A best-selling au­thor and ex­ec­u­tive coach ex­plains what it means to be happy at work.

Rotman Management Magazine - - CONTENTS - In­ter­view by Carolyn Dre­bin

An­nie Mckee

What does it take to be happy at work?

It boils down to three things. First, peo­ple need a sense of pur­pose. They need to feel that they are con­tribut­ing in an im­pact­ful way and that their work is mean­ing­ful. Sec­ond, peo­ple need to feel hope­ful about the fu­ture. They need to feel that work fits into life and that over­all, work is help­ing them progress to­wards their life vi­sion. Fi­nally, peo­ple need great, warm re­la­tion­ships with col­leagues — they need friends.

What role do work­place friends play?

In the best cases, we have more than one friend at work — peo­ple who we trust and who trust us, who care about us and whom we care about in re­turn. There is even a phrase for this kind of re­la­tion­ship: ‘com­pan­ion­ate love’. The re­search shows that when em­ploy­ees have these kinds of re­la­tion­ships, they get more done. Purely trans­ac­tional re­la­tion­ships don’t sup­port us in the work­place. Friend­ships are good for us in­di­vid­u­ally and they are also good for our or­ga­ni­za­tions.

With so many peo­ple work­ing re­motely these days, it’s def­i­nitely harder to build friendly, warm re­la­tion­ships vir­tu­ally. You have to make a proac­tive ef­fort to reg­u­larly check in and build a sense of con­nec­tion. If you are go­ing to be work­ing vir­tu­ally with large groups of peo­ple, make sure

there are op­por­tu­ni­ties to break into smaller groups or pairs. We’ve got the tech­nol­ogy to do this, and as in­di­cated, it’s very im­por­tant.

We talk about suc­cess and hap­pi­ness al­most in­ter­change­ably. Which comes first?

Hap­pi­ness comes be­fore suc­cess, al­though we don’t of­ten think of it that way. We tend to think we’ll be happy when we get that next pro­mo­tion, or a new job, or a new perk. But in fact, it’s how we feel about our work that de­ter­mines how much we give to it and how much we want to learn. The re­search sup­ports this.

Talk a bit about all the un­happy peo­ple at work.

When I stud­ied what makes peo­ple un­happy at work, I found that they tend to point fin­gers out­wards: They blame their boss, the tasks they have to do or the com­pany cul­ture in gen­eral. While it’s true that there are toxic man­agers and un­sup­port­ive work­places, in re­al­ity, we have to take re­spon­si­bil­ity for our own hap­pi­ness at work, just as we do in life. Gallup Polls show that two thirds of us are ei­ther ac­tiv­ity dis­en­gaged or feel neu­tral about our work. Be­ing neu­tral means that we see it as ‘just a job’, a trans­ac­tion: You show up for eight hours and get a pay­cheque and some ben­e­fits. But if your work is just a job, it won’t be long be­fore neu­tral turns into ac­tively un­happy.

What can we do to con­sciously choose to be happy in the work­place?

In or­der to be­come truly happy at work you have to de­velop your self-aware­ness and un­der­stand what you re­ally care about, what val­ues are im­por­tant to you, and what it means to make a con­tri­bu­tion. Then, you should take a re­ally good hard look around the work­place and ask, “What as­pects of my job are not mak­ing me happy, and, in fact, make me mis­er­able some­times?”

If you’ve got a boss or a cul­ture that isn’t great, you’ve got to then lean into your ‘self-man­age­ment’ com­pe­tency. That means build­ing up psy­cho­log­i­cal bound­aries to pro­tect your­self from what­ever it is that is not healthy. If you do that, it frees you up to start to un­der­stand how to shift your mind­set and ac­tions to make your work more palat­able, mean­ing­ful and ful­fill­ing.

You talk a lot about Emo­tional In­tel­li­gence. How does it re­late to work­place hap­pi­ness?

Emo­tional in­tel­li­gence is our abil­ity to un­der­stand and man­age our own and other peo­ple’s emo­tions, and to use that knowl­edge to fur­ther col­lec­tive goals. It re­quires self-aware­ness and self-man­age­ment to stay true to who we are and man­age the pres­sures of our ‘al­ways-on’ world. Our so­cial aware­ness, or the abil­ity to read other peo­ple and un­der­stand their needs and mo­ti­va­tions, helps to en­sure that we cre­ate warm, res­o­nant and pro­duc­tive re­la­tion­ships. Clearly, these things re­late very closely to work­place hap­pi­ness.

You have iden­ti­fied sev­eral ‘hap­pi­ness traps’. Please de­scribe them —and how we can set our­selves free.

