The #1 mistake – or your happiness is not (only) about you

The most common mistake people make when they seek happiness (at work or in life) is that they focus on making themselves happy here and now.

This almost always fails because it becomes a meaningless, shallow pursuit of their own short-term pleasure.

True happiness on the other hand, comes from doing things to make many people (including yourself) happier in the long term.

This is illustrated by one of the most consistent findings in positive psychology, namely that if you want to be happier yourself, the best way is to make someone else happier. Not as a quid-pro-quo, but from a realization that we are social beings and that your happiness cannot be meaningfully extracted from the happiness of everyone around you.

And that goes in the workplace as well. If you want to be happy at work, focus more on making others (co-workers, customers, employees, vendors, random passers-by) happy by doing awesome work and by being an awesome person. If your workplace doesn’t let you do that, you will never be happy there.

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Why every company needs to give employees Free Time on the job

My first “real” job was for a large and very famous Danish company who’d hired me fresh out of university to work on one of their big new products. One day, about a month into my employment there, I was sitting at my desk thinking big thoughts.

To other people it might have looked like I was slacking – I’d put my feet up on the desk and was staring into the air – but in reality I was considering if the approach I’d chosen to solving a particular task was the right one or of there was a smarter, faster way.

And for that I was reprimanded. When my manager walked by and saw me sitting there, he criticized me for goofing off. As long as he could see me pecking away at my keyboard, he felt confident that I was productive. Seeing me with my feet up automatically made him assume that I was wasting time.

Companies everywhere are looking to increase productivity. Employees are asked to work more efficiently and get more done faster. But it seems to me that the constant focus on short-term productivity gains is hurting long-term results because employees’ work days are filled to capacity (and over) with tasks, meetings, deadlines, projects, etc.

What’s missing from that picture? Free time. Or as some call it: Slack.

In the excellent article ”In Praise of Slack: Time Is of the Essence” from The Academy of Management Executives M. B. Lawson writes about the importance of having time during your work day that is not already taken up with tasks. From the article:

Slack is important for organizational adaptation and innovation.

Increasingly complex systems and technologies require more, not less, time for monitoring and processing information. Future demands for strategic flexibility and for integrating learning and knowledge throughout organizations highlight the need to reexamine the importance of time in organizational work – and to recognize that all organizational resources cannot be committed to immediate output efforts if we are to have time to pay attention, think and benefit from the knowledge gained.

Some managers (among them my first team leader) see all free time as wasted time, but they’re completely wrong. When every moment of the work day is taken up with, it damages the organization in many ways. Here are some we’ve seen among our clients:

  1. Creativity is lost because there is no time to come up with and act on new ideas.
  2. No one helps anyone else, because people are booked 100% (or more) on their own tasks
  3. There’s no time to learn new skills
  4. We end up always doing things the same way because there’s no time to optimize processes
  5. Customers become less happy because there is no time to go the extra mile and deliver great customer service.
  6. Everything becomes a chaotic mess because there is no time to organize and structure things
  7. Flexibility is lost because everyone is too busy to deal with changing circumstances
  8. Employees become less happy and more stressed because there is no time to deepen your skills

In short, organizations without slack become stiff and brittle and lose the ability to lift themselves out of their current problems and create ongoing improvements. These organizations become extremely fragile in the face of any unforeseen changes.

So slack is great for employees and for the workplace. But it must be created consciously. Workplaces must make a concerted effort to show employees

How do you do that in practice? Here are 5 ways we have seen work well in practice.

  1. Hackathons are well-known in software companies. Employees are given time (frome 1 day to several days) to work in groups on any project of their own choosing. At the end, teams present their results.
  2. 20%-time (popularized by companies like 3M and Google) means that employees can devote up to 20% of their work week to projects they come up with themselves.
  3. Training and development is crucial. In the company I co-founded, every employee had an annual training budget of 2 weeks and 8,000 USD, which they were required to use.
  4. Minimize time spent on useless meetings, status reports and similar.
  5. Plan for slack, so that employees’ time can not be . Software company Menlo Innovations in the US, only let their people budget for 32 hours a week – they know that the rest is spent on planning, training, coordinating, etc.

