Happiness at Work II: More Thoughts

I find this subject quite fascinating and judging by traffic here on the blog, more than a few of you do too.  Reactions to the original articles by Sue Shellenbarger in the WSJ (see my Happiness at Work I post) have also been interesting, ranging from those who say that this is fabulous, to those who seem to think this is the typical work of manipulative, scheming management out to exploit the workforce with a cynical appeal to something which appears (on the outside) so kind.  In other words, its a lot like the reaction I get when I tell people I work in the area of morale at work;  most people beg me to come to their workplace as soon as possible, but some (especially in Europe which is very interesting and the subject of a future post here) think this whole morale/engagement thing has the purpose of driving the enslaved workers even harder.

I wrote to Sue and also posted a reply to the article online at the WSJ and wanted to share one of these with you, at the risk of a little overlap with my first post on this subject.  Basically I said that happiness is fine, trying to bring something positive like that to the workplace can’t be all bad, but that it might have limited effect, based on how dysfunctional the internal culture is.  Here is what I wrote to WSJ reporter Sue Shellenbarger:

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Sue your recent work on happiness at work is very interesting,  but I have a few issues with it:
— if I overlay the world’s happiest nations like Denmark, Holland, etc. on a chart of the countries with the world’s highest workplace morale (currently China, India, Brazil), there is not much overlap. Why is this?  Maybe because workplace morale has to do with a lot more than being happy. Happiness might want you to relax or take the day off and go to the beach;  high morale and its resulting behavioral component, engagement, make you want to contribute, go the extra mile, tell others about how great your company is as a place to work or buy from, etc.
–its all very well to encourage people to take a positive view but that is not always easy.  Even Eckhart Tolle (whom I love, thanks for the reference to him!) suggests that quite a few situations require us to get out.  Lets imagine an employee furious that his CEO makes 300-400 times his pay and benefits (the US average, far far above worldwide figures) and has a golden parachute if he screws up (a la Nardelli at Home Depot), something this employee would never been offered.  Rick Wagoner at GM destroyed 96% of the GM share value during his tenure and barring bankruptcy was set to receive a nice $20 million retirement package. Should HD and GM people be “happy” about this?
–there is plenty of evidence that high morale and engagement is a strong correlate and driver of performance, and some of the studies you mention note that happy people perform better, but that happiness might be part of their overall morale, but only a part.  They didn’t get to that high morale just by learning to be happy, they got there also because management treated them well, gave them power to make decisions, a chance to grow on the job and many many other things.  Put a “happy” person in with the boss from hell for a few months and lets see what happens….
I am all for people taking responsibility for their own well being;  but we also need to shake up management in this country and improve our pitiful standing in the morale sweepstakes: Gallup says only 29% of US employees are engaged at work, and Mercer has us at below average worldwide in engagement.  In an increasingly competitive world, with all the performance benefits of high morale that we now know about, we cannot afford to stay here!
Anyway, great discussion and thanks for the chance to contribute.   FYI my philosophy is strongly capitalist and not pro government intervention, but mindful that, like football, we need clear rules and enforcement of them to ensure fairness.  Kind of like John Mackey, of whom I am a big fan.

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Lots of people writing to the WSJ wanted a job as a happiness coach, they think it is like going to a workplace with a bunch of drinks and having an instant “five o’clock somewhere” Happy Hour!  Would that it were so simple, right?  I’ll stick with my position that learning about oneself and learning to be happy is a huge part of life, and as valuable a resource for dealing with life’s ups and downs as anything I know.  Everyone should try and find a way to do this, and if they did we would have a better world.  But there is more to organizational culture and the building of high morale than this and we need to be careful that people don’t hang on to this as a superficial “fix”, especially in difficult times.  Don’t forget what I told Sue:  the “happiest” people in the world DO NOT have the highest morale at work.

Let me know what you think!

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