There are five hap­pi­ness traps. First, do­ing what you think you should do — in­clud­ing stay­ing in a job long af­ter you should prob­a­bly leave — is a com­mon trap. The sec­ond trap is find­ing your­self com­pletely over-worked and con­stantly strug­gling to keep up. That does not lead to hap­pi­ness. The third trap, the money trap, is one that many of us fall into, and it is driven by a va­ri­ety of fac­tors. The fourth trap is the am­bi­tion trap, and this one is very in­sid­i­ous be­cause am­bi­tion helps us to reach for our very best. Yet, over time, we can get caught on a tread­mill, striv­ing for the next pro­mo­tion or raise. We’re am­bi­tious for that goal, but we lose sight of the joys of the jour­ney along the way. That can make life feel very empty. Fi­nally, there is the help­less­ness trap. This arises when we feel dis­em­pow­ered and un­able to im­pact our sit­u­a­tion — and it might be the most dan­ger­ous trap of all.

Break­ing free from these traps re­quires self-aware­ness and the courage to act on what you dis­cover. Never mind what mat­ters to other peo­ple. Where are you go­ing in your life, not just in your ca­reer? How does your job and your ca­reer sup­port that? You’ve got to look at the big pic­ture, and

ask these im­por­tant ques­tions. If you do that, you will be on the road to a deeper kind of hap­pi­ness that is more sus­tain­able and will not only ef­fect your work­ing life, but your en­tire life.

De­scribe the dif­fer­ence be­tween a job, a ca­reer and a call­ing.

A job is when we ex­pe­ri­ence work as trans­ac­tional: You work in ex­change for a pay­cheque, and there are times in life when that is com­pletely ap­pro­pri­ate. How­ever, if we ex­pe­ri­ence work that way for too long, we can start to feel very re­sent­ful about giv­ing up hours of our ‘real’ lives for some­thing that doesn’t mat­ter much to us. The money never feels like it’s enough to pay us for the time or the ef­fort that we put forth. We al­ways want more.

A ca­reer is usu­ally linked to join­ing a pro­fes­sion that you care about. When this is the case, you will ex­pe­ri­ence some mean­ing as a re­sult of en­gag­ing in work re­lated to that pro­fes­sion. In a ca­reer, we want to progress — to learn more, to get bet­ter. But, again, we have to be on the look­out for mind­less move­ment or climb­ing the lad­der, which can hap­pen to the best of us.

Ideally, we want to ex­pe­ri­ence our work as what re­searcher Amy Wrzes­niewski and her col­leagues at Yale de­scribe as a call­ing: We want to feel that our work is mean­ing­ful, that we are truly liv­ing our pur­pose and our val­ues.

If a work­place cul­ture is op­pres­sive or toxic, what can we do about it?

Even if you’re not the boss, you can in­spire change by cre­at­ing ‘res­o­nance’ around you: Choose the val­ues you want to live with in the work­place; re­flect on how you treat peo­ple; and ask your­self what kind of norms and habits you want to model for your team. If enough of us did this, or­ga­ni­za­tions would change for the bet­ter.

You write about cross­ing the ‘hap­pi­ness line’. What does that mean?

Tip­ping the scale from hap­pi­ness into un­hap­pi­ness or even de­spair does not hap­pen overnight. It may seem like it does, but that’s usu­ally be­cause we’ve been ig­nor­ing the clues. I al­ways en­cour­age peo­ple to look at three cat­e­gories of clues. The first is be­ing aware of your phys­i­cal health. Are you sud­denly not sleep­ing well? Do you feel anx­ious all the time, to the point where you’re hav­ing phys­i­cal symp­toms? There are lots of lit­tle signs that some­thing might be wrong — and you don’t want to wait for a ma­jor phys­i­cal wake up call.

Next, there are the emo­tional clues. Are you in­creas­ingly im­pa­tient, when you used to go with the flow? Do you lose your tem­per too of­ten? The place to look for this first is at home. We’ve all been trained to keep our game face on at work, so dif­fi­cul­ties tend to show up at home first. Then, there are the re­la­tional clues. Do you find that peo­ple seem hes­i­tant to spend time with you, even in pro­fes­sional set­tings and meet­ings? Do they not make eye con­tact? Are you get­ting ei­ther sub­tle or overt mes­sages that things aren’t right?

It’s re­ally im­por­tant to pay at­ten­tion to these things long be­fore the big wakeup call that you’re mis­er­able at work — and be­fore they spill over into your per­sonal life.

Best-selling au­thor Dr. An­nie Mckee is a se­nior fel­low at the Univer­sity of Penn­syl­va­nia’s Grad­u­ate School of Ed­u­ca­tion and a coach to ex­ec­u­tives of For­tune/ftse 500 com­pa­nies. Her most re­cent book is Happy at Work: The Power of Pur­pose, Hope and Friend­ship (Har­vard Busi­ness Re­view Press, 2017).

We have to take re­spon­si­bil­ity for our own hap­pi­ness at work, just as we do in life.

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