Last night I saw a RT by #OOMF on Twitter: “Being Happy at Work Matters.” To be honest, had it not been retweeted by this person, I’d have skipped straight past it. But his past recommendations and RTs have been pretty spot on and relevant, on so I clicked on the link. This HBR article started out immediately debunking the common view that how you feel and the quality of your relationships at work don’t really matter. Many of us think we can safely separate how we feel about what we do and who we do it with at work and our performance.
Guilty as charged. I once had a colleague that I was not fond of, and I’m pretty sure he felt the same way. We managed to handle our respective portfolios despite the growing acrimony and dare I say malice that was growing between us. But one day things came to a pretty pass. I erupted in a meeting, decrying the unit that he was assigned to and what I perceived to be their approach to the mission at hand, and he rose to my very vehement and aggressive challenge and pushed back in a most admirable manner. I punched back hard…damned hard… and a few days later he called me and asked if we could talk. I had a feeling that this was going to get all touchy-feely but I pretended that we were going to discuss some work related issue and agreed very breezily. So we met and he said that he wanted our relationship to improve. I assumed the alpha dog position and looked at him with great incredulity and asked him why in hell he thought that was of any importance. I don’t think that was the response he expected or wanted. You see, I had zero desire to be his friend. I felt very justified in taking this stance. This individual had been more than rude in the past and to my mind, too cursory in his handling of matters of strategic importance. He had effectively pissed off several members of my own team, and I had very good reason to believe that he enjoyed this sterling reputation across the wider organisation. I figured that how we felt about each other could at best lubricate our interactions and up the pleasure quotient, but I strongly believed that I could relate to him and get the job done without having to like him. And I told him as much. The discussion ended the way it started, two colleagues no closer to smiling and getting along.
So when this article claimed that the quality of your output at work is directly linked to your happiness and the quality of your relationships at work, and that neuroscience supports this claim, I sat up a little straighter. This wasn’t mere drippy feel good opinions being pushed at us, here was some science challenging my cosy, self-contained world. There are, the article claimed, clear neurological links between feelings and thoughts and actions. Apparently, in the face of strong negative emotions (think anger, distrust, resentment) our ability to process information decreases, creativity declines and decision making is compromised! Anger and frustration effectively shut down the thinking part of us and we cope by doing this: we mentally check out, or as the experts say, we disengage.
So despite how well we think we are coping in a sub optimal work environment, we really are not! A sub-optimal work environment could be one where you feel that you don’t get enough support from above, where you feel that your efforts are not appreciated, where you perceive that others doing less than you are progressing while you remain stagnant, where your evaluations are unfair, where your compensation does not match the value you bring to the organisation, where fear drives decision making, where form trumps substance, where you are underutilized, where you are over-worked, and so on and so forth. You think you are delivering, but you really are not being all that you can be due to compromised cognitive processing and shut off valves that you unconsciously activate in an effort to protect your core.
So if this is the situation, what is the remedy? The article proposed that a happy, engaged workforce results when there is a meaningful vision of the future, a sense of purpose and great relationships prevail. Daniel Pink too maintains that stakeholder engagement results from three things: autonomy, mastery and a sense of purpose. Sure, at the individual level, you can accept responsibility for building great relationships. But that is only one aspect of happiness at work.
Most of us feel as if we can’t affect the vision of the future or inbue a sense of purpose to what we do. We feel as if it is the role of leadership to create that environment where we can thrive. And that indeed is so! I could never pretend that it is the role of effective leadership to ensure that team members feel connected to a bigger vision, that they have the freedom to create and produce and that they are given the opportunity to develop and to be all that they can be. So what happens when leadership is found wanting? Are we destined for unhappiness at work and therefore sub-par performance?
I am very, very unwilling to allow my own performance to depend on the actions of someone else. So I challenged myself to think of how I, not at the top, but not at the bottom, could create more happiness and feelings of good will at work such that my brain would work properly, my creativity would be given free reign, and my decision would be clear, straightforward and efficient. Here’s what I’ve come up with:
Be the Leader you wish you had… trite but worth considering. If you are actively seeking to influence your own orbit, you will likely build solid relationships across, down and up, and this working towards a better future will likely fill you with positive feelings and energy.
Create your own Vision. Find something: a phrase, a direction, a goal from the grand Organisational mission and distill it down to a bite sized vision directly applicable to your role and make it the driver of your actions and decisions. Even when there is obvious and blatant misalignment between what you see around you and the stated organizational goals, you can still carve out relevance to your situation and make it work for you.
In an unhappy work environment, we unconsciously cope by disengaging and shutting down. Perspective, though, allows us to deal more reasonably with perceived disappointment and disillusionment. We in fact alter perspective when doing 1 & 2 above. But I think we can also shift our perspective from what we consider to be a hopeless, dysfunctional work environment by compensating though building interests and purpose and happy experiences outside of the work environment. Think volunteerism, hobbies, activities that use your best talents and so on.
I wonder about how happiness at work affects men and how it affects women. My own informal recollection is that I know more men than women that have walked out of jobs because they were unhappy with the job. Women seem to hold on and persevere despite being less than satisfied with the work environment. Many years ago my own mother proffered the view that men define themselves though their jobs, so-called “job satisfaction” being of paramount importance in their personal matrix. I don’t know… worth thinking about.
I can’t say that in my 20 year career that I have ever worked in a single context that I would describe as optimal. I’m not even looking for perfect, but I am looking for a context where I learn, where I am inspired, where I am valued and compensated accordingly, where I can’t wait for tomorrow to come. But throughout these 20 years I have very deliberately done things outside of these sub-optimal contexts that paid my bills, preparing for the future and as a way to cope. I’ve put myself in the role of perpetual learner (I’m happiest when I’m learning) and ensured that I have constantly retooled and gotten the certification to prove it. I’ve taken up different hobbies along the way (writing, cooking, and I’m about to take up photography). I’ve had the honour of building relationships with a few select switched-on colleagues and mentors who to this day enrich my professional activities with their sage practical advice and their willing ear.
I do have my periods of abject disenchantment, but I try to remain hopeful, and I especially compensate in the ways I described just now. This is now even more important given the link between happiness and effectiveness. I still hope to find that work environment that ticks the boxes of compelling, clear vision and purpose, where functional, good relationships at work predominate. I’m pretty sure I have a part to play in creating this environment.