The Paradox of Workplace Happiness
“Happiness is not a goal…it’s a by-product of a life well lived.” ― Eleanor Roosevelt
Do we have an idealized version of happiness at work? Or is it for real?
I would say both. Especially when it comes to the workplace. Many organizations— either by choice or the need to retain talent — are making happiness at work a top priority.
A couple of years ago, authors André Spicer and Carl Cederström created a corporate storm challenging the notion that happiness is good. In their Harvard Business Review article, they attacked what they call the ‘gospel of happiness’ at many organizations. The authors believe, backed by research, that happiness can do more harm than good at the workplace.
The other side of the coin is a collection of neuroscientists and positive psychology advocates, such as the self-proclaimed Chief Happiness office, who believes that happiness is the most critical productivity boost (10x).
Which one is true? Both sides are playing to the extremes. We need a more balanced approach to happiness at work. It’s a fact that happiness improves productivity, but it’s not a linear equation.
Many organizations are clueless about happiness. They are chasing the illusion of creating a happy workplace. Culture is not something that you can manage but encourage. The same happens with happiness. It grows from within. It’s a personal choice. And has a different meaning for each one of us.
Your team doesn’t need a “La-la land culture” but a true approach to happiness at work.
The Glamorous Side of Happiness
“The happiness of your life depends upon the quality of your thoughts.” ― Marcus Aurelius
Happiness is not just a romantic state of mind. It creates measurable outcomes, as demonstrated by various studies.
Happy people tend to live longer, be more altruistic, and helpful.
When it comes to the professional side, happy people:
- are more productive and creative
- focus on solutions rather than on problems
- behave more collaborative, and show lower levels of absenteeism
- are more social; their attitude is contagious, which turns them into good leaders
But there’s a downside: happiness can blind people at work. Like avoiding conflict or just seeing the brighter side. Also, people are not happy or sad, all the time. Happiness is volatile.
The mistake most companies make is to focus on one side of the coin.
Organizations seem to be promoting an idealized version of happiness without a real understanding of what it means to their employees. And, most importantly, thinking that is something that they need to provide rather than just encourage.
The Dark Side of Happiness
“There are two ways to get enough. One is to continue to accumulate more and more. The other is to desire less.” ― G.K. Chesterton
Research shows that North Americans highly value happiness and think about it on a daily basis. For most Americans, happiness is an individual pursuit rather than a collective one.
But the continuous pursuit of this idealized state creates what psychologists call “the dark side of happiness.” An ill-constructed idea of happiness distracts people from a more meaningful appreciation of life.
“We expect that something has to happen in order for us to be happy” — as Srikumar Rao, a professor at the London Business School said — “I’ll be happy once I get a promotion, my bonus, the corner office “ People are missing out enjoying happiness at work right now.
1. People Don’t Value What Comes Easy
Treating your team with a soft glove approach will backfire. I’m an advocate for building cultures where people and ideas can thrive. One that promotes Psychological Safety for people to take risks and experiment.
But I’m seeing a lot of organizations moving from one extreme to the other. Like ‘helicopter parents,’ by trying to protect their employees, they hinder personal growth. A great leader should challenge its team so that they can play at their best.
Happiness at work shouldn’t mean avoiding conflict. Tensions keep teams at the top of their game.
The “perks battle,” as I like to call it, is creating an expensive competition in which both companies and people lose. Providing everything for free— from ping-pong tables, free food, masseurs, etc. — can create an adverse effect. The more people get, the more they’ll expect. You are seeding frustration rather than happiness.
2. Unhappy People Make Great Team Members Too
Happiness is a choice but also a fluid state. Unhappy people don’t get the best reputation, but diversity of thinking is critical to team success. ‘Unhappy people’ bring a different perspective, they tend to be more critical and have a more realistic approach both to analyze problems and solutions. When everyone is having an idealized version of reality, is good to have someone that can provide a different perspective.
Unhappiness helps people see the dark side that others might be missing. To bullet-proof a solution, your team needs someone that can push back and challenge group thinking.
3. Don’t Become a Hostage of Happiness
To reward their employees, bureaucrats created standards. Titles, office size, additional vacations days, etc. become privileges to promote individual happiness. The more you get, the happier you should feel.
But titles create entitlement. And that brings comparison, disappointments, and divide. Take this organization that had what I call the V-season.” When that time of the year arrived, everyone was expecting to receive a VP, SVP, or EVP promotion. This company used titles as a reward in such a meaningless way that ended having many SVP with no people reporting to them.
