Brief Reflections on Happiness in the Workplace

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No work complaints. Just chillin with my peeps.

Everyone does it. There’s that friend that works in the same industry/workplace/job. It’s Saturday/Sunday brunch/lunch/meal time. “How was your week?”

An unobserved amount of time later your forgotten meal arrives. Hopefully a cool sip of a watered down beverage can tame your adrenaline. “Yeah, but when we run the world it’ll be totally different.” Wry chuckles and sad smiles briefly mask the desperate search for any topic besides the mutually-assured conversational destruction of workplace catharsis. There is no position that runs the world anyways.

It doesn’t take long in an office to realize a steady paycheck does not equal happiness. It certainly helps. For what comes after direct deposit forms, enter Dan Pink*, specifically this talk. To sum up, for work that requires minimal creativity intrinsic motivators work better than carrots and sticks. Dan stews his thinking down into these three, paraphrased bites an organization should feed its workforce: autonomy, or the a sense of independence when producing results, mastery, or the ability to grow a skill on the job, and purpose, or the belief you’re contributing to something meaningful the world will benefit from.

After numerous, early 20s therapy brunches with other young professionals I was finally in the position to hire a team and manifest its culture. Hiring sucks for everyone involved. It’s expensive mentally, financially, and temporally. Keeping effective coworkers sincerely happy is a defensive measure. With that ice bath of an unfeeling, business school-esque observation of hiring out of the way, it’s just nicer to smile and laugh with office mates than languish in untreated depression together.

At the first meeting the new hire and their “manager to be” have already come so far. After a palette-cleansing dose of direct report expectation setting, Dan’s happiness appetizers are served. The case to deliver was that I, as the manager, am invested in their happiness. I will do that by providing you autonomy in providing your results, challenge you with tasks you will grow from, and sous vide you with why what you’re doing matters. I will do this every day, and we will meet every other month to assess my performance.

When serving any management dogma, eventually the common compromises bubble to the surface. Core hours are from 9am to 3pm, and you’ll spend eight hours of your day doing work. No, you can’t do all your work from 8pm to 4am because, occasionally, we’ll need to talk to each other. If you’re salaried, sometimes duty calls outside core hours. That usually means we put too much on our plate, and the office gluttony will subside after delivery. Bland, bean-counting chores will have to be done, but most tasks will feature a peppering of fresh challenges. Regardless, everything we do will have a macro-purpose. It can be a hard sell at times, but the manager committed to always having a pitch from the start. “Why does this need to be done?” always has a big picture answer.

It was happy hour on some Thursday/Friday. The pre-covid cacophony of conversation and clinking glasses enveloped us at the table. Looser neckties and employed hair ties sacrificed an sliver of post-work personality on a beautiful Spring day. Weekend plans were getting from a tweet to a novel’s worth of service. Inescapably, the chatter references work. A direct report began recounting a Saturday brunch. (To paraphrase…) “My friends were going around the table complaining about their work. It took most of the meal. When it finally got around to me I…” — shrugs shoulders — …”…didn’t have much to say. Like, I’m good.” Chuckling, he says, “I’m happy.”

This was one of the best stories and one of the best moments of my career thus far. Dan’s recipe for happiness was working, and the only thing bitter about this team was our cold beers.

*In writing this I’m realizing Daniel Pink now goes by Dan, and he’s been busy the past decade. I haven’t read his book related to the talk’s content, but probably should now.

September 09, 2020 - posted by Terry Creamer
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