Of course workplaces need to become more competitive and productive. Of course we must constantly try to do more with the resources we have. But we can’t expect people to become more effective, if they never have time to reflect, plan, learn or try out new ideas. That takes slack.

Your take

Do you have free time at work? Or is every minute filled already? Are people in your workplace rewarded or punished for stopping what they’re doing, so they can figure out a better way to do it?

Write a comment, I’d love to hear your take.

Related posts

Top 10 Reasons why Constant Complaining in the Workplace is so Toxic

Workplace complainers
Years ago when I was still a software developer for a small consulting company in my second job out of university, I had a boss that was… shall we say unpopular. My co-workers and I hated his guts and we complained ceaselessly about him.

It got to the point where we couldn’t start a meeting, have lunch in the cafeteria, or even go out for a beer without spending half an hour complaining about him.

We whined about his attitude, his stupidity, his meddling, his spinelessness … hell, even his dress sense came under fire. But then again, he is the only manager who has ever interviewed me wearing a narrow 80s-style purple, fake-leather tie.

But did we ever tell him? Nooooooo! While we were bitching and moaning to ourselves, he blithely went on as usual because no one ever complained to him. Which might’ve made sense when you think about it…

Looking back, I’m not sure that complaining to him would have worked – I think he was incorrigible – but one thing is for damn sure: Out bitching about it, fun though it may have been, did not improve things one little bit.

Because that kind of chronic complaining, justified or not, in the workplace leads to no good. In fact, in can be downright toxic and can make a department or even a whole company a terrible place to work.

Here’s why constant complaining is so bad:

1: It makes things look worse than they are
When people complain, they focus only on what’s wrong. Things may be mostly fine in the company, but complainers only talk about the problems, annoyances and peeves they perceive.

If things in a company are 80% good and 20% bad and you spend most of your time thinking and talking about the bad 20% – the situation will look a lot worse than it really is.

2: It becomes a habit
The more you complain, the easier it gets. In the end, everything is bad, every situation is a problem, every co-worker is a jerk and nothing is good.

The more you focus on the negative, the harder it gets to switch into a positive mindset.

3: You get what you focus on
According to Wikipedia, Confirmation bias is:

…a tendency to search for or interpret new information in a way that confirms one’s preconceptions and avoid information and interpretations which contradict prior beliefs.

In other words, what you already believe influences your perception of everything around you. That’s why constant complaining makes you see everything in a negative light, because your subconscious mind tries to make new observation fit with what you already know.

4: It leads to onedownmanship
A complaining session might go something like this:

The other day, my boss came in 5 minutes before I was leaving and asked me to finish two huge projects for him. I had to stay two hours and missed my football game.

Yeah, well my boss told me to work this weekend AND the next.

Hah, that’s nothing! My boss…

This type of interaction rewards the person with the worst story who can complain the loudest. Not healthy!

5: It makes people despondent
Not only does constant complaining make you see the workplace as worse than it really is, but because you’re constantly hearing stories of how bad things are and how they’re constantly getting worse it also destroys all hope that things can get better.

This of course makes people less likely to take action to improve their situation, because everybody knows it’s doomed to fail anyway.

6: It kills innovation
Because the situations looks so hopeless, people become less creative and innovative. What’s the point of coming up with ideas and implementing them – it’s never going to work anyway.

Also, chronic complainers are the first to shoot down any new idea.

7: It favors negative people
The way to get status among complainers is to be the most negative. To be the one who sees everything in the most negative light.

Any attempt to be positive or cheerful will be shot down and optimists will be accused of being Pollyanna, naive and unrealistic.

8: It promotes bad relationships
People who complain together unite against the world and can create strong internal relationships based on this. But these relationships are based mostly on negative experiences. That’s not healthy.

It also means that you can only continue to be a part of the group if you can continue to complain, miring you even deeper in a complaint mindset.

9: It creates cliques
Being positive, optimistic and appreciative makes you more open towards other people – no matter who they are. It becomes easy to connect to co-workers in other departments, projects or divisions.