That’s the price you pay when you ‘bribe’ your employees. Like in every extortion, you’ll become an easy target. People will keep coming for more.
4. Happiness is not a perfect world, but a choice
The idealization of happiness makes everyone unhappy. An organization responsibility is to provide a place where people can thrive. But happiness is a personal choice. You cannot impose it, neither you are obliged to provide.
I believe that the pressure to provide the perfect workplace is adding a lot of burden for both the organizations and those who work there. When the context is too perfect, it can have the opposite effect.
I’ve worked with companies that are so obsessed to become the employer of the year that they lose focus. By trying to seduce potential employees, they create a fake image that disengages their current employees.
What’s the price you are willing to pay to look happy?
5. Too Much Happiness Can Kill You
Well not you necessarily, but your interpersonal relationships at work.
As Susanne Ekmann found in her study, those who expect their workplace to make them happy become emotionally dependent. They expect ‘others’ — their manager, colleagues, the overall organization — to be the source of happiness. And when this doesn’t happen, which is more times than not, they felt neglected and started overreacting.
When people expect their coworkers to behave in a certain way, they set false expectations. And then blame everyone for their unhappiness.
6. Why You Need A Happiness Policy
What does happiness mean? What role does it play in your organization? Do you even care?
Most companies have done a tremendous job in pushing forward policies towards sexual harassment, equality, inclusivity, etc. Happiness deserves its own right.
I’m not talking about rules or do’s and don’ts. But establishing a clear definition of what ‘happiness’ means to the organization, the role it plays, and drive management alignment around it.
Take the example of this company that provided everything an employee could wish for. From perfect espresso machine, free breakfast, ocean-view, video games, and, of course, ping pong tables. People felt guilty about enjoying most of those perks.
Whenever someone started playing ping-pong, they would immediately felt scrutinized by the CFO, who often complained about how people wasted their time… playing.
What’s the purpose of having a toy within reach if you are not allowed to play with it? Providing perks is important. But having alignment into ‘why’ the company is doing it matters the most.
Happiness Is A Mindset, Not a Gift
“Happiness is when what you think, what you say, and what you do are in harmony.” ― Mahatma Gandhi
What is happiness to you?
Before promoting happiness, you have to define an organizational approach to happiness. Getting caught in a perks battle or supporting a romanticized version of happiness could damage your culture rather than make it stronger.
- Happiness, like culture, cannot be managed. The culture of an organization is not determined by managers or corporate vision statements. It’s defined by their employees’ behaviors and what leaders reward and punish. You can encourage behaviors and beliefs, but you cannot control what people do.
- Happiness is personal. Everyone has a particular definition of what being happy means. Don’t try to read their minds. Not every employee wants to be promoted or receive a title. For many people ‘personal time’ is becoming more important than financial rewards.
- Happiness is not a gift: Understand that you cannot provide happiness. It’s a personal choice that happens from within. Don’t feel the pressure to deliver happiness by giving things away.
- Don’t seed unhappiness: Building on the above, what you can control is eradicating toxic behaviors and controls that drive people crazy with no purpose. You can alleviate pain and reduce stress by promoting a safe space with a “no-assholes-rule” as per professor Robert Sutton’s book.
- Make work meaningful. The word purpose has become a fad lately on. But that doesn’t diminish the need to make people proud of what they do, to create a deeper connection to their work. How can you remove irrelevant work that frustrates everyone and is done just to please traditions or the higher-ups? Check out this exercise to eradicate meaningless tasks.
- Monitor the mood of your team: Measuring happiness is hard. But you can track people’s spirit to see how your team is doing and to identify potential issues. We have helped many clients set up simple ways, like using emojis that people could post in tools like Slack. It’s very human and compelling. Especially because everyone becomes more aware of how others are feeling on a particular day. Knowing how people are doing makes everyone more compassionate and understanding.
- Promote mindfulness at work: Encourage self-reflection. Create policies to avoid burn out. Regulate the use of technology to alleviate distractions and stress. Emotional check-ins or meditation are great tools if done with a purpose, not just because they are cool nowadays. Create forums where your team can discuss what happiness means to them, what role the company should play and their expectations.
Happiness is a complex thing as I wrote here. The paradox is that we all want to be happy, but we also fear to be happy.
And that’s something that organizations need to understand too.
What’s your organizations’ approach to happiness? Share your story.