Workplace Happiness

I like, so many of those of you reading this post, grew up in a culture where it is relatively easy to seek out and experience pleasure in many ways.  The very air is full of free and cheap entertainment capable of transporting us to new heights of pleasure.  The stores are full of beautiful things.  There is a relatively liberal attitude toward relationship constancy.  And, we can gratify our quest for simple sensual pleasure easily.  Yet we are statistically alienated, lonely, and violent, and our organizations mirror our individual states.

I have been struck through the course of my career by the extent to which my knowledge worker colleagues gravitate to the work they do for the sheer joy of it—often it is the joy of self-expression, the potential of impacting the larger culture, or the sense of self-mastery that comes from making something yourself, whether it’s a book, a software application, a game, or a highly informative report.  There can be a sense of mission among us “makers” and researchers that is similar to the kind of mission that one finds in the social sector.

I have long been suspicious of the dominant cultural paradigm that points to pleasure as a source of happiness, so when I found Martin Seligman’s work, I felt I had come home.  It’s never made sense to me to relate happiness to pleasure, which seems so transient.  And, particularly when participating in team or project turnarounds, the notion of pursuing pleasure for the team first and foremost has made little sense to me.  In the workplace, as in life, we seem to do better and become extremely productive when we are engaged in something we find meaningful rather than when the company caters meals on a daily basis, for instance.  This has seemed to me like the lollypop theory of motivation; I experience it as demeaning and have often watched teams become quite cynical in the face of such organizational perks.

Martin Seligman seems to be the Ken Schwaber of Positive Psychology.  Just as Ken has been one of the biggest mouthpieces of agile, Seligman’s presence on the Positive Psychology stage is so big that it’s hard to realize how many people contributed to the field before Seligman began to speak up about it, let alone how many people are doing substantive work in the field now.

In a Ted Talk, Seligman made several comments that I want to summarize here.  First, Positive Psychology focuses not on disease but on improving the experience of people who are relatively “well adjusted” (always makes me think of a mechanical device) and who may also be very high performers already.  Second, research to date in Positive Psychology shows the following makeup of happiness and relative influence on durable happiness:

Aspect of Enduring Happiness

Contribution to Enduring Happiness

  • Transient pleasure (Pleasant Life)
  • Flow (Good life)
  • Engagement (Meaningful life)
  • marginal — almost no effect
  • <.001 — Strong
  • <.001 — Strongest

In last week’s post I mentioned Gary Hamel’s exhortation to change the social technology of management such that drastic organizational turnarounds and re-engineering are not an inevitable aspect of most organizations’ futures.  Organizational turnarounds, like cancer treatments, are drastic and often brutal experiences for all involved—however necessary the work.  Hamel encourages the evolution of a social technology of management that results in adaptive, self-renewing organizations.  Whether we are at the point in a turnaround where the tipping point of waste eradication and self-defeating behavior correction has been reached or whether we see ourselves moving toward the need for a turnaround in the future if we don’t change our ways NOW, it appears there is value to be gained from learning from Positive Psychology.

We can modify our business and work processes as well as our cultural standards to enhance meaning and flow in both principle and skill-based ways.  It appears to be possible for managers currently in place to draw from Positive Psychology as part of their evolution of a new social technology of management and thereby reduce the need for costly turnarounds and re-engineering in the future.  The energy and resources that would have gone into such drastic corrective actions can then be retained and redirected into the future of the organization.

This does not look like more catered lunches for teams, though I’m not saying there isn’t a place for that.  It does look like a re-engineering of the way we lead that may initially seem counterintuitive for many traditionally trained managers and may initially feel like abandonment to many traditionally enculturated teams.

Freedom is a scary thing, as many college Freshman learn.  True freedom causes the veil to slip from the edifice of accountability, and the awesomeness of this world view can kick us into deep engagement and help us find new meaning in our work.  Though, for some it may result in a desperate seeking for someone to make our decisions for us and take on the weight of accountability we do not feel prepared to carry ourselves.  It is for this latter group that a new social technology of management is even more important for through proper leadership they can be led to greater strength and skill themselves or assisted in finding a better fit inside or outside of the organization.

That happier workers and teams are more productive is not news.  What happiness and how to pursue it is.  And, amazingly, (she said somewhat wryly) continuing the beatings until morale improves is still not the road to happiness or productivity.

Showing 2 comments
  • Kronda

    This post is so on point.

    The agency I recently left had foosball and video game nights, but everyone lives in fear of being the next layoff because they’ve been shedding people like a cat sheds hair in the springtime.

    It’s been great to go out on my own and focus on helping people in a much more direct way.

    • Jean Richardson

      Thanks, Kronda. Going out on your own will put you squarely in front of the tough choices that business owners have to face. When people tell me it must be great that I don’t have a boss, I just smile. Every client is, to some extent, the boss. The upside is that I get to choose my bosses.

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