Happiness at Work 1: Is it Enough?

There has been a lot of talk lately about “happiness” at work;  several new books seem to be coming out, and the Wall Street Journal has featured the topic more than once via the work of its reporter Sue Shellenbarger (see http://blogs.wsj.com/juggle/2010/01/27/workplace-blues-call-a-happiness-coach/?KEYWORDS=happiness+at+work and http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052748704905604575027042440341392.html?KEYWORDS=happiness+at+work)

Sue does a great job of describing what is happening, not only the books being produced but of course the new happiness gurus and coaches which have appeared!   She makes it clear that there are mixed feelings in the consulting community about this but also makes a good case that this kind of intervention really works.  I wanted to share my take on this and in the next post will show you what I wrote back to Sue at the WSJ web site on the subject.

First of all as someone who has trained intensively over many years in psychology, I felt it was part of my training to make that inner journey into my psyche and find happiness;  how could I help others, if I was blocked inside?  How could I work in the area of morale at work if my own morale was sub par (which it had been for years when I started “psych”)?  The old joke is that psychologists are more messed up than the average person, and this is the reason they get into the field, to which I say, I resemble that remark!  But unlike the joke, I don’t generalize it to ALL others in the field (OK yes certainly some).  In any case becoming “happy” was something which happened as a result of my journey;   how can I therefore not recommend that to people at work?  The answer is that I do recommend it, but I also have a word or two of caution:

–I recommend it to anyone, anywhere, that if you have the great privilege to be able to work on your inner processes, understand your thoughts and operation of your mind, let go of your past, you should jump at it!  Quite apart from what happens to your personal relationships (hint:  they get better), if you end up as a manager somewhere you will be a much better one, I assure you.  If you have learned about your ego, then that ego will not control what kind of manager you will be.  Have you ever met the ego-driven manager?   She (these things have no gender preference) always takes credit for what YOU do, never hires anyone smarter than herself, and so on…the list in endless).  If you have let go of your past, you will be a better employee, not always seeing your boss as a “bad Dad”, for example.  If you have learned to take personal responsibility for your life, even better, this is a HUGE step forward, to let go of victimization and blame.  All of this will make you happier at work, because these things (ego, living in the past, “victim mentality”) create enormous stress for both the perpetrator and those around her/him.  So yes, if you can go through this, jump at it and embrace the changes because you and your loved ones and co-workers will all benefit from your growth.   To the extent that a “happiness coach” at work can teach these things, I would say, fine.  As it turned out, I found a way to do this and pay for it myself outside the work place, which involved a lot of financial sacrifice for a starving student but was well worth it.   But having said all this, even if many of the workers in a team have gone on this journey and reached a good “happy” place inside, it is not enough to create a high morale work environment.

–It isn’t enough because no matter how happy a person you are inside, you can run into major roadblocks at work.  Consider the following:  Jean is a generally happy person, not all the time but most, just like the rest of us.  She gets a job at XYZ Corp. where she works for Fred’s team of salespeople.  At first, everything seems fine, as good as she had expected when she had the interview with Fred and a couple of team members.  Then, rather like in a marriage, she starts to see below the surface and Fred’s best behavior breaks down to reveal a darker side (I don’t mean that marriages always reveal darker sides, although they can…only that” best behavior” breaks down to reveal what we have been hiding).  Fred turns into a “boss from hell”, ego driven, critical;  nothing is good enough for Fred.  The team members who had seemed so content in the interview reveal that they have had to deal with this for years.  How is Jean’s happiness doing now?   She knows how to take responsibility for her life, and of course she can leave….but wait, there are no other jobs like this anywhere near where she lives and her husband cant quit his job and move to another city.  What should she do?  She can complain about Fred to Fred’s boss but Fred’s boss is just like Fred and that is the reason he hired Fred (saying Fred will be a “good fit”, meaning a good fit to his values and OWN “boss from hell” behavior!)  Clearly, Jean is stuck and her well-being and happiness will suffer until something is done about this dysfunctional work culture.

If you think about it, a happiness coach might have limited traction in this environment;  some cynical members of Fred’s team might say that if Fred’s boss in the example above brought in a happiness coach, it would be like putting a smiley face sticker on an empty gas gauge (a wonderful comparison attributable to Esther Hicks)…and they would be right!  What is needed here is a good house cleaning, hopefully resulting in the departure of Fred and his boss.  Does this sound a bit cruel to Fred?  No its not cruel, because these kind of people can rarely be rehabilitated, and even if they are it takes time during which the team might continue to suffer.  This type of action is actually the reverse of cruel because it frees a whole team from a dysfunctional boss or bosses;  I use a phrase in the book which is appropriate here:  “sacrifice the one for the many”.

With Fred and his boss gone, perhaps morale can be rehabilitated in XYZ Corp.  Perhaps…maybe the dysfunctions run deeper, in which case much more needs to be done in the short term, not to mention the longer term deep cleaning and cultural shifts which are usually required to create the true high morale culture.  I have had clients in which this process took years, but they committed to it and saw it through;  now they benefit from all that work with the huge performance advantages of a high morale workforce.  And as a result of this the employee surveys show, guess what?  Yes that people are HAPPY to work there!

So, happiness at work, yes I am all for it.  But if the gas gauge shows empty, don’t cover it up with something superficial, do everything you can to fill that tank!  I’ll post more on this soon, including my letter to Sue Shellelbarger at the WSJ and my post on their website.  I’d love to hear from you on this or any other topic on my blog.  Tell me what you think.



Add yours →

  1. Lucie Tremblay May 14, 2010 — 1:26 pm

    Hi David,
    unfortunately, in my 30 years in HR, I met some Fred, Fred’s boss, and so on bosses from hell…
    I met many hurt people, I was hurt myself sometimes and I learned a lot about managing this kind of situation:check if Fred is really a boss from hell, and if so, run away from him as fast as you can!

    Even if there is some appeal mechanism (unions, employees’s protector, laws against harassment, etc.) these means appeared to be quite ineffective as Fred and all Fred’s similar friends maintain fear, isolation and weakness against complaining.

    Even if there are complaints, Fred-type managers are barely neutralized.

    Therefore, I question myself if there is a way, as an organization, to identify those bosses from hell, help them, neutralize them or make THEM run instead of good employees.

    • Lucie, yes there is a way to identify the boss from hell, and its something a lot of companies do: use the survey process. Its confidential and, done right, very accurate. If Fred’s employees are miserable, its clear that they are. In my best clients, Fred would be gone in days or weeks, and the next survey would show a huge turn-around from Fred’s time in charge. If the organization is serious about morale and engagement, this is the way to go; sacrifice the one for the many, as I said in this piece.

      best to you

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