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Natural and Synthetic happiness at work – Here’s why you need both

This article was written byTais Lyager Rasmussen and Woohoo inc’s newest employee Thomas Christensen .

What do you do when you do not get the happiness you wanted? You make it yourself!

As a child growing up, you quickly learn that you do not always get what you want. This is pretty much a fact of life. You wanted the red electronic toy car but instead you got told to use your imagination and go play outside. Your favorite band is playing tomorrow night – sorry, you have to work late.

Everyone experiences these kinds of situations and everyone hates them. When life fails to match your expectations, for whatever reason, a gap is created between the expectations of your life and the realities of your life.  Obviously, this makes you unhappy, life was revealed to be less than you thought it was. But is this always the case? Research has shown that our ability to cope with unfavorable situations is greater than previously thought – because of a mechanism called synthetic happiness. Synthetic happiness is a form of personal psychological happiness.

According to Professor of Psychology at Harvard University Dan Gilbert there exist two different kinds of psychological happiness, the natural kind and the synthetic kind. Gilbert explains that: “Natural happiness is what we get when we get what we wanted, and synthetic happiness is what we make when we don’t get what we wanted”. Hang on; is happiness not just the result of getting what you want? Surely it is not something you can just make up yourself. People that say that they are happier about the outcome they did not want are just fooling themselves, right? Well it turns out that it is actually possible to create your own happiness, called synthetic happiness, and that this form of happiness is equally as good as natural happiness.

The name “synthetic” carries with it some associations that are less than ideal.  A more fitting name would be personal happiness, because the internal validation that adds value to a choice you have already made is just that, internal and personal.

Dan Gilbert’s fascinating experiment

Gilbert did an experiment with individuals suffering from anterograde amnesia, a condition making it impossible for them to acquire new memories – think of the movies “50-first dates” or “Memento”. Gilbert approached these individuals and asked them to rank 6 paintings from the one they liked the most to the one they liked the least.

The idea of synthetic happiness

Gilbert explained that they would receive a poster of one of the paintings. They could choose between number 3 and 4. Almost all individuals chose number 3, because they liked it a little more than number 4. Gilbert then went out of the room and came back moments later. Since these individuals have anterograde amnesia they could not remember who he was, that he was just in the room or that they owned a poster of painting number 3. He asked them to rank the 6 paintings from the one they liked the most to the one they liked the least. Surely they would rank the paintings in the same general order?

Actually, individuals now ranked the poster they owned at number 2 (previously ranked 3) and the poster they had said no to (previously number 4) was now ranked number 5. Indicating that these individuals liked the poster they now own more than before they owned it, even when they do not remember that they own it!

They also like the poster they gave up less, even when they do not remember that they gave it up!

These startling results indicate that not only can individuals make their own synthetic happiness but they do this unconsciously. Gilbert also found that this unconscious ability to synthesize happiness happens more often in situations where you do not have a say in the matter.

Dan Gilbert talks about the experiment in this TED talk:

4 reasons why this is important when thinking about happiness at work

Before going into the 4 points, a crucial observation must be made. In the experiment presented above, the choice of the pictures is presented in a low risk environment. There are no wrong choices, and no one to criticize their choice once it is made. Obviously this situation does not reflect the reality of most peoples lives. Rather than considering this to be just a criticism, it would be much more prudent to consider it an argument for fostering a low risk environment, so people are less likely to second guess themselves, because it is okay to be wrong.

1: A happy life is not always about getting what you want. It is about learning to enjoy what you get.

While this might read like “Don’t worry – be happy”, Gilbert’s experiment allows us to dig a little deeper. When your boss hands you a crappy assignment it is possible to end up feeling genuine personal happiness. Even if you have no choice in accepting the assignment or not because of #2.

2: Synthetic happiness is not “cheating” yourself to happier. The experiment with the amnesiac patients demonstrates that the happiness created by themselves is true and genuine.

The idea of “Synthetic” happiness sounds like you are somehow cheating. How can you be happy when your life does not match up to expectations, or the expectations of others. Thinking of “synthetic” happiness as  “personal” or “private” happiness is a much better metaphor. If you find yourself enjoying the crappy assignment your boss gave you, do not think of it as cheating or selling out.  Do not worry, it is allowed to enjoy things you did not choose.

3: Natural happiness primarily relies on external factors whereas Synthetic happiness primarily relies on internal factors. As such, Synthetic happiness can be a more long-term, stable form of happiness than natural happiness.

If you have to rely on always getting what you want to be happy there is a good chance that you will be unhappy, since life is unpredictable. Happiness derived from learning to live with any outcome is much more stable in that it is applicable to every outcome and not only those where you obtain what you want.

