Culture Killers: Despair

Workplace Despair—What’s Missing?

In the opening of his book Hope Rising: How the Science of Hope Can Change Your Life, this is what Casey Gwinn says about hope:

“I thought hope was a wish, a dream, a vague idea about a better future. What I have learned in the last five years has changed my life...Hope is not just an idea. Hope is not simply an emotion. It is far more than a feeling. It is not a wish or even an expectation. Hope is about goals, willpower, and pathways.”

A lot of what we call hope isn’t really hope at all. It’s optimism, ‘positivity,’ or wishful thinking. It’s responding to despair and difficulty with “You’ll get through it” or “It’ll be alright.”

The problem is, optimism and wishful thinking don’t help me get out of bed in the morning.

But hope? Hope is something different—something powerful.

The Recipe for Hope

Dr. Chan Hellman (Gwinn’s coauthor) studies the science of hope. Yes, he discovered that there’s an actual science behind hope—that is, why people have it or don’t. (You can take this test to find out your ‘Hope Score.’)

Here are the 3 ingredients we all need to have real hope, according to Gwinn and Hellman:

  • GOALS: A vision of some way your life can be better. Something you’d like to achieve. (Like a pay raise, a degree, your own business.)

  • PATHWAYS: A real way to get to your goal. Actual, actionable steps to take. (Or else your goal is just a wish.)

  • AGENCY: The personal power to execute the steps it takes to reach your goal. The willpower (belief in your personal power) to go get after it.

I’d also call that courage.

A Workplace Hope Test

So how are you feeling about hope in your workplace?

If you’re feeling hopeless about work, this is a great moment to consider what might be missing: Goals? Pathways? Agency?

Here’s a little workplace ‘hope test’ to help us go deeper...

  1. Do you have meaningful goals? Both personally and collectively, as a company? Is there a mission you’re on together?

  2. Do you have your part in the mission? Do you feel a sense of contribution? Is your company’s mission tied to your personal development? Is there something about what you’re doing that energizes you?

  3. Are you properly resourced? Has your supervisor clearly defined your goals and objectives? Do you know the things you have to do? Do you have what you need to do it? Money? Time? Information? Are you able to honestly say, “I can make this happen”?

Hang on to those answers—they’re valuable information. Before we can recover or nurture hope, we have to demystify the critical piece that’s missing.

Bringing Hope Back to the Workplace

Leaders, this part’s for you.

If you’re going to help your team with despair and discouragement, it’s not enough to just have empathy and compassion. (“I’m so sorry to hear that.”)

An open dialogue of empathy and trust is a great start. But to really be someone who helps other people live with hope, the conversation has to go toward helping your people clarify their goals.

When employees aren’t clear about their goals, or if the goals keep changing, or if they’re told one thing but the expectations are actually different, they will experience despair. Which is a personal, and cultural, killer.

Also, when people don’t get a lot of feedback, they tend toward discouragement, self-doubt, and fear. I’m not suggesting we give more pep talks. Cheerleading is a temporary boost, but it isn’t emotionally sustainable.

Your team needs to know that you have empowered them—that they have the power to actually do something and that you’re encouraging them to do it. Even with the risk of failure. Help your employees believe that failure is not a final judgment. That it won’t rob them of their agency and personal power. Help them know they’re a part of a culture where it’s possible (and admirable) to weather adversity, stay motivated, and get back up.

To make it short, here’s my adapted recipe for workplace hope…

  • More goal clarity (It’s ongoing; check in and keep clarifying.)

  • More pathways (Find out what your employees need and communicate opportunity.)

  • More encouragement (Don’t make your team wonder; don’t let self-doubt, imposter syndrome, and fear grow. Show appreciation. Stay transparent.)

Instilling hope is arguably the number one thing we could do as leaders.

After all, motivational posters don’t make people want to get out of bed. Hope does.

One-day ropes course retreats don’t make people want to stay at their jobs. Hope does.

Providing more snacks in the breakroom doesn’t give our teams what they actually need.

Hope does.

And in this workplace fight for the flourishing of every person, you’re the one with the power to bring it.


Counterstories is a blog collaboration between conflict resolution specialist Steve Beck and writer/editor Rachael Schmid. If you have a powerful story of forgiveness or peacemaking (or just want to share your thoughts on this post), we’d love to hear from you. Reach out at