Happiness at Work? It seems to take a lot more than Krispy Kreme Wednesdays.
Why is it that the huge increase in money thrown at ‘Happiness at Work’ initiatives over recent years has not stopped employee engagement scores sliding to an historical and shocking low of 13% worldwide? (Gallup 2016) Why are we so unhappy, and what can be done about it?
As founder of We-Q, the Collaborative Intelligence App, I had the pleasure of spending time with Frederic Laloux, author of ‘Reinventing Organisations’, and one of the world’s most influential contributors to the study of healthy and effective organisations. Together we went on a deep dive into the ills and possibilities of contemporary work life.
“Happiness is a transitory possibility to evoke, which seems radical given the levels of suffering in organisational life today.” Frederic Laloux
Fredric talks of the need to restore “our birthright” of deep human connection, meaning, self responsibility, trust and creativity back into the contemporary workplace. (An 8 minute Sound Cloud audio of our conversation is attached below). Frederic takes a robust view of the dysfunction of much of the prevailing work culture. “Many structures are not conducive to happiness, (they are) riddled with power games, ego trips, unresolved issues, turf wars.” Happiness initiatives simply will not take hold if the ‘shadow’ is unresolved.
What Fred means by the ‘shadow’ here is that the prevailing beliefs underpinning contemporary organisations and their hierarchical structures are unhealthy and will oppose healthy human growth and effectiveness. An example of this is the cult of personality, the belief that power and rewards belong with the strongest, brightest and most charismatic employees. This leads to competitive game playing and jockeying for position. A recipe for stress, low trust and unhappiness.
Many work cultures, however, expect and exhort us to be happy and positive. We learn to hide our vulnerability and wear a mask of control. If you appear unhappy, there must be something wrong with you, rather than the dysfunctional culture. A healthy system, which bred happiness would look deeper at the systemic issues, and look to the group to work together collectively. We, not Me!
A ‘sticking plaster’ approach over a gaping wound is bound to fail and can even make things worse by deepening cynicism. HR is often seen as responsible for ‘making people happy’. Organisations make the mistake of keeping all of the management structures intact and then employing a Chief Happiness Officer. As Fred points out, you can’t make people happy. Happiness is an outcome of creating conditions for people to flourish and like life itself, this means personal struggle to grow and learn. People can see through the self serving and paternalistic attempts from HR to smooth the edges, with a well meaning, misguided and unproductive veneer.
In an effort to improve happiness and productivity, some organisations have consciously tried to shift leadership styles from ‘command and control’ to ‘servant leadership’, ie listening, supporting, encouraging, facilitating. This approach, well intentioned as it may be, becomes a cropper if the fundamental operating model, where responsibility for the P&L lies with the boss, remains intact. The injunctions are contradictory and unworkable. As Frederic says: “You have to be an enlightened Buddha to say, I hold all of the responsibility, but I will completely let go.”
So, we need a fundamental shift if we are to see engagement scores rising. It isn’t a question of ‘injecting’ happiness initiatives, but instead “creating the conditions for people to flourish”.
“Some organisations are outstandingly different animals. Happiness and fun doesn’t come up. They value something deeper and more profound: human unfolding and flourishing.”
The organisations that have understood this rarely talk about happiness as a goal. Instead, they devote their energy to creating the structures and processes within which people can grow. This means focusing on shared values and purpose, and then allowing teams to struggle to organise themselves to best deliver on that purpose. Deep happiness and joy emerge from learning, supporting and challenging one another to best deliver on the shared purpose rooted in supporting deep human values.