4: General happiness in life comes from the relationship between Natural happiness and Synthetic happiness.

This is probably the most important point. The idea of synthetic or personal happiness is not to suggest that you should be less involved in your decisions or just go with the flow. There is absolutely a time and place to stand your ground. The idea behind the division of happiness is to be more reflective of the idea of happiness. If you know that you can be happy from getting what you want but also from not getting what you want, it will take some of the pressure off on always having to achieve. Enjoying something you were told to do without feeling shameful, or like a quitter, has to go hand in hand with the ability to proactively seek out what you want. This is going to take a lot of practice. Thinking of happiness in these two metaphors can be really difficult, but ultimately rewarding. Having a sense of “personal” happiness that is removed from external factors requires discipline and practice, but it will lead to a happier life.

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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 tasks and work, 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’ work week can not be booked 100%. 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.

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5 Ways Positive Thinking Makes Us Miserable at Work

One German IT company has come up with the perfect solution to whining in the workplace – it’s made cheerfulness a contractual obligation. What’s more, the CEO has declared that those who don’t measure up to the prescribed level of jollity in the morning should stay at home until they cheer up.

The idea of positive thinking (and therefore banning negativity) is not new, but is affecting us now more than ever – at home and at work. And ironically, its effects are mostly negative. Yes, forced positive thinking makes us less happy.

Positive thinking is a poorly defined concept which at its most extreme says, that in every situation you can choose your own mood and your own reactions. No matter what happens to you, you can always choose a positive attitude.

“Fake it till you make it,” they say, claiming that faking happiness actually makes you happier. Basically, if you don’t feel happy every moment of your life, it’s just your own damn fault for not trying hard enough.

Now, this idea is not completely unfounded. In many situations, you can actually change your mood and outlook through conscious effort. Let’s say you’re stuck in traffic on your way to work. In a situation like that you can probably change your mindset and switch from being annoyed about the delay to a more positive interpretation of the situation. “Great, I have more time to listen to this interesting radio program,” or whatever. Nothing wrong with that.

But the most fanatic proponents of positive thinking (especially fans of The Secret and similar pseudo-scientific nonsense) go much further. They claim that you can always change your thinking in any situation, and that external circumstances don’t matter. No matter what situation you’re in, they say, you can simply choose to be happy.

Tell that to someone who’s seriously ill, who’s just been fired or who is suffering from severe depression. Actually, you should never tell them that, because telling someone in a really rough life situation that they should think more positively is incredibly condescending and a terrible way to trivialize their pain.

You could say I positively hate positive thinking :)

There is nothing wrong with the milder form of positive thinking, but the extreme version is bad for you in life and at work. Here are 5 ways positive thinking screws up our workplaces.

1: Faking emotions at work is stressful

German researchers set up an experiment to test what happens, when we force people to fake being happy at work:

The team set up a fake railway customer complaints call centre and asked 80 university students to take part in experiments while acting as staff. Half of the group were told that they could verbally defend themselves against rude customers, but the other half has to remain friendly and polite at all times.

The volunteers’ heart rates were measured and preliminary results showed that the group that was allowed to verbally defend themselves had only a slightly increased heart rate. But the heart rates of the group who stayed polite shot up and continued to beat at a noticeably greater rate long after they had ended their telephone calls.

Professor Zapf said, “Based on previous stress research, we know an increased heart rate can lead to cardiovascular problems and is a clear indicator of a higher psychological workload. It’s about time we did away with the concept that the customer is always right and showed more respect for those in customer service jobs.”

“We call this kind of faked emotion ‘emotional dissonance.’ We found that the amount of time actually spent with customers was irrelevant when measuring stress compared to the amount of time workers had to demonstrate emotional dissonance.”

So faking happiness actually makes you less happy and more stressed.

2: Positive thinking makes it even worse for people who are unhappy at work

According to the extreme version of positive thinking, if you’re unhappy at work, you’ve only got yourself to blame. It may be that your boss is a jerk, your coworkers bully you and the culture is completely toxic – you should just “have a positive attitude” and “make the best of it”.

So not only are you miserable, but now it’s all your fault. That makes things even worse.

3: Negative emotions are a natural part of work

Here’s a story I once shared from my previous career in IT consulting:

I had a big client in France who couldn’t make up their mind. In every single meeting, the customer changes the specs for the system. First they want this, then they want that. First they want it this way, then that way. Meanwhile, I’m quietly going crazy.

Finally, I lose it in a meeting. They introduce change number 283 (by my loose count), once again going back on what they’ve told me previously, and I snap. I actually pound the table with my fist, snap my folder shut and say through clenched teeth “No. This can’t go on. This system will never get off the ground if you keep changing your mind at every meeting. We need to make decisions and stick to them”.

