Category Archives: Leadership

Leadership is an insanely important discipline. Here you’ll find the thought, tools and tricks of the trade of great leaders.

Should you seek passion or duty at work? (Pssst: The answer is passion).

In an opinion pice in the New York Times, professor Firmin DeBrabrander argues that you should not approach work as your passion but as your duty. Looking for passion at work, he says, will make you stressed and is bound to fail anyway.

I think that’s complete nonsense! I know – what a shocker :) But worst of all it’s poorly reasoned nonsense that relies on a string of terrible arguments and deliberate ignorance of the research in the field.

Here are the top 5 fails from DeBrarander’s article and why you should most definitely seek work you’re passionate about.

1: He blames the long US working hours on people’s passion for their jobs

The United States offers a curious paradox: Though the standard of living has risen, and creature comforts are more readily and easily available — and though technological innovations have made it easier to work efficiently — people work more, not less.

Why is this?

One theory is that Americans have come to expect work to be a source of meaning in their lives.

There are no studies showing that people who find work meaningful work more hours than those who don’t.

If you want to actually know why working hours are still on the rise in the US, I think it makes much more sense to look at some of these factors:

  • Bad management practices
  • Workplace cultural norms
  • Economic insecurity caused by a hugely challenged middle class that are one pay check away from financial disaster.
  • The  high cost of college educations and the huge amount of debt that many young people graduate with – meaning that they absolutely must work or face personal bankruptcy.

Put people with huge financial insecurity in a workplace that expects and demands 60, 70 or 80-hour work weeks, and they most often have no option but to go along and work themselves to death.

2: Being passionate about your work means that you experience constant bliss

Most people are certainly guaranteed to fail in this pursuit [of passion at work]. Even people who love their jobs will report they must do thankless tasks from time to time. Few, if any, experience nonstop bliss, where sheer passion sustains them through long hours on the job.

Notice what DeBrabrander did there? He just redefined being passionate about your work to mean that you experience nonstop bliss and sheer sustained passion.

This is what’s  known as a strawman argument, where you exaggerate, misrepresent, or just completely fabricate someone’s position, to make it easier to attack.

Just to be clear: Being passionate about your job does not mean that you experience nonstop bliss. Everyone has bad days at work – and that’s perfectly OK. And of course every job contains a mix of tasks that you enjoy and tasks that suck – and that’s OK too.

3: Young people burn out because they seek passion at work

There is plenty of evidence that our high-octane work culture has serious consequences. It is at least partly responsible for high levels of burnout among millennials.

This is an especially bad argument because studies show that people who find meaning at work experience less stress and burnout.

And while there definitely is an increase of stress, burnout, depression and mental problems among young people,  it’s intellectually lazy to just conclude that it’s caused mainly – or even partly – by their search for passion and meaning at work.

Young people are also facing many other pressures, including a global climate disaster that no one is doing much about, while they are of course the ones who will have to live with the consequences of that inaction. Might that be a source of stress for them? No, says DeBrabrande – their real problem is that they expect their jobs to be meaningful.

4: If you seek passion in your work, you will fail

A recent study of priorities among young people found that achieving one’s career passion ranks highest of all… Finding a fulfilling job is almost three times more important than having a family, teenagers in the study reported.

It is daunting to contemplate. Most people are certainly guaranteed to fail in this pursuit.

Got that? If you seek passion at work, you are almost guaranteed to fail. Really? How would he know? Of course, he’s previously redefined passion at work to mean constant bliss and if that’s your goal, of course you will fail.

And just to make it worse, the study he links to in support of his claim is not even about passion at work. The actual finding is that 95% of US teenagers surveyed say that “having a job or career they enjoy” is important to them.

5: Passion means that work is the ONLY source of meaning in your life

We might begin by rejecting the notion that work should consume our lives, define and give meaning to them…

Again, the article dishonestly redefines passion to mean that work consumes your life and gives meaning to it.