Complaining, on the other hand, makes people gather in cliques with their fellow complainers where they can be critical and suspicious of everybody else.

10: Pessimism is bad for you
Psychologist Martin Seligman showed in his groundbreaking research in positive psychology that people who see the world in a positive light have a long list of advantages, including:

  • They live longer
  • They’re healthier
  • They have more friends and better social lives
  • They enjoy life more
  • They’re more successful at work

We sometimes think that pessimists and complainers have the edge because they see problems sooner but the truth is that optimists not only lead better lives, they’re also more successful because they believe that what they’re doing is going to work.

The upshot

Constant complaining in the workplace is toxic. It can drain the happiness, motivation, creativity and fun from a whole company. Wherever it’s going on it must be addressed and handled properly.

I’m NOT saying that we should never complain at work – quite the contrary. If you see a problem in your workplace, complain to whoever can do something about it.

What we should avoid at all costs, is constant bitching and moaning, where we’re always complaining about the same things, to the same people, in the same way, day in and day out.

So what can we do about it? Well first of all, each of us can learn to complain constructively. This means learning to complain in a way that leads to the problem being fixed – rather than to more complaining. Here’s my post on how you can How to complain constructively.

Secondly, we can learn to deal with the chronic complainers we meet at work. Unfortunately, our traditional strategies like trying to cheer them up or suggesting solutions for their problems don’t work because complainers aren’t looking for encouragement or solutions. Here’s my post on how to deal with chronic complainers.

Finally, you can train your own ability to be positive. Just like complaining can become a habit, so can being appreciative, optimistic and grateful. You could declare today a positive day, you could take a few minutes at the end of every work day to write down five good experiences from that day or you could praise a co-worker.

Try it and let me know how it goes!

Your take

But what do you think? Do you know any chronic complainers at work? What is their impact? How do you complain, when you see a problem?

Please write a comment, I’d really like to know!

Related

Here are some related posts about workplace complaining:

4 exciting research projects from Woohoo Labs

Woohoo Labs logo

We are currently working on 4 R&D projects that we hope will generate new important knowledge about happiness at work.

We are really excited about the results and we’re doing the studies under a fairly rigorous scientific approach. It’s not like we’re expecting any of this to be peer reviewed, but we’re trying really hard to conduct the studies objectively.

Here are the 4 projects.

1: Client impact of our work

We’re doing a quantitative and qualitative analysis of the effect of the work we’ve done for our clients over the last 2 years.

Outcomes:

  • An increased knowledge of the effect of our work.
  • Knowledge of which of our offerings and tools work best.
  • Information to have even more of an impact in the future.

2: Analysis of our happiness surveys

Some years ago we developed an informal happiness at work survey that we’ve been using with some of our clients, mostly in Denmark. In all, the survey has been taken 15,000 times, giving us some cool data to crunch.

Outcomes:

  • A benchmark for happiness at work across Danish workplaces.
  • Statistics on which of 9 different factors (like co-workers, managers, praise, etc) correlate most with happiness at work.
  • A wealth of other statistics like happiness levels in private vs. public workplaces, big or small workplaces or even how happiness changes over the year or during the week.

HeartCount – measuring happiness at work

We’re beta testing a new team-based way to measure happiness at work where team members answer 3 simple questions weekly. It’s called HeartCount and you can read all about it here.

Outcomes:

  • Testing a method to give teams useful real-time feedback on how the team is feeling.
  • Does that feedback itself influence team happiness?
  • Can you keep the team engaged in the survey and response rates high?

Intervention study on happiness at work

What actually makes a team happier? We are testing the effect of 4 different fairly small interventions on 1,200 people in 70 teams from different Danish workplaces. We’ll be measuring team happiness before the study, then each team gets a simple happiness tool which they use for 4 weeks. We measure happiness again after 2 weeks and also after 4 weeks.

Main question we’re trying to answer:

Outcomes:

  • Can you increase a team’s happiness with fairly small interventions.
  • Which interventions actually end up being used.
  • Which interventions have an effect an how much.