In this situation I felt AND showed anger – a negative emotion. I could’ve forced myself to be positive in that situation, but it would have been a betrayal of my work and myself and it would have felt even worse. Not only was authentic by being angry, that outburst finally got the client to respect me.

The thing to remember is that negative emotions are not called that because they’re wrong, but simply because they’re unpleasant. Sometimes a negative emotion is exactly the right emotion and if you’re always forcing yourself to be positive you’re being both less authentic and less effective.

When your circumstances are bad, there is nothing wrong with being unhappy; it is only natural. In fact, negative emotions tend to drive us to action more than positive ones, so feeling bad about a bad situations helps you do something about it.

4: Positive thinking can contribute to quelling dissent and ignoring problems in the workplace

Ever heard someone say “In this workplace we don’t have problems, only challenges”?

I hate that phrase with a vengeance, partly because it’s wrong but mostly because it’s so often used to stifle dissent and criticism.

No workplace is perfect. No job is without problems.  If we consistently marginalize and criticize people who are unhappy at work by telling them to be positive and never complain, we lose some very valuable voices of reason and realism in the workplace.

5: It doesn’t work

This excellent article from HBR examines the science behind positive thinking and concludes that:

across dozens of peer-reviewed studies examining the effects of positive visions of the future on people pursuing various kinds of wishes — from health-related, such as losing weight, quitting smoking, or recovering quickly from surgery, to the improvement of professional or academic performance (for example, mid-level managers wishing to reduce job-related stress, graduate students looking for a job, or school children seeking to get good grades) — we’ve consistently found that people who positively fantasize make either the same or less progress in achieving attainable wishes than those who don’t.

So let’s give negativity it’s central place in the workplace – as a perfectly natural, even helpful, state of mind. And that, ironically, will lead to more happiness at work!

Your take

Have you ever felt pressured to be happy at work when you weren’t? What did that do to you? What constructive role do you see negativity play at work? Write a comment, I’d love to hear your take.

A quick note: One thing that often bugs me is that some people confuse positive thinking with positive psychology. We base a lot of our work on positive psychology which is the branch of psychology that studies what makes people thrive and feel happy, where traditional psychology focuses mostly on mental illness. The only thing they have in common is the word “positive”.

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What do you do when there’s just too much work?


Last year I did a workshop for a client in Copenhagen whose main problem was that they were just way too busy. They’re a trade union and new legislation meant that they got an influx of new government-mandated tasks but budget constraints meant they couldn’t hire more people.

Consequently they were increasingly falling behind on their work, through no fault of their own. They have an internal IT system that tracks every open case and they were currently 3,000 cases behind.

Even though this was due to circumstances outside of  their control, knowing that they were behind made everybody stressed and irritable. They also felt a responsibility towards their members – every delayed case meant that one of their union members was waiting for an important answer or potentially weren’t being paid money they were owed.

This situation is becoming familiar in many workplaces where there is simply more work than resources. Typically management will bombard employees with information showing the current lag, which only serves to make people frustrated and unhappy at work.

So what can you do instead? Here’s what we did in our workshop with this client.

I pointed out the fact that they were currently behind by 3,000 cases. Everybody had heard that number - it had been sent out en emails and mentioned in countless meetings. I then gave the group 30 post-its notes and told them that each post-it represented 100 open cases.

I asked them to stick those post-its on the wall. It looked like this:


I asked how looking at that made them feel and they said things like “I feel hopeless,” “I feel like we’re failing our members,” and “I don’t see how we can ever catch up.”

Then I gave them 900 more post-it notes and asked the group to stick them on the wall next to that. It looked like this:


I told them that I’d checked their IT system, and in the last 12 months they had completed 90,000 cases. Each post-it represents 100 cases – hence 900 post-its.

I asked how they felt looking at this and they said things like “I feel proud,” “I feel like we’re making a difference,” and “I feel hopeful.”

Interestingly, the year before that they’d processed 73,000 cases so they had actually become much more productive, but had never focused on that. Instead their focus was only ever on how much they were falling behind.

This gave them renewed energy to tackle their increased case load. They also came up with their own way to track progress, using a whiteboard in their cafeteria:


They use it to track monthly completed cases. They’d set a goal for March of 1,000 cases – and reached  it on March 17th. Note how they had to extend the scale upward with a piece of paper because they completed much more work than planned.

In short, focusing on the work they completed (instead of how much they were falling behind) allowed them to catch up over a period of a few months.

Sadly, many workplaces do the exact opposite. When teams fall behind, they are constantly told exactly how much. I’ve seen workplaces send out weekly emails with red graphs showing the current lag. I’ve seen the same graphs hanging in offices, cafeterias and being presented in every department meeting.

