Hope at work – implications for organisations and employees: What does the evidence say?

Positive psychology is often confused (and sometimes deliberately misconstrued) with ?happy ology?. However, there is a significant difference between the two, with the former being premised on the principles of research and application of evidenced based practice (i.e. it is psychology) and the later often based on personal opinion, anecdote, cathartic emotional experience and the almost inevitable role of some kind of ?guru?. Positive psychology is a domain of psychology; it is the study of what it takes to have a flourishing, rather than languishing life, whereas other domains of psychology generally focus on patha-psychology - what we might call mental health problems.

Despite its demonstrated evidenced-based approach since Seligman coined the phrase ?positive psychology? in the last decade of the previous century, critics of the field have regularly expressed reservations about the validity and reliability of positive constructs, such as hope and gratitude. In response to this, Reichard et al recently published a meta- analysis of the evidence for the role of hope at work, in the Journal of Positive Psychology (Vol. 8, No 4, 292-404).

What is hope and how is relevant to the workplace?:

Snyder et al (1991) defined hope as ?a positive, motivational state that is based on a perceived sense of adequate (1) agency (the self-efficacy to reach a goal) and (2) pathways (adequate alternate pathways to reach the goal). The ?interactive? nature of this definition emphasises that hope is co-constructed in the interaction between the individual and the environmental context within which they move. The agency, or ?willpower? component of hope, generates the internal motivation and self-regulation (behaviour change) to identify and achieve goals, whereas the pathways component, elicits the creation of alternative paths to replace those that may be blocked in the process of achieving those goals. It is the interaction between pathways and agency that defines hope and these are determined by the perception and meaning making of an individual within their current environment.

Employees currently work in increasing dynamic work environments: mergers and acquisitions, downsizing, bankruptcies, continual technological advances and changes in the employer-employee relationship are just a few common features of today?s organisational landscape. Employees are increasingly being required to be flexible and adaptive and to personally manage their education, training and work qualifications in order for them to be successful and employable. The current organisational climate might be seen as conducive to those employees who perceive themselves as having agency and pathways to meet challenges and overcome obstacles - that is, have hope.? Organisations might well be interested in the construct of hope ? as how the organisation performs is function of the performance of individuals within the organisation.

If there is the possibility, and potentially the probability, that hope may impact on organisational performance then it follows that organisational leaders have a vested interest in exploring the role of hope within their organisations. Similalrly, employees also may be interested in the constructs of pathways and agency, if they can be shown to moderate their experience and meaning making at work.

Reichard and her fellow researchers hypothesised that hope would have:

1. An overall positive relationship? with employee performance

2. An overall positive relationship with job satisfaction

3. An overall positive relationship with organisational commitment

4. An overall positive relationship with health and wellbeing

5. An overall negative relationship with employee burnout and stress.

They examined 45 studies based on 11,139 employees. Their report details the criteria for study inclusion, the process of identification and coding of the studies, adjustments for missing data, correction for statistical artefacts, outlier analysis and the calculation use for meta-analysis.

Results of the meta-analysis

Hypothesis 1 - Employee performance and hope: There was an overall moderate positive aggregate correlation with overall work performance and hope which was statistically significant. Work performance as evaluated by supervisor rated performance, objective performance (sales targets etc) and employee self-ratings. The correlation was positive and consistent across all three perspectives of employee performance.

Hypotheses 2,3,4,5,: Reichard and her colleagues observed moderate and positive effect sizes between hope and job satisfaction, organisational commitment, health and well-being, and burnout and stress. All of these correlations were statistically significant and are supportive of the assertion that hope is related to employee well-being

A further analysis of the data indicated that gender and study location appeared to have a moderating effect on the positive correlations between hope and performance, with women and US locations showing stronger hope to work outcomes effects compared men and non-US locations.

Organisational implications

Levels of employee engagement in the Australian workplace have consistently been reported as very low - with up to 70% of workers disengaged with their role and their organisation. A number of studies have highlighted both the cost to organisations of disengaged employees and the potential detrimental effects of this disengagement on employee health and wellbeing. Increasing employee hope might reasonably expected to impact positively on employee engagement. At the very least, the study indicates that increasing employee levels of hope may ameliorate some of the detrimental employee health and wellbeing aspects associated with disengagement. For the organisation, Reichard and colleagues claim that translating data from this meta-analysis into the workplace would mean that an employee with high levels of hope would have a 64% probability of successful work performance, which they estimate as being 28% higher than an employee with low levels of hope.? These results compare favourably with meta-analyses of other constructs such as goal setting (10% improvement in performance), feedback interventions (14% improvement in performance) and organisational behaviour modification (17% improvement in performance).

Coaching and hope: Taken together, the above results strongly suggest that hope is related to work place outcomes and should therefore inform organisational practices. Research has demonstrated that employee levels of hope can be increased with certain interventions. For example:

  • Improving leader positivity
  • Improving employee goal setting skills
  • The use by employees of mental imagery and cognitive restructuring
  • The training of employees in mindfulness and commitment techniques
  • Using solution focused approaches in developing multiple pathways to goal achievement?

All of these interventions are regularly used as part of the coaching conversation. One could hypothesise that a natural part of a successful coaching engagement would be an increase in the coachee?s levels of hope, as much of the coaching process is focused on developing the coachee?s perception of self-efficacy - which links directly to the pathways and agency components of Snyder?s construct of hope. To date, there has only been one study that directly evaluated the link between coaching and coachee levels of hope. Green, Oades and Grant (2006) examined the effect of cognitive-behavioural solution-focused life coaching on goal striving, wellbeing and hope. They concluded that all three dimensions were positively affected by coaching. Overall, the results of their study suggested that certain gains obtained from the coaching intervention were maintained up to 30 weeks after the coaching ceased.

It should be noted that the study by Green et al (2006) was a life coaching intervention rather than an organisational intervention. It may be reasonable to assume that the results could be at least partially transferable to the organisational setting, as the cognitive behavioural solution focused approach used in the reported intervention is often used in organisational coaching interventions.

These results suggest a real and practical, positive role for hope as an important component of organisational life. They also suggest that coaching may offer an effective pathway to elevate employee levels of hope with consequential benefits to both the employee and organisation.

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