  • Here” is the present – it’s where you are right now. This may be basic, but to know where you’re going you first have to know where you are. So taking inventory of your current location is relevant to getting someplace else.
  • There” is someplace else, which is in some way more desirable than “here” (your present).
  • You” are the one moving yourself from “here” to “there.” The phrase isn’t someone else can get you there from here; it’s about you taking actions towards something.

A good number of people wrongly believe that outcomes in life are determined by what others say and do, or by what has happened already. This makes how they feel, and what actions they take in response to those feelings, dependent on events and people outside of their control. And unfortunately, it makes feeling good, or valued, or relevant, or whatever they’re longing for – totally dependent on those events and people changing for the better. The problem is, things don’t always go their way.

“Houston, We Have a Problem”

If you’ve spent anytime in business then you know that even the best-laid plans go astray – and often at the time you least anticipated it.

“So let’s keep the story going for these two managers – the one with high-hope and the one with low-hope. In fact, let’s assume that things are going as planned for some period of time, and then an obstacle arises. Perhaps one of the objectives has been modified by someone up above to better fit a growing demand. How might each one react?”

He considered the example for a moment before answering.

“I believe that the high-hope manager would see the obstacle as a new challenge. So I’m thinking she would make adjustments and adapt to the change.”

“I think so too,” I confirmed; and if pressed, I think most everyone would recognize that the path from the present to the future is rarely a straight line (and let’s face it; in business, it’s almost never a single line).

Lounge 1“High-hopers believe:

  1. There are many paths to my goal; and
  2. None of them is free of obstacles.

As a result, we tend to describe high-hopers as:

  • Resourceful – they can identify multiple strategies for moving towards goals,
  • Realistic – they anticipate and plan for difficulties, setbacks, and disappointment, and
  • Resilient – if one path is closed, another can be cleared.

“So how do you imagine that the people on her team would feel?”

“Similar, I think.” Ted responded quickly but I could tell he was less than sure of his answer.

“Certainly those with high hope would,” I offered.

“Yes,” he talked while completing the thought. “But those with lower hope would still probably follow the leader.”

“Okay,” I continued. “So the team adapts – some quicker than others – and continues on. How will they react when the next obstacle arises?”

“Oh wow,” this time he saw it before he could answer. “They would be less effected – they’d have higher hope – because they learned how to persevere from the first obstacle.”

“Right again. So hope can be learned.”

“This is really powerful,” said Ted. “I thought you might be bordering on the woo-woo stuff when you first mentioned hope, but this is really good.”

“I’m glad you’re finding it helpful,” I replied.

“I can’t wait to share this with my team. But I have to ask, what about the same scenario for the low-hoper?”

“Good question,” I began. “Those with low hope tend to experience loss. They act helpless because they feel a lack of control over their environment. Remember: they don’t believe in their capacity to obtain the kind of future they want. When they begin to experience failure…”

“They give up,” we said together.

“So then when they’re looking at things with less hope,” it was Ted’s turn to finish the thought, “they don’t have much willpower to reach their important goals and they’re not producing ideas about how to get where they want to be. So I’d imagine that they end up feeling bad – or at least not good – about the situation that they have found themselves in?”

“That’s right. And by situation, you mean the company.”

Ted’s expression went from conversation to sober awareness, the blood in his face suddenly replaced by realization. I spoke more slowly now as if to prevent any harm. “People who feel they are the victim of circumstance or at the mercy of other people or actions see no outcome they can effect.”

“Yes,” he nodded without blinking. “They feel hopeless.”

“Yes, hopeless,” I agreed. “And so… one last question: How do you imagine that the people on this team would feel?”

Ted sat back in his chair with a groan. “Low-hope is learned too. This stuff’s not only bad, it’s contagious.”

“Yes,” I said. “And you wouldn’t have known this but, to keep your analogy going, low hope is also resistant to the remedies you’ve been trying. Basically you’ve been treating the symptoms and not the cause.”

“Perhaps we could work on that?” he suggested.

And so we did: spending the remainder of the evening talking about how he and his team might increase hope by creating greater willpower and waypower.

Had we more energy, I believe that we could’ve talked through the night. One by one the few other guests visiting the lounge retreated to their rooms. The sun had long since set and the attendants had gone home for the evening. We were the last to leave.

“I’m really glad to have run into you,” Ted offered as we headed for the door. “You’re probably going to charge me for this, right?”

I knew he was only teasing, but it did make me consider how a successful executive like Ted, not to mention his experienced management team, had never considered the role of hope in engagement.

“Actually, I don’t think you’re alone in overlooking hope. I was thinking I might write about our conversation instead,” I declared.

“Hmm…” Ted began, stopping in his path. “I’ll make you a deal. You can write about it if it works.”

Suffice it to say, hope had an impact on Ted’s organization. What might increasing hope do for yours?

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