The problem is of course that this makes employees frustrated, hopeless and unhappy. The work of Harvard professor Teresa Amabile has shown that the most important factor that makes us happy at work is perceived meaningful progress in our work and that the absence of progress makes us unhappy.

And of course we know from the research that happy employees are more productive, creative and resilient.

In short, this means that most workplaces set up a vicious cycle:

  1. There’s too much work compared to the available resources
  2. Employees are constantly told that they’re falling behind
  3. Employees become unhappy at work
  4. Employees become less productive
  5. Less work gets done
  6. Back to 1

So that’s my challenge to your workplace: How can you highlight and celebrate the work that gets done, instead of only feeling bad over the work that’s not yet completed?

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Top 10 Reasons Why Job Satisfaction Surveys Are a Waste of Time

I’ve been with my current company for 9 years, and our “engagement score” just hit an all time high in a year when I have heard more employee concerns about the company than ever before.

Over the last five years, I have personally seen a combination of rewriting survey questions and “teaching to the test” that I believe solely explains the reason for the current score that clearly doesn’t match reality.

Comment on a previous post

Staff satisfaction surveys… many people mistrust and dislike them and yet most workplaces have them.

Conducting, analyzing and acting on these types of surveys can take up a lot of time and money and I suspect that they are just not worth it. I’ve rarely seen job satisfaction surveys have much of a positive impact on a company.

I suspect that the typical approach used by most companies is fundamentally flawed. Here are the the top 10 problems I see with staff satisfaction surveys.

1: They have too many questions (and the wrong questions)

A client sent me their annual job satisfaction survey recently. It had 138 question (I’m not even kidding) and among them were gems like:

  • How satisfied are you with the lighting at your workstation?
  • How satisfied are you with the temperature in the workplace?
  • Do you experience any problems with noise in the office?

Surveys can have upwards of 100 questions and consequently take a long time to complete. I have visited several workplaces where employees complain from “survey fatigue.”

2: They’re conducted too rarely

Typically, staff satisfaction surveys are done annually which means that there can be a huge lag from when an issue arises in the workplace until it’s discovered and addressed.

As a tool for improving workplace conditions and employee happiness, this makes them nearly useless.

3: They measure satisfaction not happiness

One major flaw is that these surveys don’t actually measure how happy people are at work – they measure job satisfaction. While happiness and satisfaction are certainly related concepts, they are not the same thing.

Basically, job satisfaction is what you think about your job. When you weigh all the pros and cons, what do you think about your job? It’s a rational judgement.

Happiness at work is how you feel about your job. When you are at work, do you mostly experience positive emotions (pride, happiness, gratitude, etc) or mostly negative emotions (anger, frustration, sadness, etc).

Of the two, happiness is by far the most important and the most relevant, because happiness more than satisfaction affects employees’ job performance, health and general well-being.

4: Too much time passes from survey to results

Here’s how it may go in many workplaces:

  • April: The survey comes out
  • May: Results are due
  • August: Results become available
  • September: Departments and teams start following up on results

In many cases months  pass from when employees fill out the survey until they see the results. By that time, no one remembers the survey questions any more and the results will most likely be outdated before people ever see them.

This is the age of instant gratification and instant data, so why the huge lag between survey and results?

5: Survey creates an expectation of change – then nothing happens

I have never seen any step taken based on job satisfaction survey.

Previous comment on the blog

I recently talked to a client that conducts an annual job satisfaction survey. They told me that every year for the last 5 years, the same handful of teams in this company have scored very low on the survey. Everyone knows why: The managers of these teams are bad managers. And yet, nothing has been done about it and these teams continue to be miserable.

Asking employees about their situation creates an expectation that the workplace will act on the survey results. Why conduct the survey, if the workplace doesn’t act on the results?

And yet, survey results often aren’t acted upon, leaving employees with the (often correct) impression that this is a sham process and that the company wants to create the illusion that it cares, when really it doesn’t.

6: No perceived value for employees

All of this means that responding to the survey becomes a chore for employees who can’t see the value of the survey and have no expectation that it will improve conditions in any way.

This again leads to very low response rates in many workplaces which is no wonder. Why should they waste time filling it out, if they can’t see the value?

7: Negative focus

I gave a keynote at a bank recently and just before I went on stage, an HR consultant presented the results of their latest employee satisfaction survey.

While their overall results were quite OK, he spent 95% of his presentation talking about the areas where the scores were low compared to other banks or where they had fallen since the last survey.

Looking at the numbers, I could see several areas where results were really good, but zero time was spent examining what those areas were and what the company was doing right. Also, while some teams were clearly much happier than others, they got no attention – all the focus was on the lowest scoring teams.

