It could just be an antidote to a general climate in which work is seen as all-encompassing and – thanks to technology making employees “always on” – stressful. But there seems to be a much greater willingness to talk about happiness at work – to dare to expect it even – than there used to be. Some suggest that it is all tied up with millennials and their desire for purpose and principle at work. Others go so far as to say it might be a result of bosses at last realizing that happy employees might be more productive than merely satisfied or outright disgruntled ones. But it is all well and good to talk about being happy at work. How do you achieve it? This is the challenge that Annie McKee attempts to face down with How To Be Happy At Work, shortly to be published by Harvard Business Review Press.
McKee, a senior fellow at the University of Pennsylvania, has been closely involved in the popularisation of the concept of emotional intelligence. In 2002 her book Primal Leadership, written with Daniel Goleman and Richard Boyatwzis, introduced the idea of “resonant leaders” – individuals who manage their and others’ emotions in ways that drive success – and she developed this in further books, Resonant Leadership, written with Boyatzis, and Becoming A Resonant Leader, with Boyatzis and Frances Johnston. The new book builds on an article in Harvard Business Review in which she made the case that – even if it ever was – it was certainly no longer acceptable to be unhappy at work. As she writes early on in the book, “as the knowledge revolution takes the world by storm, more and more of us think for a living, rather than make for a living, even in manufacturing. We need our brains to work at their best, and in order for that to happen we need physical, psychological and spiritual well-being”.
Instead, though, McKee asserts, most people have “bought into old myths about the meaning of work and what we can expect from it (or not).” That is, we believe that work is not supposed to be fun or fulfilling and that we do not have to like the people we work with. Instead, we think we are supposed to put our hopes and dreams to one side and just follow orders and produce results. Another mistaken notion is that we can become happy once we have been successful. But McKee quotes the author and psychologist Shawn Achor, who says that “happiness comes before success”. It is a bold statement that is based on studies showing that positive people are more than 30% more productive and 40% more likely to receive a promotion. Moreover, research suggests that in happy workplaces there are fewer stress-related health issues and creativity rates triple.
Reaching this position requires individuals to overcome what McKee calls “happiness traps”. These are destructive obstacles that can keep people from making the most of work but that need to be understood to be overcome. They are:
- Overwork. While normal, overwork does not help us. It leads to cynicism, dissatisfaction and burn-out.
- Ambition. This is often seen as good, but many people make themselves and others miserable as they keep seeking the next goal or prize and fail to stop to enjoy what they have achieved so far.
- Money. When money becomes the only goal rather than a just reward for good work it can become meaningless.
- “Shoulds”. The need to conform, follow convention and hold certain beliefs and values can make some people go far beyond rules that make sense. If they do not question the rules, such individuals can find themselves trapped into thinking they are bound by ideas of what to strive for and even who is “allowed” to lead and who should follow.
- Helplessness. Individuals, says McKee, can easily feel like victims of others (often leaders) who do not let them do what they want to do and so prevent them from achieving their goals.
Escaping such traps, adds McKee, requires employees using emotional intelligence, compassion (for others and themselves), self-awareness and emotional self-control to understand why they are trapped and to use discipline to think and behave differently. This is all very well. But – by putting the onus on individuals – there appears to be a danger that people can be set up to fail. Indeed, one of the issues that millennials often complain of when entering the workforce is that it is not as much fun as they were led it would be. (Previous generations arguably do not have so many problems because they were trapped in such myths as the one that required work to be, well, work and gruelling with it). It is possible that by following her prescriptions less senior employees can help create a different type of workplace in the future. But, given such varied issues as stress and lack of productivity, there is surely a need to change workplaces sooner.
Fortunately, that is happening – even if sparingly. In the U.K. the appropriately named company Happy has been propounding this philosophy for the past three decades – ever since founder Henry Stewart started it as a business designed to make IT training – then in its infancy – enjoyable. The company and its courses became so successful that a key element revolves around offering advice to other businesses, public sector bodies and charities on how to become happier. The deceptively simple approach is set out in Stewart’s 2012 book The Happy Manifesto. At its heart is a 10-step program.
1. Trust Your People. Instead of insisting on having actions approved, pre-approve them and focus on supporting your people.
2. Make Your People Feel Good. This should be the focus of management.
3. Give Freedom Within Clear Guidelines. People want to know what is expected of them but they want the freedom to find the best way of achieving their goals.
4. Be Open And Transparent. Having more information means that people can take responsibility and ownership.
5. Recruit For Attitude, Train For Skill. Instead of looking for set qualifications and experience, organizations should recruit based on individuals’ attitude and their potential.
6. Celebrate Mistakes. Organizations and leaders should create a truly no-blame culture and enable people to innovate without fear.
7. Community: Create Mutual Benefit. Organisations should have a positive impact on the world and gain along the way.
8. Love Work, Get A Life. People need to be well rested, well nourished and well supported.
9. Select Managers Who Are Good At Managing. Leaders need to ensure their people are supported by somebody who is good at doing that and find other roles for those whose strengths are elsewhere. Even better, says Stewart, allow people to choose their managers.
10. Play To Your Strengths. This is related to the previous step and involves ensuring that people spend most of their time doing what they are best at.
It is a list that might well sound horrific and anarchic to many traditional managers. But Stewart it is convinced that this is the route to success. He can point to many organizations – from a variety of sectors and locations around the world – that are trying this approach and thriving. Some of them will be taking part in a conference taking place at Happy’s headquarters in London on 17 October. It is solely for CEOs on the basis that people tend to agree with the idea of creating happy workplaces but – when it comes to doing something about it – say: “You’ll have to talk to my CEO.”