Some weeks ago we had a meeting with the director of a social science faculty at a Dutch University. The director (we will refer to him as Peter) manages multiple locations, 200 employees and over 3000 students. Peter wants to transform his faculty in an oasis of happiness. The thoughts of such a transformation excite us and awaken curiosity about the man behind these noble ideas. So we went out in our Sunday’s best and headed for the meeting.
Once we arrive, we enter a beautiful building and check in at the reception of the faculty. After 10 minutes the director personally picks us up and guides us towards his office. He stops and asks us how we like our coffee. “Black, please”, we answer politely. Shortly after, the director shouts to his secretary: “Three black coffee in my office!” We feel embarrassed. We can easily carry the coffee ourselves.
“My office is at the end of this wing. It’s a bit of a walk but at least my office is far away from the rabble.”
It’s a relatively long walk to his office. We pass tons of students who are working in shared meeting rooms and open libraries. It’s a vibrant and energetic environment. At least, that’s what we think. Promptly Peter tells us: “My office is at the end of this wing. It’s a bit of a walk but at least my office is far away from the rabble.” We laugh. The laughing is followed by an awkward silence. Sadly, his face shows no emotion. Apparently, it’s not a joke…
Finally we arrive at his office. It’s firmly locked. Peter unlocks the door for us and we enter a big, white office filled with daylight, a nice view and comfortable furniture. Quite a difference to the small meeting rooms we saw before. As the coffee comes in we start to understand that the director likes to enjoy his privileges. We take a seat on the sofa and are curious about his ambitious happiness plans.
Peter starts explaining his mission and his desire to transform his faculty into a ‘happiness place’. To realize his ideas, he developed a vision, strategy and road map together with an external consultancy firm. The employees and students were not consulted on their ideas and therefore Peter wants to communicate it to them through a video. He wants to show us this video but can’t find it on neither his tablet, phone or laptop. He tells us that this is not his fault: “This is the fault of the IT department, they just changed the layout of the intranet.”
After 10 minutes of struggling, the director finally manages to find the video. He proudly shows it to us. It turns out to be a 6 minute long animation video full of woolly language. We can barely keep our attention on the video. Luckily, we can enjoy our fresh morning coffee to keep us awake. The video should educate the students about the developed road map and vision. Casually, Peter tells us the video turned out to be a failure: “The younger generation doesn’t watch this video, 6 minutes is already too long for them to keep their attention.” We ask ourselves why they made this video in the first place and why we had to go through it as well?!
We move on and frankly ask Peter why he thinks the employees and students are not completely satisfied with the current situation. Luckily, he has thought about this matter before. Obviously, this can all be blamed on others: “Employees are frustrated by all the structures and procedures imposed by the government and University Board. Students are creating a moody atmosphere because they are constantly hounded financially. And the many part-timer employees don’t care about organizational matters since they are just working a few hours a week.”
The moment I introduce more autonomy I can’t control everything anymore, but I still bear full responsibility. Then, if things go wrong, the employees will stay but my head will be on a tray.
Lack of professionalism
A bit shocked by these answers we ask him if more autonomy and participation for employees and students might be a potential path to more happiness. He disagrees passionately: “My employees are no professionals. They don’t have the self-reflection as for example doctors or lawyers have.” Then he unconsciously reveals the real and deeper reason: “The moment I introduce more autonomy I can’t control everything anymore, but I still bear full responsibility. Then, if things go wrong, the employees will stay but my head will be on a tray.” We now clearly understand that this director is not ready for a change yet. He has created a vision in words, but cannot turn it into reality.
Our latest meetings with Frederic Laloux (author of Reinventing Organizations) and Isaac Getz (author of Freedom, Inc.) has taught us an important insight. The liberation of an organization can only be achieved once the leaders live and breathe the accompanying values of a.o. freedom, autonomy, and trust. This means that the values of an organization can only be as far as developed as the values of it’s very own leader. Unfortunately, the above example shows how this holds this particular University back.