In reality, passion for your job simply means that you are passionate about the work you do – not that it’s the only thing are passionate about.

In fact, studies show that people who are passionate about their work are happier and more active outside of work as well.

Why you absolutely should seek work you’re passionate about

This kind of attack on happiness at work is nothing new. Many serious people are coming out of the woodwork to declare that happiness at work is stupid, impossible, naïve, silly, manipulative and/or bad for you. In the video above we cover their 20 most used objections to workplace happiness and why they’re wrong.

DeBrabrander’s analysis is poorly argued and of course also wrong. Everyone should absolutely seek work they’re passionate about. There are many reasons why, but the most important are these:

  • It will make you happier at work
  • It will make you happier in life
  • It will make you more successful at work
  • It will protect you from doing harmful work – whereas not trying to find meaning at work makes it more likely that you will end up doing work that exploits or harms others
  • Work is where you will spend many of your waking hours – of course you should spend that time doing something you care about
  • Work is where you will invest most of your energy, skills and competencies – all of that effort should be invested in the service of a cause you care about

Paradoxically, I actually think DeBrabrander agrees! When he talks about approaching work as duty rather than passion, he bases this on an understanding of duty that comes from stoic philosophy. I have many, many issues with stoic philosophy – not least that it is based on the idea that we are all subjects to a predetermined fate – but it has recently become very fashionable, especially among silicon valley tech bros.

In the NYTimes pice, DrBrabrander recounts The advice of Seneca, one of the most prominent stoics to define duty like this:

Seneca’s advice to Serenus is to focus on doing his duty. He must perform the job he is best disposed and able to perform, as determined by his nature, and the needs of those around him. And he must forget about glory or thrill or personal fulfillment — at least in the near term. If he performs his duty, Seneca explains, fulfillment will come as a matter of course.

Duty, in this definition, is not just about having a “Shut up and do your job” approach. It’s about doing work that you’re good at and which meets the needs of those around you.

BUT THAT’S EXACTLY WHAT MEANINGFUL WORK IS!

If DeBrabrander had been the tiniest bit curious about the research in this field, he would have found that this is precisely how Amy Wrezniewski and others define the “calling” approach to work:

In the “calling” orientation, people are working not for career advancement or for financial gain, but instead for the fulfilment or the meaning that the work itself brings to the individual. People who see their work more as a calling see the work as an end in itself that is deeply fulfilling and regardless of the kind of work they’re doing, they tend to see the work as having a societal benefit.

It’s ultimately about working for something bigger than yourself.

The upshot

This opinion piece is poorly researched and dishonest – so of course the advice it gives is bad.

Seeking passion and meaning at work is the path to more career happiness and success and less stress and burnout. It’s also one way you can help create a better world, by making sure that all of your professional skill and energy is spent in the service of something that you can clearly see is making the world a better place, rather than in just obtaining a pay check or career advancement.

I have to say, if you make your career choices with no consideration for where your passions lie, I honestly pity you.

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Our 4 best tips for a happy vacation

The Summer holidays are right around the corner here in the northern hemisphere and I am really excited for it. No matter how much you love your job, you should still look forward to some time off, where you can do something completely different.

But it’s important to do your vacation right. If not, you risk ruining the whole thing by doing emails at the pool or by feeling bad about the work you didn’t do before going on vacation. That’s not doing anyone any favors – not even the workplace – because time off from work is a prerequisite for happiness and productivity.

So here are our 4 best tips for having a happy vacation.

1: Actually take a vacation

I can’t believe I even have to say this, but in many countries people don’t take the vacation time they’re entitled to. One person wrote this comment on my blog:

I’m 34 and haven’t had a real vacation since my childhood vacations with my parents. The only way I manage to take an entire week off at a time (I work in IT) is when I’m able to schedule a week or two of “unemployment” between jobs, and in those periods, spending money on a trip is not wise.