Of course a survey should be used to pinpoint problems so they can be fixed, but if that’s all it’s used for the company misses a huge opportunity to identify best practices and spread them by learning from the best performing areas and teams.

8: Cooking the books

I worked for a bank for many years that used annual Gallup surveys. As a member of management, it was my job to inform the employees about the questions they would be asked pertaining to their satisfaction with their jobs, co-workers, management, and the company’s values.

It was drilled down to me that these marks needed to be the highest (10 out of 10) in all categories to ensure maximum “satisfaction.” In actuality, if you had worked for the company long enough to take a second survey, you knew that you’d better just put a 10 to avoid the drawn out action planning after the branch results were reviewed.

Previous comment on the blog

I recently heard of a company that wanted to do really well on the Great Place to Work national rankings, which are determined in part by a satisfaction survey among employees. So before the survey ran, management sent out an email to everyone saying how important it was for the company to score well and how it would really help their image and business results. But, hey, no pressure!

I have seen several ways that management can influence the survey results. In some companies, results are not presented to the whole company, before HR and top management have had a chance to see them first and remove any results that are deemed too “explosive” or bad for the corporate image.

9: Little trust in anonymity

Apparently the director of my particular group was unhappy with her ratings. A week after the results were shared, she called an urgent meeting with our entire team, where each of us had to go up to the whiteboard and write down the areas we had ranked highest and lowest.

So much for anonymity — and the credibility of the survey.

Previous comment on the blog

While these surveys are supposedly anonymous to allow employees to be brutally honest, many people don’t trust that. In a recent survey we did, 40% of respondents didn’t trust the anonymity of job satisfaction surveys in their company.

10: No local ownership

The survey is “owned” by either the whole company or HR. Individual departments have no say in how or when the survey runs.

That way there is no local ownership over the process or the results that come out of it and therefore much less incentive to act on the results.

The upshot

So if job satisfaction surveys are so useless, why does everybody do them? I believe there are three main reasons:

  1. Everybody does them because everybody else does them. It’s become one of those standards that every company feels they should have.
  2. It’s an alibi – it let’s workplaces say they do something to improve conditions for workers even if it’s not very effective.
  3. They’re easy to sign off on. Companies just forget that there’s much more to it, than just sending out surveys.

So what to do instead? I would suggest a process that reverses each of the 10 problems above. Some way of surveying employees that lives up to this:

  1. Very few questions
  2. Is conducted often
  3. Measures happiness, not satisfaction
  4. Results are available instantly
  5. Results lead to action
  6. Clear value for employees
  7. Focuses on the negative AND the positive
  8. There is no way to cook the numbers
  9. Anonymity is guaranteed
  10. Survey is owned and controlled by each department

It wouldn’t even have to be electronic. Some companies measure workplace happiness with tennis balls and buckets.

And mostly we can do one thing: We can talk. We can create forums where employees and managers can have an actual dialogue about the current state of the workplace. This will always trump a survey, no matter how good it may be.

Your take

Would you agree with me  or do you think job satisfactions are worth the effort? What does it take for them to actually work and improve conditions for employees? Please write a comment, I’d love to hear your take on this.

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Kill the suggestion box – there’s a much better way

Almost every company talks about empowering their employees, but few actually do it an any meaningful way. In many cases it becomes a sham process, where employees are encouraged to voice their opinions and those opinions are then promptly ignored.

And the best (or is that worst) symbol of fake empowerment is the suggestion box. Many workplaces have one hanging on a wall somewhere. You can stick in your idea, but then what? Who (if anyone) will read it? Will it ever be acted upon? If not, why not? If it is, who will take credit?

It’s time to kill off the suggestions box and the coolest way I’ve seen to do this comes from marketing agency Quirk based in Cape Town, Johannesburg and the UK.

They have created a process that let’s anyone in the company suggest ideas, gather support for them and then have them implemented (or not). When I visited their Cape Town HQ I had a chance to see it for myself, and I think every workplace who wants to give their employees a voice should do something similar.

This flowchart shows how it works:
Flow Chart

The first step is to post your idea to a board that hangs in a prominent spot in the office and get 12 of your coworkers to also sign on. If you like an idea, you show your support in a very low-tech way: you put a sticker on it.

Overall Board

Some ideas die at this stage – there’s just not enough energy or support behind the proposal. All ideas that don’t make it for one reason or another are displayed in The Graveyard:

Grave Yard

Here you can see each idea that failed and why.

If an idea does get the necessary support, the person behind it writes a one-page proposal which is then submitted to Quirk’s EXCO, which is basically their top leadership team.