All of this is very much a new direction for us. We’ve been using other peoples’ studies for ages so we thought it was about time for us to contribute some research of our own.

Got any questions or suggestions? Write a comment – we’d love to hear what you think.

The slide.

Join us for our first ever webinar. The topic: What really makes us happy at work.

200 people have signed up already. Want to join us? Sign up below.

Companies have tried many different tricks to make their employees happier. Raises, bonus schemes, promotions, foosball tables, lavish lunches, gyms, massages – even slides and live piano players in the employee cafeteria.

But it turns out those things are not even remotely connected to happiness at work. In fact, in many cases they become distractions that keep workplaces from doing the things that really matter.

So if your workplace has some (or all) of the above and people are still not happy, engaged and motivated, this webinar can tell you what’s gone wrong and what to do instead.

Join us on Thursday September 25 if you’d like to learn about:

  • What it actually is that makes employees happy at work (it’s not what you think).
  • Why raises, bonuses and promotions do not cause happiness – but can absolutely cause unhappiness.
  • What the science of happiness (also known as positive psychology) says and how it can be applied in the workplace.
  • The one question almost every company forgets to ask about happiness at work.
  • Specific examples of what a workplace can do that actually works and does make its people happier.
  • What you yourself can do, to become happier at work.

The webinar will be short (only 30 minutes)  and punchy. We will get to the point quickly and leave you with new information and tools you can actually use.

Date and time: Thursday September 25 at noon US East coast time / 9am pacific time / 5pm GMT / 6pm Central European time.

The webinar will be held live on our youtube channel, so there is no login needed and no software to install. If you can watch youtube, you can join. There will be a chance to ask questions via chat.

And best of all, it’s free :)

We will also make the video and slides freely available afterwards.

Sign up here – all fields must be filled out:

Signup for the webinar






Helping and happiness

There’s an excellent article in HBR about The Culture of Helping at US innovation agency IDEO by Teresa Amabile (whose work we already love around here)  Colin M. Fisher, and Julianna Pillemer.

The authors raises some issues around helping behavior and point out that helping co-workers may not come naturally:

Helpfulness must be actively nurtured in organizations, however, because it does not arise automatically among colleagues. Individuals in social groups experience conflicting impulses: As potential helpers, they may also be inclined to compete. As potential help seekers, they may also take pride in going it alone, or be distrustful of those whose assistance they could use. On both sides, help requires a commitment of time for uncertain returns and can seem like more trouble than it’s worth. Through their structures and incentives, organizations may, however unwittingly, compound the reluctance to provide or seek help.

In their study, they looked at what mattered most:

In our survey of the entire office population, people were asked to click on the names of all those who helped them in their work and to rank their top five helpers from first to fifth. (See the exhibit “What Makes an IDEO Colleague Most Helpful?”) Then they were asked to rate their number one helper, their number five helper, and a randomly suggested “nonhelper” (someone whose name they hadn’t selected) on several items. Those items assessed three characteristics: competence (how well the person did his or her job); trust (how comfortable the respondent was sharing thoughts and feelings with the person); and accessibility (how easily the respondent could obtain help from the person).

The kicker:

Trust and accessibility mattered much more than competence.

When looking for help, people don’t necessarily go to the smartest colleague but to the one they trust the most and have easy access to.

All in all, the article is a fascinating look into an organization that has succeeded in creating a culture where asking for and offering help is a natural part of the culture.

Go read the whole thing – it’s excellent (free to read, registration required).

I believe that a culture of helping is essential for creating a happy workplace because everything is easier, if you know you’re not alone and you can get help when you’re stuck.

Also, I believe that the desire to help others is much more common in happy workplaces. We know from several studies, that happy people are less selfish and more helpful towards others.

Another excellent example is New York-based Next Jump who make software for employee engagement programs. They transitioned their internal employee awards, so they no longer go to the best or most skilled employees, but to the ones who help others succeed the most:

Helping at NextJump

In short, I believe that a culture of helping is both a tool to create a happier workplace and an indicator of workplace happiness.