The Fading Art of Happiness at Work

I spend a huge amount of me time talking to people who work in businesses — at all levels of a company. Generally speaking I have found that the world can be divided into 3 types of people:

  1. The “I love my job” group
  2. The “My job is ok, I don’t love it and am open to other options- but am not actively looking” people, and
  3. The “I really don’t like my job- am frustrated, actively looking, or about to quit.” folks.

Roughly speaking, I would say that maybe 5% of the world that I interact with falls into category 1. The good thing about category 3 is that it usually takes care of itself one way or another- it is costly for companies to have turnover, but worse to have people who linger and do suboptimal work, which is often what happens in category 2.

As a manager or business owner, how can you convert people in category 2 into category 1 people? Here is what I am finding in recent discussions:

  1. There is nothing new under the sun- people still quit because of their managers, managers are notoriously poorly trained, corporate culture means so much, and companies are as lousy as ever at developing good corporate culture.
  2. There are actually a few new things under the sun. Used to be that kids out of college knew that they needed to endure the boredom, inefficiency, excruciating hours. Now they know they don’t need to. Investment Banks in particular remain behind the times and as a result the exodus of Analysts- who increasingly don’t even want to make the transition to Associates- are costing banks a fortune.
  3. More experienced people in their careers are often have untapped expertise and insights into how to make the business better- but what is the incentive to put their head about the parapet? Is there even a mechanism in the company where ideas can be surfaced- by anyone regardless of level?
  4. People are rightfully frustrated by companies who are blown about by quarterly results and can’t stay the course on a plan for fear of the impact on short term stock fluctuations. Equally, inability to make changes in business plans when real changes in the business environment occur is also a frustration.
  5. For whatever reason- maybe the social media culture?- there is the perception that everyone else is more successful, that all young people are “crushing it” right out of college, that career advancement is easy for everyone else, and on and on and on. Frustrating is increased by the perception that many have that they are falling behind- whether this is true or not.

As a worker, or as a business owner- what is the remedy to this pervasive dissatisfaction that seems to permeate the majority of the workforce?

Here are a few thoughts:

  1. If you recognize yourself to be a worker in bucket #2, make a plan to either find a way to love your job- or go find one that you do love. Life is way too short to waste your most valuable asset (that’s your time!) doing something you don’t love. I get that you may not be able to quit and write poetry on the beach- feeding yourself and your kids remains a priority. But there is no excuse for accepting a less than inspired life. NO. EXCUSE. With most things, whether school, work or life in general, you get out of it what you put into it. So before rushing off and looking for the next thing, check out what happens if you give 100% to your job- really give your creativity, your effort — and try to build relationships with the people who can help you to achieve your goals at work. Also set goals for yourself at work if you don’t already have them. If you really do try and there is no way to love your job, you owe it to yourself to find a job you can really give 100% to. If all else fails, read “The Art of Happiness at Work” by the Dalai Lama. He makes some seriously great points about how to find happiness in situations where we don’t always feel happy.
  2. If you are a manager of a team and you suspect that you have people on your team who aren’t loving their job, stop blaming them- at least for a while. First you need to look at yourself and ask what your job is as a leader. Are you motivating? Are you hearing what their issues are? Are you inspiring or are you undermining them? Do you have a vision for your team and have you communicated it well? Read a couple of books by Patrick Lencioni, starting with “The Five Dysfunctions of a Team” and “Death by Meeting”. I also recommend “Team of Teams” by Gen. Stanley McChrystal. Once you have done that, take an honest look at how you have been managing your team, and see what you can improve. At the end of the day, you may need to let some people go and hire in for the culture that you want- but be sure you get your own work done first so that you don’t recreate the same problems again with a new team. Another great book to read as a manager is “First Break All the Rules”, by Buckingam and Coffman. You can’t overdo the investigating into how to be a good manager and leader- despite most views to the contrary these are not innate gifts. Yes, you may be the Mozart of management, but just as most musicians have to study for years to be a virtuoso, so will you have to study to be a good manager.
  3. If you are a business owner, most likely you are so busy focused on product development, investors, budgets, and keeping the lights on, with the best of intentions company culture has fallen through the cracks. Even if it hasn’t, the culture you can create when you are 5 people in a room will be wildly different when you have 20 people, or 200 or 2000 or more. It just will be. So how do you create a company where you can have a culture that permeates all levels and reaches all employees?

a) First realize that you need to actually articulate the culture and what it looks like when people live it. What’s in your head isn’t helpful to people — it needs to be articulated- and often.

b) Recognize that you are only one person and you need to have everyone- especially the senior managers — pick up the banner of culture carrier. Hire for it, promote based on it, and reward people who do it best. Culture is everything.

c) Listen to people at all levels of the organization. If junior bankers are quitting in droves because they can get more interesting work at Private Equity firms, figure out how to reinvent the work they are doing in your company to compete. If senior people want to experiment with a new business line, and it makes some sense, figure out the mechanism to allow them to do it. Above a certain level of sustenance income people care much more about being heard and having influence at work than anything else.

d) Read the books above for managers. If you own a business you are still a manager, and you may not be that good at it. Learn what it means to be a good manager and aggressively assess your own weaknesses. Bring in people who can fill in your gaps.

Most of us spend way too much time at work to accept a mediocre experience. This is your life, after all. The cool thing is that if you are able to make work more enjoyable and rewarding for yourself, it almost always positively impacts the people around you — which inevitably will make you happier too. Perhaps you can be the one at your work to kick off this virtuous cycle of happiness!

Advisor, Mentor, Speaker, Writer. Fintech and Commodities Professional. Wife, mother, grandmother and devout Catholic. Views expressed are my own.