If they approve it, the idea goes ahead immediately and is placed on the “Ideas in motion” section of the board:

Ideas In Motion

Ideas that were previously approved are shown on the “It’s happening” section.

It's Happening!

Of course, the leadership group can turn the idea down, and if they do, they must carefully explain why they don’t think it’s a good idea. They can’t just say “No” or “Maybe later.”

But as you can see from the flow chart above, even if the leadership group turns an idea down, that need not be the end of it. If a person feels that this idea is still to good to ignore, it can be put to a debate and subsequent vote inside the company. If the idea is voted through, this overrides the EXCO’s decision and the idea goes ahead anyway.

Another thing they do on the board is highlight the costs of previous ideas, so employees know how much things end up costing.

Parking Lot

I think this process is absolutely brilliant for 5 reasons:

1: It’s visual
It’s not just a bunch of documents or lines in a spreadsheet – this is highly visual which gives you a great overview. It’s also well-designed and looks pretty, which probably helps a little too.

2: It’s low-tech
This could also be done on the intranet or in an app, but I kinda like that it’s on paper and cork board and you vote with stickers. This also makes it very flexible. Also, a page or an app is on demand – that means that people need to be proactive to access their democracy (and apathy is a killer). This board is a sort of dynamic wallpaper – it sits in front of your eyes while you butter your toast in the kitchen – you can be as passive as you like – the democracy comes to you.

3: It’s fast
The process is fast. The leadership group have committed to addressing each idea at their next meeting and this means that ideas can get acted on while the energy is still there.

4: It has memory
The board is a great record of previous failed ideas (so you don’t have to deal with the same proposals once every 6 months from different people and it also highlights ideas that were implemented, so you can see that this actually works.

5: It’s transparent
This takes most of the politics out of these ideas. Getting your idea implemented is not about who you know or how well you can lobby for it, it’s about gaining support for good suggestions.

There is zero doubt that autonomy and control over our own situation makes us happy. The more we can meaningfully contribute to things we care about at work, the prouder and happier we feel. And that way the company can also better tap into the creativity of its employees and become more efficient.

So simply put:

Fake empowerment = frustration and cynicism.

Real empowerment = trust and happiness.

Your take

Does your workplace empower its employees? For real or in a fake way? If you have a really good idea, do you know where to go with it?

Related posts

Photo credits: The awesome picture above of the suggestion box is from a train station in Moshi, Tanzania and was originally shown here. All other photos are courtesy of Quirk.

Our 10 most popular articles ever

The articles on this blog have been viewed more than 10,000,000 times. I can hardly believe it. Here are the 10 most popular of all time.

10: Top 5 reasons why “The Customer is Always Right” is wrong
The phrase “The customer is always right” was originally coined by Harry Gordon Selfridge, the founder of Selfridge’s department store in London in 1909. Ironically it often leads to unhappy employees and bad customer service. Here are the top five reasons why “The customer is always right” is wrong.

9: Ten seeeeeeriously cool workplaces
Physical space matters. It’s easier to be productive, creative and happy at work in a colourful, organic, playful environment than in a grey, linear, boring one. Take a tour of 10 really cool, beautiful workplaces.

8: How NOT to lead geeks
The main reason IT people are unhappy at work is bad relations with management, often because geeks and managers have fundamentally different personalities, professional backgrounds and ambitions. See the top 10 mistakes IT managers make.

7: Secret salaries are a baaaaaad idea
It’s a golden rule in most businesses that salaries must be kept secret. Except for a few heretics, it is almost universally accepted that mayhem would ensue in the workplace if people knew what their co-workers, their managers or – gasp – the CEO was making. Making salaries open inside a company instead seems like a wild idea sure, but it makes a lot of sense and brings advantages for both the workplace and for its people.

6: Top five business maxims that need to go
Much well-known business advice is sadly obsolete but can still be found in articles, business books and, not least, in daily use in the workplace. The worst of these old maxims are not only wrong, they’re bad for people and bad for business. Here’s my pick of the top 5 business maxims in serious need of an update – with a replacement for each.

5: Rewards don’t motivate. No, really, they don’t.
Many people don’t feel motivated at work, and there’s a very simple explanation for this: The motivational techniques used by most managers don’t work.

4: Top ten bad excuses for staying in a job you hate
If you’re unhappy at work, I’m sure that the thought “Man, I really should quit!” crosses your mind occasionally. So why don’t you? Here are 10 of the most common bad excuses for staying in a crappy job.

3: 12 ways to pimp your office
I’m not going to claim that a fancy desk or a weird chair is going to magically improve your creativity and productivity – but I am damn sure, that all that sameness and eternal corporate grayness, does nothing good for your ability to come up with great new ideas. Here are some ways to spruce up a workplace that may actually inject some color and fun into your work environment.

