Read my brand new book:
Happy Hour is 9 to 5
Learn How To Love Your Job, Love Your Life and Kick Butt at Work
By Chief Happiness Officer Alexander Kjerulf
Who is responsible for happiness at work?
Helle Schier, a soft-spoken, engaging woman in her mid-20s was excited. She’d just graduated from nursing school, and had already gotten her first job as a nurse at Odense University Hospital.
But when she told a friend that she was going to work at H4, a children’s ward, her friend’s reaction was “Oh! I’m not sure if I should congratulate you.” It turned out that H4 had quite a reputation. The nurses rarely helped each other out. The doctors disliked the nurses and the feeling was very much mutual. The nurses disliked the administrative staff, who in turn didn’t feel that their work was appreciated. It was not a happy place to work.
Helle still started working there with a positive attitude, but was soon forced to agree: It was a horrible place, and working there was getting her down. She didn’t like her job at all, didn’t feel productive, and started to question whether being a nurse was right for her at all.
But Helle wouldn’t put up with it and she wouldn’t quit. She decided she would do something about it.
Whose job is it to make you happy at work? Your manager? Your co-workers? The company? Society?
Here’s the truth: The ultimate responsibility for your happiness at work can only lie with you, for three simple reasons:
The manager’s responsibility
You might wonder what, if anything, existential philosophers like Sartre, Camus and Heidegger can teach us about modern business. The excellent book Freedom and Accountability at Work by Peter Koestenbaum and Peter Block shows us that their knowledge is still relevant. This quote from the book talks about motivation, but the same point applies to happiness at work:
We currently act as if people are not inherently motivated, rather that they go to work each day and wait for someone else to light their fire. This belief is common among managers and employees alike…
And this belief is fundamentally wrong. We can’t go to work and expect others to light our fire. It just doesn’t work that way. The fire is inside you—the only person who can light it or douse it is you!
But wait just a minute! Isn't it a boss' responsibility to
make the employees happy at work?! After all, if the boss is
To be sure, your manager has a huge influence on your happiness at work, but the ultimate responsibility is yours. Managers have three responsibilities when it comes to happiness at work. They are:
As a manager, your most important responsibility is to make yourself happy at work. A happy leader is a natural role model for their employees, and spreads a good mood by their very nature. An unhappy leader, no matter how well-meaning, can’t reliably create that atmosphere of happiness that is necessary to allow people to do their best work.
Secondly, managers must know and care about their people. You can’t lead people without a sincere interest in them and some detailed knowledge about them. How happy are they at work right now? What makes them happy or unhappy? What are their goals and dreams? Good managers know this about all their people.
Finally, good managers use this knowledge to create an environment in which it’s easy to be happy. Whether or not employees take this opportunity is up to them. You can’t force people to be happy, as we saw back in Chapter 1.
Obviously some managers fail completely at this, and instead manage to create atmospheres of mistrust, apathy, desperation and cut-throat competition. These managers are failing in their responsibility to happiness at work.
Other managers create a mood of happiness, positivity, openness and teamwork, and still find that some employees remain unhappy. That is not the manager’s responsibility, and it never can be.
We’ll look more at how managers can make their people happy at work in Chapter 10.
The company’s responsibility
I once talked to a group of employees from one of Denmark’s largest companies, one which is known as a very good employer. There’s almost no limit to what they will do for their employees, including on-site gyms, good food, education, fresh fruit and much, much more.
But this group had a serious beef and were not satisfied. “Why,” they wanted to know, “does the company Christmas present to the employees always contain red wine. Some of us prefer white you know!”
Top management’s responsibility is to enable managers to create an atmosphere where it’s easy to be happy at work. But as the above story shows, no matter how well you do, you can’t force people to be happy—that is still their own responsibility.
The company has a responsibility to prioritize, value and reward happiness at work. It’s no use for a company to say, “We want people to be happy at work,” and then turn around and reward massive overwork, ruthlessness and a traditional authoritarian management style.
Here’s how not to do it. Tom Markert, the global chief marketing and client service officer at ACNielsen, says this in his horrible book You Can’t Win a Fight With Your Boss:
You can forget lunch breaks. You can’t make money for a company while you’re eating lunch... if you don’t put in the hours, someone just as smart and clever as you will. Fact of life: the strong survive.
