Happiness at Work: 3. A Discussion with iOpener, Oxford, England

Note: this is the third in a series of posts on happiness at work. See #1 here and #2 here. For iOpener’s blog, where you can find a longer version of the discussion, please go here.


It has been quite a wild week trying to advance the progess of my second book, while fielding some deliciously challenging questions and comments from the people at iOpener, an organization dedicated to Happiness at Work and based in Oxford, England. I have learned a lot about their approach, and I think perhaps they have learned a bit about engagement. In the end we have a lot in common, which is a big point in itself. One of the biggest things I took away from the discussion is that the happiness at work people are filling a very important need which we in employee engagement tend to neglect: helping people to be able to engage. We talk a lot about what we can do to create the environment in which people want to, choose to, engage. But whether they do or not is sort of inside the black box of the human psyche. We know that personality is involved, which doesnt make for a good outcome if we hire the wrong person who is incapable of engaging: good luck on changing a personality, right? But there are also skills, there are mindsets, which iOpener rightly points out we need in order to fully engage. This means that we can increase the chances of engagement by training people to have a particular mindset, and I for one am all in favor of that. Having said that, I do not agree, as you will see below, that happiness is a breakthrough of the order of sliced bread or color TV. In some ways the happiness people talk as if they have re-invented and replaced engagement and its performance correlates….but have they really? They say a person can be engaged, even fully engaged, but miserable and wanting to leave. That that person needs to be happy as well, to be fully engaged. But my understanding of engagement includes a strong positive emotional connection above all else, to the organization, to one’s boss, to co-workers, to the job itself. Absent that, a person can perform but in a sort of empty, emotionless way which does not, for me, indicate full engagement. Wanting to leave, how engaged can you be? Not very, in my view. I am including my conversation with iOpener’s Dr. Simon Lutterbie below so you can see how we went back and forward and how I countered the idea that engagement is just re-packaged high performance. Anyone who knows me will guess that I did not take that comment lightly!  Here is what we said, with Lutterbie’s comments in italics:
Simon this conversation gets more and more interesting.  Don’t worry at all about being  “controversial”, I think that is the way that knowledge moves forward, don’t  you?  As long as people listen to each other, of course!  And as I listen I begin to understand what you guys are all about and how it relates to engagement and other things.  Please also refer to what I said yesterday to Jessica on my own blog, which is that I am not an apologist or evangelist for engagement, have teased people in the field  quite a bit, and enjoy doing so (they respond in kind, all part of the fun).  It has more than a few shortcomings….like most approaches do.   There is more than one path to God and more than one path to an engaged…or happy… workforce!

OK let me go with your format of quoting me then commenting.  Here is what you said:

What we are interested in is the mindset that make employees feel motivated to excel at their jobs,  gives them the energy and enthusiasm to perform at their best, and the resilience to overcome challenges.

 This is very important, and in the employee engagement (EE) field it is often overlooked.   There is a sense among EE practitioners that as long as conditions are right at work, then people will engage, but this is not true.  I have mentioned to you that personality is a big factor, and while I do see some people working on this, there aren’t enough.  Personality is hard or  impossible to change of course, so that has some extreme hiring implications.  So I believe that we need more of what you are doing, to give people the skills they need to be happy at work, to engage, whatever we call it.  My only question here is the age old one of nature vs. nurture:  what % of a person’s ability to engage/be happy at work is nature and what % nurture.  You muddy the waters a bit with your piece on DNA and seem to move the argument back to nature!   But like you, I do think people can change,  even when their DNA points them in one direction.

Component 2 is a feeling state. It occurs when the worker feels good, motivated, energetic, and enthusiastic. Component 2 is none other than happiness at work!  Engagement may be an acting state, but it  requires a feeling state. You can create the conditions for engagement, and you can give an employee all the resources they need to fully engage. But unless  that employee is happy at work, the employee may not choose to engage.

 I had said that when conditions are right at work, then people can make the choice to engage (“Component  2”).  What I didn’t say there, because I was not attempting to discuss the full blown psychology of engagement, was  that there is an intermediate step, and that is an emotional one, or “feeling  state”.  Cary and I did this is in our book though, where we explained that when the “psycho-social” conditions are right at work (everything from the physical environment to how your boss treats you and much much more), then people experience a sense of high morale (or “well being”) which then translates into the behaviors we now call engagement.  So now you can see the feeling state more clearly in this model, the emotional connection.  One of the most critical conditions we are talking about here, confirmed by much research, is the boss-worker relationship.  This has been tagged at  explaining more than 80% of the variance in the engagement level of workers, an amazing number.  So the emotional connection we feel is in relationship, not just to the job itself but to the people we are with day in and day out and how we are treated by them.  Now here is where we start to disagree:  Component 2 is not just a feeling state, far  from it!  People react to the conditions at work with a feeling state, but the conditions at work are the crucial driver of that feeling state;   those myriad conditions include the boss, but also all those pesky HR things like performance reviews (yuk!) and incentive pay programs, etc.  Morale and EE practitioners and consultants like me are very involved in those conditions at work, sometimes referred to under the useful heading of corporate culture (“the way we do things”).  With 80% plus of an individual’s engagement at work depending on that key boss-worker relationship, we had better see where the good and bad bosses are, and move actively to decrease the number of the latter and increase the former, and this we begin to do through the extraordinarily powerful methodology of surveys.

And when someone works to build engagement, they’re really just working to build high performance.  Which is great. But it implies that  engagement isn’t a unique approach, it’s  just another name for what people have been doing for years.  

Oh Simon methinks you have just been “hoist with your own petard” as our own Will Shakespeare said.  I am not denying it for engagement, since I have made the same exact comments about it.   In other words,  engagement took the decades-long concept of morale, added some nice flavoring,  microwaved it and served it up as fresh!  But the same could be said for you guys:  your definitions of happiness at work are essentially what people have been saying for a long time represent the engaged worker.  The exact list which you cite for high performance is what you aim for, right?  So you have taken high performance or engagement and re-packaged it as  “happiness at work”.   You are teaching people to be “engaged”…which as I said before is a great thing and very necessary.  Look I am old enough and have been in this business long enough that there is not much new under the sun.  This happens all the time.  Engagement happens to be a word which excites people, they can use it easier than morale (she is “engaged” but not she is “moraled”), they can use it about customers, not just employees etc.  Having said this I will say that I think engagement (like happiness at work, as you describe it) goes beyond performance because it has a strong positive emotional component.   So I would disagree that engagement is simply performance, because for me, engagement means you are emotionally connected in a positive way and that is one of the reasons, perhaps the main reason, you perform so above and beyond. As you would say, you are happy. As Jessica said on my blog yesterday, she knows CEOs who are “engaged” but are miserable.  I would not really define them as engaged, I would say they perform, that’s all.  The level of performance I am talking about simply isn’t possible when you have one foot out the door.  OK maybe for a very short time, but this is a burn out situation which I have seen several times.

So, food for thought right?  I returned your controversial (and somewhat correct!) statement with one of my own.  But I like the tone of this conversation Simon, and appreciate it. This is also very useful for a writer and consultant like me, because it sharpens and clarifies the arguments for and against key things in my field.

best to you,  David

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