The Laughing Buddha

A.K.A. The Collector of Good Questions

Happiness @ Work = Myth?

Mechanical Happiness
Mechanical Happiness

Is ‘Happiness’ the goal that companies should actively seek for their employees, and that employees have at the front of their minds when they think of work? This is a perennial debate that keeps popping up on various forums, and Messrs Andre Spicerand Carl Cederström have made their contribution – again drawing some fervid responses – in the Harvard Business Review this past week. (The article prods a droll suspicion that they put hands to keyboard to let out steam following a session of Happiness-inducing workplace activities run by a ‘consultant’.)

But could it be that we don’t really need reams of text, and shovelfuls of research, to address this ancient question, seeing that the centuries have not really produced a satisfactory answer, mainly because the concept at the heart of the matter is so amorphous?

The relentless push for Happiness at Work is the Gemini twin of Passion for Your Job,forming a two-pronged mantra that transfers the locus of productivity – that all-important goal of all economic players – largely into the employee’s inner engine, when such ubiety is, even intuitively, illusory.  (This somewhat cardboard cut-out view of employees is prevalent among at least some senior managers, accounting for the virality on LinkedIn, some months ago, of the simplistic formula, ‘Be Happy, Be Awesome, Help Others with 1 & 2’, which was deflated somewhat by others. See cartoon above).

The organisation itself, by which I mean senior management which forms the stable cultural core of the entity even as most other staff change over time (in our age), is where the energy is drawn for creating an enriching environment. This may or may not produce something sharply defined as ‘happiness’, but would touch something deep and strong within individuals for which the apt words do not seem to exist in the dictionary. And this would drive them to do greater things for the organisation. (Google’s Project Oxygen has been among the few prominent recent initiatives attempting to attain this elusive state). The things that might help? Some of them go back far: fairness, a well-communicated vision, exemplary leaders, empathetic managers, a sense of contributing to something truly important. Also, the sense that the employee is not merely a square peg carefully selected to slide snugly into a well-chiselled square hole in the organisational machine, pre-designed by unseen hands – but rather that the employee has at least some agency in the evolution of a living organisation, and recognition that they can contribute in more than one way. These are not new things to ponder; they’ve been around long, except when Western organisational science was in the thrall of the regimented, militaristic culture of the two big Wars of the 20th century.

Of course, it would be a stretch to think that this sort of environment could be realistically created for someone operating a supermarket checkout all day. But even for supermarket checkout operators, a sense of fairness would go a long way (which at least partly accounts for the push for fairer wages in the US lately, taken up by the likes of Walmart now).

As I hinted at the outset, this debate is unlikely to die down anytime soon. But there do seem to be some organisations that have made efforts to cut through the flood of words spinning around Happiness and Passion and their ilk, and go back to some basic organisational values that have been sitting under the streetlight all the time while we have been searching for answers in the surrounding dark bushes. Google, of course, is a standout example; Zappos is another, although its approach is far more experimental.

(This post has been simultaneously published on LinkedIn Pulse).


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