Screw Happiness At Work (And How NOT To Implement It)

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- 5 min read

When we quit our frustrating corporate jobs over a year ago, we set out to visit the world's most inspiring workplaces. For the lack of a better word, we started out by calling our quest "a search for ultimate employee happiness". Over the last 15 months however, we slowly moved away from the *happiness at work* movement. Why? Well, there are plenty of reasons for it.

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Personal frustration mode "ON"

For starters, the happiness at work movement (which is currently spreading like wildfire) is not exactly our field. We don't believe engaging workplaces are about doing crazy dances, giving each other high fives, playing Foosball all day, and dressing up in animal costumes (yes, this actually happens). With most of the things we hear, read or see about happiness at work we actually move further away from what this movement is becoming.

We don't feel that happiness at work covers everything we are aiming for. It is not only way too limited and superficial, it's worse than that. Happiness at work simply implies that there is no room for tough challenges, painful setbacks, or life's inevitable struggles and conflicts. For those of you who have been following our adventures for a while now, you know we are more keen to talk about motivation and engagement. It is about doing what you love in an environment that inspires you to develop and challenge yourself.

Commonly made mistakes about Happiness at Work

Way worse than our personal dislike to this happy chappy movement is the fact that we witness organizations make some fundamental mistakes when it comes to their happiness at work initiatives. By making these mistakes, they achieve basically the opposite of what they are aiming for. Here are 3 of the most commonly made mistakes we encounter:

1. Dress like a kangaroo and do crazy dances

Why is it that most of the happiness gurus force us to do happy chappy and artificial things? They advise us that high fives, thumbs up, blowing up balloons, and crazy dances are crucial in the creation of a joyful workplace. Even if these sort of things would give you some joy for a short period of time (and this is already a stretch), they certainly don't last for very long. We have now visited over 50 inspiring workplaces around the globe and during none of those visits we have encountered anything that came close to this nonsense (well, except maybe for this awkward moment at Zappos).

It is an inconvenient truth most of the happiness gurus do not want to hear. These superficial practices can’t compete with the more fundamental aspects of creating an inspiring workplace. We personally cannot imagine spending the day giving each other high fives and thumbs up. Even worse, these kind of "solutions" don't solve the actual problem of uninspiring workplaces. The bulk of employees are not disengaged from work because of the fact that we don't dress up as animals.

2. Force happiness upon employees

Sure, we all want to be happy at work. But there is research that shows that focusing on happiness too much is actually counter productive. You can't force people to be happy, so you certainly can't force an entire organization to be so. The most fundamental aspect that can be learned from our visits is that it is crucial to constantly involve employees in improving their own working environment.

Just ask them what it is that makes them happy. Ask them what they like most in their job, and what they are most proud of. Ask them what keeps them from doing a better job. Ask them what frustrates them, and what barriers should be taken away. Then, as a supportive leader, do everything in your power to facilitate these changes. When you simply focus on this, you have much higher chances to create a truly great place to work.

3. Assume everyone wants the same thing

It's a big mistake to assume that everyone wants the same things when it comes to creating a better workplace. Don't blindly follow what others are doing. A good example is the fact that everyone is crammed into an open office nowadays. It is said that these open office plans are good for, among others, employee engagement. As a result, lots of organizations move to open office plans, sometimes to the dismay of employees. The result? A growing frustration in many organizations.

The organizations we visit prefer to listen to employees instead of assuming they know better. An example: Frank van Massenhove lets the employees decide about the office design of his Belgian Department of Social Security. Most of the civil servants prefer to work in colorful spaces filled with natural light. With one exception: the IT team. They decide to work in a windowless room with nothing but chairs, tables, and computers!

Back to reality

The most inspiring workplaces we visit are the ones that allow people to experience a range of positive and negative emotions. The emotions that cover all aspects of life, not just happiness. In fact, they never pretend that everything should be happy and bubbly. An inevitable part of work (and life) is that it's sometimes hard, frustrating, or painful. There's no need to cover this up with all kinds of phony crap.

The things to focus on heavily depend on the organization, the context, and (often the most overlooked aspect) the people within the organization. So if there's one important lesson to be drawn, ask your employees what it is that they want and facilitate it. And if you do, you're probably not going to have to buy a shitload of kangaroo suits.

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Replies (3)

Kat Hounsell

Kat Hounsell

This article has got me thinking. Whilst I agree wholeheartedly with its content, I feel it's not giving enough consideration to why people use the word 'happiness'.

The language we choose to use to shift thinking and change behaviour is key to where the journey takes us. Something I've been mulling over and over is "what is the best way to describe the workplace utopia we're striving for?"

As you said above, this utopia is not about being happy clappy, but a place where people can learn and grow, and be supported through the highs and lows that come with being a human being.

You're right that happiness is a term that can be misused and abused. However often the intention behind it is a good one, and worth recognising.

Some use 'happiness' as a more accessible term for 'flourish' or 'thrive'. It can be useful to grab people's attention - hey, would we have so many people talking about wellbeing at work and alternative approaches to high performance if our shelves weren't stacked with yellow covered books? possibly, possibly not.

Positive emotions, as proven by research in the positive psychology movement, is a core part of enabling people to flourish. However it is not the full picture.

My take is not to 'screw happiness at work' but happiness (positive emotions) is one sturdy screw, and we need other sturdy screws to create thriving organisations complete with people who flourish... This talk of screws could take us into dodgy territory so I'll stop there.

I understand why you chose the blog title though. It's challenging and stirs something within. I'm just not sure it's really what you're saying.

Keep rebelling. It's getting us all talking.

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A good challenging post, dear rebels. However are you perhaps setting up a straw man? There may be companies that get people to dress up as animals or play foosball all day but that isn't the focus of any of the people I know who focus on happy workplaces.

I do argue that people work best when they feel good about themselves and I know the positive benefit (to productivity as well as wellbeing) of companies where management focus on that.

It isn't the trivial games that create happiness at work. It is fulfilment. You get there through to quote Dan Pink's work) Autonomy, Mastery and Purpose. Happiness at work is achieved through doing something you are good at, having a meaning to it and the freedom to do it well.

Its not about phony crap. Its not about an easy life. about providing real challenge and the freedom and support to enable people to work at their best.

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Alain Ruche

Alain Ruche

There is no 'postive' or 'negative' emotions. There are only emotions whihc pass by...
Bieng happy is a result, not an objective.
And the only law that keeps standing is the law of permanent change...

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