[If you ignore this] you might just end up as roadkill—lying dead by the side of the corporate highway as others drive right past you.
I have always made a habit of walking around early and late to personally see who’s pumping it out. If they are getting results and working harder than everyone else, I promote them.
Remind me never to go work for that guy!
This hardball approach is tough and testosterone-fueled—and ultimately a failure. Managers who take this attitude are actively creating an atmosphere of stress, overwork and competition. This is bad for people and bad for business.
Here’s how you do it instead:
I began working at my organization about a month ago and during my first “get to know my staff” meeting I informed everyone that I would prefer they work no more than 40 hours per week and that everyone take a full hour lunch.
We had a big meeting last week where I asked everyone to write all their tasks on post-it notes and hang them according to a three-point scale: 1—hate it, 2—it’s OK, 3—love it! After rearranging tasks to be better suited for their career desires people were getting things done more quickly and leaving on time.
The productivity of my team has sky-rocketed lately. People come in at 8 a.m. ready to work and excited to bring ideas to me. We all leave at 5 p.m. now as often as possible (4 out of 5 days usually) and the rest of the office seems miffed that we can “get away with it”. However, with priorities realigned, people more energized about their work, and people with more time to appreciate friends and family, our work is reaching a higher caliber and output is actually increasing.
—Comment from Sarah Schroeder, a non-profit professional in Chicago, on positivesharing.com
Note especially that Sarah’s people get more work done even though they work less hours.
The co-workers’ responsibility
Helle got together with three other nurses from H4, all fresh out of nursing school, and they decided to do something about making their ward happy. They talked to the head nurse and got her to give them a day off in which to cook up some ideas. What they came up with was simple. First, a summer party for the staff at H4. Nothing fancy, just a garden barbecue and some silly hats. This let people met each other outside of work and established some positive personal relations.
Next they focused on praise. They’d heard about Kjaer Group and their Order of the Elephant. The nurses copied this, and bought a small elephant plush toy that they could pin to their uniforms. Whenever a co-worker deserves praise, that person is awarded the elephant, and they write in a journal what that person did to earn it. The journal contains entries like these:
“It makes a great difference whether Vibeke is at work or not. She makes sure everything is tidy in the office, which is a huge help for us nurses.”
“It’s difficult to pick one person to give the elephant to, but I’m giving it to Nina, because she is always calm, even in stressful situations, and because she is so competent.”
“I think everybody at H4 deserves an elephant, but today I’m giving it to Joan because she’s so great at playing with the children, big and small.”
This worked really well, and soon people started noticing a difference at H4. The doctors, the nurses, the head nurse, and especially the children in the ward and their families.
Your co-workers are not responsible for your happiness at work either, and thinking “I’ll be happy at work as soon as Susan stops talking loudly on the phone, John stops always criticizing people and Martin stops gossiping,” will get you nowhere.
You and your co-workers have a responsibility to work together to create an atmosphere in which it’s easy to be happy at work. Whether people choose to be happy in that atmosphere is their own responsibility.
As a result of the simple things Helle and her co-workers did, H4 is now a happy place to work, and the four nurses who got the ball rolling are teaching other departments at the hospital how to do the same. They’re known inside and outside of H4 as “the happy girls”.
The nurses are feeling a difference. The doctors have noticed it. And the children admitted to ward and their parents have noticed a huge difference in the mood and the quality of the care given.
Here are your fundamental responsibilities around happiness at work:
As long as you sit on your butt waiting for your colleagues, manager and company to make you happy, nothing will happen. Things will start to improve only when you choose to act.
Take action and you can make a huge difference for yourself and others. The story from the H4 ward shows that it doesn’t take huge resources, management backup, outside consultants or a lot of time. All it takes is a willingness to take responsibility and do something about it.
This doesn’t mean that you have to go it alone. Like Helle, get other people excited about happiness at work. This makes it much easier.
But don’t wait for others to do it for you. As Jerry Garcia of The Grateful Dead put it:
Somebody has to do something, and it’s just incredibly pathetic that it has to be us.
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