I’m tied to my email/pager even on weekends and holidays and on the scattered “vacation” days I can take. Most Americans only get 2-3 weeks of combined sick and vacation time in any case, and professionals are expected to read email and be available, even on their days “off”.

I wonder how many people are able to have a real vacation these days!

US workers typically get very little vacation time, and often don’t even take all the vacation they do get. The Japanese have a similar problem where many workers don’t take the vacation days they’re entitled because they feel they’re letting down their coworkers.

Take your vacations. And if you work for a company that refuses to understand that human beings need time off from work, quit and go work for a company that actually cares about its people.

2: Get organized before you go

Clear out any outstanding work and your email inbox. This will give you clarity and control of any tasks. This sounds boring but it’s quite satisfying to get your work organized and go on vacation with an empty inbox.

And if you know there are important tasks that you can’t get done before you leave, hand them over to a coworker in plenty of time. Make sure to hand over the task with all necessary information so it’s easy for your coworkers to take over. That also keeps them from having to disturb you on your vacation, so you’re helping both them and yourself.

3: Don’t work on your vacation

Don’t bring the company mobile and don’t read work-related emails. Take a real vacation and let your brain do something completely different.

Instead, spend some time doing new things you’ve wanted to try for a long time but haven’t had time for. Go rollerskating, windsurfing, fishing or whatever strikes your fancy. Can I suggest swing dancing? It’s amazing!

Or maybe just kick off your shoes and go lie in a hammock. Stare out at the water. Have days with no plans and time for reflection.

4: Close your email inbox completely

If you have some vacation time coming up, and if you’re like most people, you will put up an autoreply email just before you leave, saying that you’re gone, when you’ll be back and who to contact if it’s urgent.

I have talked to many people who mention both of these as a source of stress and I’ve just seen too many parents on family vacations handling work emails on their phone/laptop by the pool, when they should’ve been playing with their kids.

Fortunately, there’s an alternative: Close your inbox while you’re away. This may seem like a weird idea but some workplaces are already doing it. Here’s how you can close your inbox completely on your vacation.

I’m taking all of July off and I will be doing exactly that.

The upshot

For crying out loud: Take your vacation time and make it a good one.

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How to measure happiness at work – and how NOT TO

Most companies conduct regular job satisfaction surveys, but they often don’t work very well and fail to deliver tangible improvements to employees’ perception of their workplace. This leads to increased unhappiness among employees and from there to lower productivity and higher employee turnover.

In this video we cover:

  • Why you absolutely should measure happiness at work
  • Why traditional job satisfaction surveys often fail
  • Better ways to measure happiness at work – ie. more often, more relevant and more valuable
  • Share specific experiences from a company that tried it
  • A very brief introduction to Heartcount – a unique new tool for measuring happiness at work

Wall of win at IKEA

Last week I did a workshop on “Leading With Happiness” for all the managers at an IKEA warehouse in Copenhagen and I have to say that it was an absolute pleasure. Like any other company, IKEA is facing many challenges and changes but this international group of 40 managers were clearly completely on board with the whole idea of happiness at work.

And while I was there, I stumbled on their wall of win – an entire wall of positive customer feedback, naming specific IKEA employees who’ve gone above and beyond.

What a simple but great way to celebrate your employees’ good work.

The 3 most important things bosses should learn from swing dancers

In dancing – just as in business – there are leaders and followers. But if you think this means that “The leader always leads and the follower does what they’re told” then you’re very wrong.

Miranda van Wonterghem is an international swing dance teacher and in this amazing talk from our International Conference On Happiness at Work,  she revealed the three main things business leaders should learn from dancers to create happier and more effective leadership – AND demonstrated it with dancing.

20 ways to measure happiness at work beyond the usual useless satisfaction surveys

Measuring employee happiness is a great idea.

Sure, it has its problems. Any time you measure anything, you run the risk of getting bad data, the wrong data or making bad decisions based on the data.

