Buying Happiness? Bah humbug…

Posted: December 19, 2016 in Uncategorized

My most shameless clickbait title.  I’m really sorry, genuinely.

My good friend Myles Runham passed on this link about the cult of happiness at work

One thing I couldn’t bring myself to do is look at the 1,365 comments on this article.  I’ve seen enough of the vitriol, abuse and sarcasm on newspaper comment threads to know it’s just not worth it.Screen Shot 2016-12-19 at 09.35.36.png

(Image above taken from the Guardian article referred to with the link)

So my response to this article is to write a blog post.

I know some people who’ve bravely stuck their neck out and talked up the happiness at work agenda when it wasn’t at all avant garde to do so.  I genuinely don’t mind this subject being talked about – there’s so much gloom and dullness normally talked about at work, something to lighten the perspective of the workplace as a place you can enjoy coming to and doing work is fine by me.  It’s not COMPULSORY (although this article clearly suggests it as it’s in the title).

And let’s get some sense here: we’re not advocating harmful psychotic behaviour are we? Smiles, fun, lightening up – all intended to create energy.  It’s not like a desperate attempt at fun communism would even work if we wanted it to.  We all have fun but some fun is more fun than others blah blah.  I’m not advocating we out-happy anyone else.

In explaining my view on this, I’ll start with me.  Because I know me better than anyone else or any organisations referred to in this article.

I’ve OFTEN had joy in my work and experienced happiness.  The Civil Service, in the Courts.  The not for profit sector in funded charitable enterprises.  In my freelancing consulting / speaking.  Fun and happiness?  How can making people repay debt, get divorced or repossess their house be fun and create happiness?  How can deciding on who gets the over-stretched funding pot allocated their way and risk shattering lots of worthy causes dreams and impacts on lives allow you to feel happy?  How can putting a price on yourself to design a workshop feel like fun?

I found happiness in applying myself fairly into the role I was given responsibility for to help protect people’s assets, lives and indeed, their well-being and happiness.  So I saw myself as much of a guardian for tenants of over zealous landlords as I was an enforcer of wealthy property owners’ rights to evict people who’ve fallen on hard times.  I had fun in seeing people grow in confidence and competence in making decisions about who got their share of the funding pot.  I take great pride in being asked to help people in companies solve gnarly issues and do things differently and then put in an invoice for that effort.

I think we’re talking about this subject from the WRONG perspective.  What looks like gimmicks, ploys and desperate tactics can in fact be attempts at creating something lighter, more human and less stuffy in work because we’ve made some things so serious they become mood sucking drains on any energetic soul who cares to tackle the work.  The perspective appears to insist this is all forced fun (funsultants are mentioned in this article).  The perspective is sugar-coated brussels sprouts.  The perspective is the latest manipulative tactic to get people to endure more low pay, poor treatment and zero prospects.  And this may be behind some leaders thinking here.  So I’m not dismissing this critical view on things like beer-pong every evening.  It’s not the ONLY reason we should be talking about happiness at work though.  So why has happiness cropped up so prominently?

It’s this perspective I wish we’d look at more: Toxic cultures.  Awful management practices.  Terrible conditions.  Commoditised job roles as part of a “satanic mill” of employ.  There’s probably a lot more of these than there are happy workplaces, yet the happy ones get the headlines for being a bit of a freak-show.  I get it.  Knock the outliers.  Poo-poo the fringe fun-fascists.  Don’t tackle the real issue which is dire, depressing and downright nasty places to work.

The most serious outcome we might be missing is this: Leaders and business people are though starting to realise that if their employees are happier, they do things better, with more creativity and generally are purveyors of something customers like : feeling good.

In a service economy effectively transacting to a satisfactory outcome is the aim.

In an experience economy, it’s how it feels AS WELL AS getting the right outcome that matters.

Maybe there is cynical corporate-greed in happiness engineering but then again, it may just be a leader trying to break the grey, dark and dank confines of the workplace as a psychological prison and instead, create a place of sanctuary, escape and fulfilment.

Using the Nokia example in this feature was an interesting choice.  Let’s blame Nokia for being happy and therefore not rocking their boat at a time when threats were on the horizon. Maybe it was that Nokia’s belief in only positive news that helped it convince itself the Symbian operating system would help it survive threats from Apple and Samsung / iOS and Android.  I’m not so sure.  I think this was corporate blindness and denial.  Belief you were too established to fail.  Not that people only wanted to be happy and so buried any disgruntlement.

I recall a quote about Alan Mulally’s first project update at Ford where all their projects were on Green.  No-one dared report Red and rarely even reported Amber.  He wanted fairer reporting.  He probably didn’t say this but my take on it goes like this  “Come on folks, we wouldn’t be employing me to restore the brand if we were doing THIS well.  Let’s have some truthful reporting please.  Red is good, it’ll force a conversation”.

It’s not about the pursuit of being happy at work that denies a bit of frank honesty.  It’s fear of retribution that does that (along with embarrassment in front of peers and other useless emotions).  If we’re free to be happy about work, colleagues and progress AND to call out a serious flaw in either process, people or projects then we’d get somewhere and perhaps be happier about being complicit in GOOD things and USEFUL debates not bland, smiley ignorance of a tanking enterprise.  Surely no-one can be happy about that no matter what fireman’s pole they use to get from one meeting to another.

So happiness at work doesn’t mean blind naivety to the cause.  It means an atmosphere not ruled by fear where people are HAPPY and HAVE FUN alongside DILIGENCE, EQUITY and OPENNESS.

People need to be happy not just to express their joy at work but their appreciation they can challenge, innovate and contribute to making decisions.  The more we label happiness at work with shot-drinking interviews, fussball tables and doing the congo to the canteen, the more we turn away from the real issues: fear is the enemy, not happiness.  Nor is happiness the only solution to this so the pursuit of happiness at work needs some recalibration.

Let’s have people participate in a workplace where there is freedom of expression, fairness and inclusivity alongside committed application.  

This kind of frame helps us discover joy, fun and happiness in what we do I’m sure.  If we HAVE to resort to slides, remember they only really go in a down direction which is where your morale might be going if that’s ALL you’ve got.

  1. mylesrun says:

    Nicely put Perry. I wonder if there would be so much copy (and fury) if the objective focused on reduced misery rather than happiness. Maybe that would be seen as more justifiable?

    It does seem stupidly reductive to frame the debate about pusrrsuijg happiness in favour of everything else. I think journalism has questions to answer for being so obtuse sometimes.

  2. garryturnerassoccipd says:

    100% spot on reflection. To coin Shawn Achor simply we are saying here that happiness leads to success and not the other way around, contrary to most (more autocratic) leaders.

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