2: Top ten signs you’re unhappy at work
How do you know that you’re unhappy at work? In my work, I talk to a lot of people who are not happy with their jobs. Here are the top ten symptoms of unhappiness at work that I’ve observed. How many apply to you?

1: Don’t let The Cult of Overwork ruin your life
I know it’s normal to view people working constant overtime as heroes of the organization. But still I think they would be more efficient and enjoy life more if they cut down their time at work. They may find that they become more open, less stressed, have more fun AND are better role models for their employees. This cult of overwork has got to stop.

See more popular posts here.

Steal our best exercise for happiness at work: The Poncho

The Poncho

Praising people at work is great, but hard. It takes some practice to do well and doesn’t come naturally to many people.

So ages ago we developed an exercise to help teams praise each other and it’s our absolute favorite thing to do in our workshops. And now we’ve put the instructions online, so you can do it with your team.

We have done this hundreds of times and it never fails. It takes about 30 minutes and works in groups of 10 people and upwards. We’ve done it with hundreds of participants, but typically we’ll do it with one department or team, so about 10-50 people.

You will need a flip-over chart and a marker pen for each person. Here’s how to do it, step by step.

1: Give each person a marker pen and a flip-over chart.

2: Ask each person to tear a whole in the middle of the sheet of paper and then put it on like a poncho. The easiest way is to fold the chart into quarters and tear off one corner.

3: Once everyone is wearing their poncho, give people the following instructions: “Go around and write on the backs of other people. Write the stuff you like and appreciate about the person. The stuff they do well and the qualities they have. Write on as many people as possible, write as much as possible but only write it if you mean it.”

4: Then give people time to write on each other. Groups up to 20 people will need about 10 minutes for the actual writing, larger groups may need more time.

The Poncho

5: Once people have finished writing on each other, give them these instructions: “I bet you’re all wondering what people have been writing on you. Please keep your ponchos on and sit down. Now for the next minute, you’re not allowed to speak. You’re only allowed to read what it says on your poncho and to enjoy it. Please, take them off and read them now”.

6: Give them a minute or so to read their ponchos.

7: Ask them to turn to their neighbor and discuss what it says on their poncho. Did anything surprise them? What do they especially appreciate?

8: End the exercise and thank them for participating.

We’ve done this exercise with leaders, employees, government workers, school teachers, school kids, social workers, secretaries, lab workers, prison guards, kitchen staff and many, many other groups and it works every single time.

Participants especially enjoy that:

  • It’s easy to give praise.
  • It’s easy to receive praise – you don’t have to respond to it, only to enjoy it.
  • They learn what people appreciate about you.
  • People get praised both for what they do but also for who they are.
  • They can save their ponchos and take them out and read them when the need a boost.

My favorite part of the poncho exercise is when you get chains of 5-10 people, each writing on the back of the next one.

Your take

What do you think – would this work in your workplace? Have you tried something similar already? How did it work?

Related posts

Much of what you know about business is wrong. You will continue to believe it even now that you know it’s wrong.

“Cognitive illusions can be more stubborn than visual illusions”
– Daniel Kahneman (Source)

This quote explains why many workplaces are still unhappy even though we all should know by now, that happy workplaces are not only more fun but also make more money.

In the image above, every horizontal line is perfectly straight. Don’t believe me? Hold up a ruler to your screen and check.

OK, now you know the horizontal lines are straight. What does your mind see? Bendy lines.

And in the same way, managers and employees alike are clinging to cognitive illusions like:

  • Work is unpleasant but that’s normal and there are no happy jobs.
  • The more hours we work, the better.
  • If you’re enjoying yourself, you’re not getting enough done.
  • Managers can never be friends with their employees.
  • It’s a dog-eat-dog world and everyone is just out to screw everyone else over.

The list goes on… you can add your own in the comments.

Kahneman also write about how hard it is to change your beliefs, even when you know better:

When my colleagues and I learned that our leadership assessment tests had low validity, we accepted that fact intellectually, but it had no impact on either our feelings or our subsequent actions.

So how do we overcome our cognitive biases in the workplace (and in general)? It can be done, but it takes work. Here are 5 steps that help.

1: Be aware of your biases
This is where it all starts. We all have cognitive biases (Wikipedia has an exhaustive list) but as long as we are not aware of them, we are slaves to them. The first step to overcome a cognitive bias is to know that you have it. And you do :o)

2: Follow the facts
What conclusions do the facts actually support? For instance, if you look at productivity studies, permanent overwork leads to lower productivity, not higher. This is what the research shows. This is fact.

