Being Optimistic at the Office

Hope is not a strategy, but there are plenty of good reasons why leaders need hopeful employees, says best-selling author Dan Goleman.

Daniel Goleman is a senior consultant at Goleman Consulting Group, author of the best seller Emotional Intelligence, and host of the podcast First Person Plural: Emotional Intelligence and Beyond. He is a regular contributor to Korn Ferry. 

In the Northern United States, thousands of people spent weeks inside this summer avoiding the smoke from the Canadian wildfires — fires so large they have scorched forests the size of the state of Virginia.

Experts say that this year’s record-breaking wildfire season has shown that traditional firefighting methods might no longer be viable on their own. As climate change causes the planet to grow hotter and dryer, new strategies are crucial.

“We can add billions and billions and billions of dollars, and even then we wouldn’t be able to extinguish all the wildfires,’’ Yves Bergeron, an expert on forest ecology and management at the University of Quebec, told The New York Times. “We need a paradigm shift from viewing the role of wildfire agencies as putting out fires to protecting human society.’’

This paradigm shift isn’t particular to wildfire agencies. It’s the same shift required of leaders and organizations in most any sector. It’s the paradigm shift a company’s sense of purpose can build on — the transition away from prioritizing short-term profit gains to also thinking more holistically and long term about the impact of business decisions on people and the planet.  

As Korn Ferry recently pointed out, natural disasters caused US offices and retailers to lose more than three million days of operation last year. Still, very few businesses see climate change as an impediment to how they do business. According to S&P Global, only one in five companies has a plan in place to adapt to the physical risks of climate change.

Meanwhile, the World Economic Forum’s Global Risks Report for 2023 states that “biodiversity loss and ecosystem collapse” is among the fastest deteriorating global risks over the next ten years with “failure to mitigate climate change” and “failure of climate change adaptation” ranking as the first and second-greatest risk for companies over the next decade.

The discrepancy between the level of threat and the intensity of the response is striking. Why do so few companies have plans in place to protect their people and their processes from climate change? Why haven't more organizations adapted their approach to product development and production, investing in strategies that contribute to the protection of the systems that support life on our planet?

Maybe the gap isn’t one of disbelief, but one of resilience.

Kate Shattuck, founder and global co-leader of Korn Ferry’s Impact Investing, ESG and Sustainability practice put it this way: “Climate change isn’t a hypothetical, niche issue anymore. It’s about resiliency now, which is a leadership matter.”

In the context of emotional intelligence, resilience is broadly defined as the ability to withstand or recover quickly from the stress of difficult conditions or challenges. When it comes to purpose and long-term thinking, it’s a critical competency– part of what fuels our willingness to do hard and potentially ungratifying things right now so that we can enjoy exponentially positive results later down the line.

But even leaders and organizations who have a track record of demonstrating resilience, may not be acting quickly enough in response to climate change. One hypothesis is that climate change—and the existential threats it presents—can challenge one of the core things resilience requires: HOPE.

Hope is the optimistic state of mind we experience when we have some modicum of confidence in the potential for a positive outcome. The presence of hope makes us less likely to give in to overwhelming anxiety, a defeatist attitude, or depression in the face of difficult challenges or setbacks.

While hope isn’t a strategy, it is part of what brings a strategy to life and gives it energy.

Viktor Frankl, the psychiatrist who endured four German World War II death camps, says he survived because he held on to his own sense of purpose through all the horrors. But in order to survive he also had to hold on to some sense of hope. He had to believe that something good could happen and had to want that to be the case.

The same goes for climate change.

It isn’t just about believing it’s real. It’s about being willing to muster the hope it takes to do something about it. 

Co-written by Elizabeth Solomon

Click here to learn more about Daniel Goleman's Building Blocks of Emotional Intelligence.