Happiness is not a typical measure of a business. Yet, it is an important metric for the people who work in the company.

Take time to listen to them. Earn their trust. They will tell you things that may surprise you.

People who are unhappy in their jobs have a range of reasons. Most of these reasons have to do with the experience of work. They range from being poorly compensated, to being given tasks that are not a part of their job description, to abusive bosses, and unfriendly co-workers. 

The stories that I have heard remind me of reading 17th-century philosopher and scientist Blaise Pascal’s reflections on life. He wrote:

Scholar Blaise Pascal

By unknown; a copy of the painture of François II Quesnel, which was made for Gérard Edelinck en 1691. – Own work, CC BY 3.0, Link

“… being unable to cure death, wretchedness, and ignorance, men have decided, in order to be happy, not to think about such things. … Despite these afflictions man wants to be happy, only wants to be happy, and cannot help wanting to be happy. But how shall he go about it?  The best thing would be to make himself immortal, but as he cannot do that, he has decided to stop himself thinking about it.”

This quote describes the kind of unhappiness that inhabits many workplaces. It is the kind of every day grit-your-teeth-and-bear-it-until-the-end-of-the-day type of unhappiness. For many people they feel trapped in a job that financially supports their family, yet is not just boring, but unpleasant and empty of meaning.

Happiness is a core aspect of our experience as human beings. It has been a subject of great conversation among all kinds of people. One of the earliest writers on happiness was the Greek philosopher Aristotle who said this:

“Happiness, and a blissful and noble life, would seem to consist above all in three things that appear to be of all things the most worth choosing. Some say that the greatest good is wisdom, others say it is virtue, and others say it is pleasure. “

NYU professor Jonathan Haidt in his book, The Happiness Hypothesis, offers this more modern perspective.

The Happiness Hypothesis“Where does happiness come from?  There are several different “happiness hypotheses.”  One is that happiness comes from getting what you want, but we all know (and research confirms) that such happiness is short-lived. A more promising hypothesis is that happiness comes from within and cannot be obtained by making the world conform to your desires. … Recent research shows that there are some things worth striving for; there are external conditions of life that can make you lastingly happier. One of these conditions is relatedness —the bonds we form, and need to form, with others. … Happiness comes from within, and happiness comes from without. We need the guidance of both ancient wisdom and modern science to get the balance right.”

I agree with him. The field of positive psychology has advanced our understanding of happiness, bringing a fresh understanding to the ancient wisdom of thinkers like Aristotle, who wrote:

“… what is the highest of all practical goods? Well, so far as the name goes there is pretty general agreement. ‘It is happiness’, say both ordinary and cultured people; and they identify happiness as living well or doing well.”

Happiness from both this ancient and modern perspective points to a life which is complete and whole. Yet, most organizations that I’ve had contact with over the past 40-plus years are not set up to exhibit this kind of completeness. Instead, they are a collection of people, products, and processes that are jumbled together to create a business. It is why organizational problems often seem so daunting. The parts don’t fit together well. It is hard to be happy in a fragmented environment.

The question that I am raising here is not primarily about our personal happiness. Instead, am asking the question whether it is reasonable to think that a company could be a happy place to work. If so, then what does this look like, and how can it be achieved.

An unhappy company is not unhappy in one way, but many ways.

One of the great contemporary illustrations of this is organizational brokenness is Mike Judge’s film Office Space. Here is how Peter Gibbons describes his typical day.

“ I usually come in fifteen minutes late. I come in through the side-door so Lundberg can’t see me. And after that, I kind of space out for about an hour. … I just stare at my desk, but it looks like I’m working. I probably do that for another hour after lunch, too. I’d say in a given week, I probably do only about 15 minutes of real, actual work. … The thing is, Bob, it is not that I’m lazy; its that I just don’t care. … It’s a problem of motivation. Alright? Now, if I work my a** off,  and Innotec ships a few extra units, I don’t see another dime. Where’s the motivation? … And I have eight different bosses right now. … that means that when I make a mistake, I have eight different people coming by to tell me about it. That’s my only real motivation, to not to be hassled. That and the fear of losing my job, but you know Bob, that will only make someone work just hard enough not to get fired.”

We laugh at this characterization of office life because we know that there is an element of truth in it. Peter is an unhappy guy. He would be unhappy regardless of where he worked. He simply found a place to work which is compatible with his state of mind. Peter lacks purpose and vision for what he is life could be. As a result, he’ll always be unhappy, and most likely will never find a place of work which motivates him to be anything more than he is.

There is a relational component to an unhappy workplace. When people within an office or on a team don’t get along, there seems to be nothing at stake in the functioning of their relationships. The social bond of a set of core values is missing. The only thing bringing them together is the work that must be done. They may as well be cogs in the machine of industry.

In many cases, the organization is structured to avoid high aspirations and deep collaborative relationships. They want everyone to operate within their prescribed box of responsibility. The less interaction, the fewer questions, the better. Just stay quiet and do your job. This is not a place that fosters happiness.

The secret to a happy workplace is the same as for becoming a Circle of Impact organization. It simply requires us to align the Three Dimensions of Leadership for impact. This alignment between our ideas, our relationships and the structure of the organizations produces a sense of wholeness and completeness. All the parts fit together with purpose and impact. We see ourselves as contributors to something that has meaning beyond the task at hand.

This alignment functions on a personal level too. When we are clear about our core values and our purpose for impact, then we have a focus to our lives that can produce happiness. With clarity about our core ideology, we can form relationships that are whole and healthy because we have developed a more integrated life. As a result, we can more easily see what kind of structure can produce the impact that we desire.

Alignment is the work of building a happy life or business. The impact of this alignment is a change from a fragmented, unhappy workplace environment to one where there is shared focus on values that bind people together with purpose and vision. From this happiness can grow.

And grow it will for us personally and organizationally.

Photo by rawpixel on Unsplash

Dr. Ed Brenegar is a Leader for Leaders working with individuals, their teams, organizations and communities who find themselves at a point of transition. Ed has developed an innovative leadership model called, Circle of Impact, that clarifies what the impact of their life or the work of their organization can be. From this perspective, impact is the change that makes a difference that matters. Ed. for over 30 years, has inspired and equipped people and organizations to practice this fresh understanding of leadership. All leadership begins with personal initiative to create impact that makes a difference that matters. Everyone within an organization or a community can, therefore, practice leadership initiative. In so doing, they turn what were once leadership-starved organizations into leader-rich cultures that make a difference that matters.

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