3: Be willing to acknowledge that you have been wrong
If you believe A but the facts support B then change your beliefs. Everything else is stupid.

4: Don’t be afraid to stand out
But this means going against the flow, since everyone else still believes A. Tough! Truth is not decided by majority rule, and it’s absolutely possible for 90% of any group to be dead wrong.

5: Use stories
Possibly the best tool for changing peoples’ minds is stories because stories speak to our emotions not just our intellect.

The upshot

Much of what you know about business is wrong. If you don’t do something about it, you will continue to believe it even now that you know it’s wrong. This is bad.

Your take

In your opinion, what are some of the most stubborn and pernicious beliefs in the business world? What beliefs have you changed personally? What helper you change? Please write a comment, I’d love to hear your take.

Related posts

3 simple ways to hack your to do list for happiness

Do you keep a to-do list at work? And if you do is it a source of happiness at work or an endless source of frustration, overflowing with unsolved tasks – as it is for many people?

One blog post sums it up like this:

I hate my to-do list because

  1. I feel so overwhelmed when I see this long list of to-dos.
  2. Items not crossed off on the to-do list are a reminder that I didn’t finish what I set out to do and that I could have done more with my day.

If you feel the same way, here are 3 simple tips to help you use your to-do list in a way that creates happiness at work rather than frustration.

1: Change your to-do list to a could-do list

We got a tip from a reader who had been feeling the pressure of an endless to-do list and had come up with a simple but brilliant hack. She wrote:

This is something I’ve been doing for several months now when I noticed my ‘To Do’ list was generating a sense of frustration.

Now, I write a ‘Could Do’ list, instead of a ‘To Do’ list. When I draw up my daily lists of tasks I refuse to see it as stuff I have to get done. When I did that in the past, I’d feel a sense of dissatisfaction at the end of the day when I didn’t have everything ticked off, despite the fact that I knew when I wrote it, it was highly unlikely I’d get to everything.

It’s a tiny shift, but by viewing it as a list of things I could do today, I’m relieving the pressure to get them all done. It feels like there’s more of an element of choice around how I spend my time – I don’t have to do x today, I could leave it till tomorrow and focus more attention on y today instead.

Now, at the end of the day, I don’t mind how many ticks I do or don’t have against the items on my list, and I feel better about my day’s work because there is no shadow from what I should have done and didn’t.

I think that’s a fantastic idea. It’s a subtle shift inside your own mind that is likely to help you get started. In my experience, taking the pressure off yourself makes you more likely to get stuff done. Which is of course a sharp contrast to traditional business thinking which holds that greater pressure = greater performance.

2: Add everything you do to the list

Let’s face it, most of what you do during the day probably isn’t on your to-do list. Many tasks just arise during the day in an ad hoc manner. So add those to the to-do list as well.

For instance, after writing this blog post (which was NOT on my to-do list, inspiration just suddenly grabbed me) I will add an item to my list that says Blog about to-do lists, set the deadline for today and immediately cross it off my list.

It may seem redundant, but there is actually a sense of accomplishment (and a release of dopamine, the brain’s own motivation drug) from crossing it off the list) even if I’ve just now added it.

This also makes sense in light of the third tip:

3: Once a week, look at all the tasks you’ve completed

In my opinion, the major problem with most to-do lists software is, that they only show you what you haven’t yet completed. As soon as you finish a task it disappears from the list forever.

One of the major sources of happiness at work is getting stuff done and seeing the results of your work. A to-do list that only shows you everything you haven’t yet done, is likely to make you less happy at work.

But there’s an easy hack for that: Once a week go into your to-do list and look at everything you got done in the last week. This may be a good thing to do on a Friday afternoon. If you have trouble remembering to do it, you could even put this on your (yes) to-do list and then cross it off once you’ve done it :o)

The upshot

To-do lists are an effective tool to make sure you remember to do everything you need to do at work. However, they tend to make people unhappy at work because they only focus on what we have not done. Fortunately, we can hack that.

Update… Here’s a bonus tip:
When you’re deciding which task to do next, don’t necessarily pick the first one on the list or the most important one. Instead, pick one you feel like doing right now.

This is not always possible and sometimes there are critical tasks that you simply need to do right now. But often you have the choice of what to do first and in that case, go with the one you want to do.

That will make you much more likely to get it done and give you more energy to apply to the less fun tasks. If you start with the hardest, the most important or the most boring task, that may steal your energy and motivation completely.

Your take

What do you think – could any of these tips work for you? Do you have any other good ways to effectively and happily use to-do lists? Please write a comment, I’d love to hear your take.

Related posts

If you’re still not getting your could-do items done, you can also read my previous post on How to procrastinate effectively.