But it still makes sense for two main reasons.

First and most obviously, if you measure employee happiness right, it can actually guide efforts to improve the workplace by identifying organizational problems and strengths.

Also, most business leaders are highly results oriented and data driven and find it hard to value things they can’t put a number on. Tracking employee happiness with hard numbers in some way can bolster organizational commitment to happiness initiatives.

So what can you measure? This can go way beyond just an annual job satisfaction survey. It’s essential to find the metrics that are relevant to your employees, your customers and your organization.

Here are all the potential ways we’ve come up with to measure employee happiness. Did we forget any? Write a comment if you have one we didn’t include.

Measure employee mood

If you want to know how happy your employees are, you can quite simply ask them. The traditional way is of course to run annual satisfaction surveys but I’m very skeptical about that approach.

You can measure things like:

  • Happiness
  • Satisfaction
  • Engagement
  • Well-being
  • Psychological capital

You can conduct the measurement using surveys, apps, mood boards or even just tennis balls.

Other employee metrics

Two other obvious employee-related metrics are:

  • Absenteeism
  • Employee turnover

Each of these have a direct bottom line impact and are directly correlated with employee happiness.

Hiring

Happy organizations also attract more and better new hires. That means that you could also measure on metrics like:

  • Applications received per opening posted
  • Time to fill positions
  • Rate of acceptance of job offers
  • Rate of successful hires (how many new employees stay at least x months)

This will be especially relevant in fast-growing workplaces or in industries where there is strong competition for the best talent.

Customer metrics

We know that happy employees make the customers happy. Some potential metrics are:

  • Customer happiness / satisfaction
  • Customer loyalty / repeat business
  • Brand perception

Employee performance

We also know that happy employees do a better job, so measuring happiness could also mean tracking metrics like:

  • Productivity
  • Quality / errors
  • Workplace safety / accidents
  • Success rate of innovation / change projects

Negative behavior

Given that happy employees are less likely to engage in bad behavior at work, we could also track metrics like:

  • HR complaints
  • Fraud / stealing

Physiological measures

This area is a little more speculative but some people have suggested measuring things like:

  • Cortisol in saliva samples
  • Blood pressure
  • Sleep time and quality

These do raise some ethical issues around privacy and bodily autonomy.

The upshot

Measuring employee happiness can help efforts to improve a workplace and strengthen leadership’s focus and commitment to these efforts.

While traditional satisfaction surveys have a long list of problems, there are many other metrics you can look at.

No workplace should measure all of these metrics. Depending on the industry, situation and type of employees only a small subset of these will be relevant. It’s up to each workplace to define which are the most relevant and to find a good way to track and act on these metrics.

How best to measure employee happiness

We have collected all our best insights and experiences on this topic and developed a tool called heartcount which allows any team or workplace to measure happiness at work simply and in a way that generates actionable insights. Read all about it here.

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Jack Ma is very very very wrong about the 996 rule

Jack Ma, the billionaire founder of Chinese tech company Alibaba, has come out in favor of the so-called 996 rule, i.e. that you should work from 9am to 9pm 6 days a week if you want to have a successful career. For anyone doing the math that’s 72 hours of work a week. Add a 1 hour commute on top of that and there’s very little time left for your family, kids, hobbies, exercise and life in general.

His belief in this is unshakeable:
“I personally think that 996 is a huge blessing,” he said. “How do you achieve the success you want without paying extra effort and time?”

He also added that you can only achieve business success through suffering and sacrifice.

I realize I may be wasting my time here by going up against a belief that is so prevalent among business leaders, but there’s no way I can let that kind of nonsense pass and not point out exactly why it’s wrong. Here are 5 quick reasons:

1: Pointing to successful people that achieved success by working 72 hours a week proves nothing. What about all the people that worked just as hard but failed?

2: Many of the mental qualities that make a person successful at work are lost when people are overworked, tired, stressed and unhappy, including networking, creativity and effective decision making.

