Success is not the key to happiness. Happiness is the key to success. If you love what you are doing, you will be successful. — Albert Schweitzer
I’m obsessed with happiness. Probably because it has been so elusive. Looking back on my career, I realize that the times I have felt most fulfilled is when I have been trusted and given the freedom to do what I believe is best for an organization. I wanted to use this space to reflect on what each of us can do to make both ourselves and our teams happy. Not just because it’s good for the company or even for each person but because it elevates us as a culture. The great thing about happiness is that it’s infectious (just as unhappiness is).
So this article is about happiness but it’s really about creating a work environment where people can achieve happiness or at least discover what would make them happy. It’s okay if where you are is not where you believe you should be. But I truly believe that most people can get a lot more out of their current environment than they think.
I’ve divided happiness at work into three different high level concepts that intersect to build a happier person, team and company.
As social animals, it’s crucial that teammates feel a connection to others on the team. Without that, we start to form theories and explanations for behavior that are almost always wrong. We are much less likely to do that if we connect and understand others. Simply speaking, there are those who are good at forming those connections themselves and others who are not.
I reel at the thought of team building activities, birthday celebrations, and anything else that would tickle the fancy of any extrovert. But these events are a dead simple way of forcing that communication no matter what your comfort level. Also, team building can take many shapes. If crafted well, it can be used to great effect. Understanding your team is an important first step in deciding on how to strengthen the ties between them. 1-on-1s are a great way to understand the personalities of your teammates.
I would go further and say that you should find ways to weave team building into the fabric of your organization. A team that is a bond is a team that is happy and therefore successful. This can be extremely difficult and could take time but can be achieved through frequent passive internal communication that is a constant reminder of the common goal the team has. A team that loses sight of their shared purpose is a loosely coupled set of workers.
Final Thoughts On Team
Winning and losing as a team is both rewarding and crucial to a company culture and to our happiness. Finding ways to strengthen the bonds of a team is an important part of building a great culture.
Team building exercises are a good way to jump start a team that may not be acting like one. But ultimately, weaving a common sense of purpose into everything the team does is the best long term solution to this. Passive communication can be a great way to keep the team working toward that common goal.
No one wants to work on something that they don’t believe in. You are much more likely to produce higher quality output if you believe in what you’re doing. The question arises: how can a team, especially large ones, ever hope to achieve broad agreement in not just the what and why but also the how.
I agree that this is difficult and will never be perfect. It’s work to foster an environment where these conversations can be had in a healthy and productive way. In my experience, challenges arises because of three types of human behavior. We can get most of the way there if we can address each within our organization.
Clinging to Our Ideas
We have a tendency to cling to our own ideas even when faced with strong evidence to the contrary.
We cling to our own ideas when we feel threatened. To overcome, it takes a joint effort by both parties to agree that all suggestions have advantages and disadvantages. The good ideas are not good because they’re necessarily smarter but because the advantages are more advantageous in these particular circumstances and the disadvantages are less disadvantageous. You wouldn’t say that a square peg is a bad peg because it doesn’t fit in the circular hole. It’s just that, right now, we have a round hole so the square peg isn’t ideal.
Assuming the Worst
We have a tendency to assume the worst when not all the facts that drive a decision are presented.
Assuming the worst about others’ ideas is a consequence of other factors in the organization. Lack of trust is fueled by a lack of team bonding. We are much more likely to take something on faith from someone we know and trust than from others.
Some people are simply not interested enough — for them, work is a place to make money. To the extent that one can continue doing so, they will do what is necessary. Nothing more and nothing less.
This can be addressed in one of two ways. One way is to avoid the situation altogether and try to identify this prior to hiring. Failing that, have frequent 1/1s to try and understand the source of the ambivalence and work to create an environment where he or she can extend their reach and become a part of the team.
Final Thoughts On Ownership
In the end, a feeling of ownership can make the difference between a happy employee and a deflated one. For most, feeling powerless to affect change or be heard is a miserable feeling. Do everything you can to mitigate — on both sides. Giving others the benefit of the doubt on occasion can be a great way to establish trust and get there faster.
Over the past 15 years or so, the startup culture has created an enviable environment for employees. In certain areas, this has become an expectation that can help lure candidates and encourage employees to stay.
But the truth is that it only softens the edges but doesn’t make the case for staying. If someone is truly unhappy, they are unlikely to stay because of an amenity unless it serves some crucial need (such as healthcare). But co-dependency is not a good alternative to true happiness.
But if these amenities are treated as what they really are — a symbol of appreciation for the work that employees do, it’s a great addition to an otherwise happy culture.
Feeling a sense of appreciation varies from person to person. For some, being given more responsibility is the key. To others, compensation. And others, caring about their well-being day to day. In fact, all of these things inject a sense of pride in most of us.
Final Thoughts On Appreciation
Appreciation is crucial but not a replacement for team building and ownership. I’ve always seen it as a way of strengthening other cultural pillars but not something that can stand alone. As a leader, the key is to try to understand how your teammates feel appreciated. And as a team member, take a look inward and think about what makes you feel appreciated. Then share your thoughts during 1-on-1s.
Pillars of Happiness at Work
Happiness at work is the confluence of Team, Ownership and Appreciation. If you believe that, then we can get to work to start to affect change in each of these areas.
I wish I could give step by step instructions to get from here to there but I hope that this helps at least let you pick the right path. It’s important to remember, though, that the path doesn’t end and it’s a rocky one. Some people will move on, others will be asked to move on but in the end everyone on the team will have learned something about themselves and become better for it.
And something that has been left unsaid so far is this: happy people means happy company. I truly believe that and it drives many of my day to day decisions. As a mentor or leader, you cannot make people happy but you can create an environment where they can be.