3: Permanent overwork kills people. For instance, those working a 55-hour week face 33% increased risk of stroke.

4: Permanent overwork doesn’t result in increased output.

5: Many people believe that success can only be achieved through suffering, but they’re wrong. In fact, employee happiness leads directly to higher performance and business success.

So permanent overwork does not lead to increased results and success – in fact it hurts people AND profits.

It’s easy to point to Alibaba and say “But they work really long hours and the company is successful. Check mate!” But that’s just correlation; where is the proof that they are profitable BECAUSE OF the long working hours? Maybe they would’ve been even more profitable if their employees were happy, relaxed and had lives outside of work too? The research certainly indicates that.

So why do so many people still believe this nonsense? As the psychologist Daniel Kahneman noted, it’s difficult to change people’s minds. Look at this picture:

Every horizontal line is perfectly straight. Don’t believe me? Hold up a ruler to your screen and check. OK, now that you know the horizontal lines are straight, what does your mind see? Bendy lines.

Kahneman notes that cognitive illusions are even more stubborn than visual illusions and the business leaders he has worked with almost never changed their beliefs no matter how much evidence they were presented with.

Fortunately, there are also many enlightened leaders out there:

biden

And US Vice President Joe Biden wrote an awesome memo to his staff that said in part:

I do not expect, nor do I want any of you to miss or sacrifice important family obligations for work.

The upshot

There is strong evidence that permanent overwork hurts people and performance. Let’s stop promoting such a dumb and dangerous idea.

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Try this easy happiness hack in your next meeting

When is your next meeting? Tomorrow? This afternoon? Or are you already late for your next meeting?

We spend a lot of time in work meetings and they don’t seem to make us very happy.

So here’s a simple tip you can try very easily:  Open your next meeting with a round where each person shares something positive. You can pick one of these questions and let everyone share:

  • Name one thing you’ve accomplished since the last meeting that you’ve been proud of.
  • Name a person who has helped you since the last meeting.
  • Mention one thing you’re looking forward to at work in the coming week.
  • What’s the funniest thing someone has told you in the last week?
  • Mention something interesting you’ve learned in the last week.

Don’t spend a lot of time on this, just give each participant about 30 seconds to share something positive. If the group is bigger than 10-12 people, let people share in pairs and then let 3 or 4 people share with the whole group so it doesn’t take more than a few minutes.

It really works wonders for a meeting. One person told me this after trying it out:

Hi Alexander,

I have been reading your work for a few days now, and I cannot get enough.

We have 4 analysts on our team, who touch many if not all groups in our company. Our role often means our view is black and white in order to deliver results, which is often received in a bad light.

So, I tried starting a meeting with something positive. It was like the Jedi mind trick for convincing others to lobby for our interests!

My Sr Analyst was struggling to keep her jaw from dropping. No more than a simple ask of what is the funniest thing your kids have said to you lately. Everyone had a story, and we all laughed for a quick 2 minutes before getting to the agenda.

Just wanted to say, “Thank you,”

All the best,

-Grant

And it’s not only fun, it will also make your meeting more effective as this experiment shows:

Psychological experiments can be very devious, and this one was certainly no exception. The focus was meetings and the format was simple: Groups of people were asked to discuss and reach consensus on a contentious topic.

Here’s the devious bit: Unbeknownst to the other participants one member of the group was an actor hired by the researchers. The actor was told to speak first in the discussions. In half the experiments he would say something positive while in the other half he would start by saying something critical. After that he simply participated in the discussion like the other group members.

The experiment showed that when the first thing said in the meeting was positive, the discussion turned out more constructive, people listened more and were more likely to reach consensus. When the first statement was negative the mood became more hostile, people were more argumentative and consensus became less likely.

The researchers concluded that the way a meeting starts has a large impact on the tone of the discussion and on whether or not the group will eventually reach consensus.

Try it out and let me know how it works for you.

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