What makes you happy?

March 28, 2014

What makes you happy? What makes you work at your best? What would make you even more productive, engaged, creative, secure, loyal and willing to contribute?

I am not sure we have addressed these questions well enough.

We have made the workplace an art form of intimidating glass towers with atriums as high as the sky. But inside so called “open plan” is in reality screened-off spaces rammed full of people sitting in rows with perfect lighting, perfect heating and perfect ergonomic seating.

Frankly all that is needed is for there to be a trough of hormone enhanced seeds and the battery-worker-hen environment would be complete.

We talk endlessly of process improvement, of technology solutions, of efficiency and effectiveness. This is the mechanised, industrialised vocabulary of robots not people. Where is the talk of creativity, thoughtfulness and care?

We have created these factories and they degrade us, albeit with art on the walls to confuse our minds and soft toilet tissue in the loos to soak our silent tears.

And in these factories we can force feed workers on an oversupply of email, tethering their creativity with the short reins of HR policies and beating their heads regularly with the blunt instrument of the IT helpdesk.

Joy sucked out, this eco-system is sustained with the learned behaviour that “outside” is a harsher, windblown environment where the chill wind of thinking for yourself is a risk that might be harmful. Instead the sanitised white noise of air-conditioning units dulls our sensibilities and allows us to believe that annual appraisals are about our development and budget lines represent reality.

Let me redefine some terms:

  • “Human Resources” – That part of the business that was uncomfortable being called “Personnel” because it sounded like they were interested in people. Its contribution is to lower competency in the business to levels they can report on and replace thinking with policies. 
  • “IT” – That part of the business run by people who had a bad experience at school. No other part of the business world is designed to tell colleagues how insignificant they are, how worthless their needs and how grateful they must be to rank 379th in their list of priorities. Champions of the acronym, their finest achievement to date has been to design the most uselessly inept support service imaginable and call it a “help desk” with no hint of irony. 
  • “Finance” – The pre-school for chief executives and where people learn to make the words “variance” and “YTD” carry the latent threat of an unmapped minefield. 
  • “Balanced scorecard” – A game like Snakes and Ladders where if colleagues know the buzzwords they can climb the heights, but if they do not know the codes, colleagues are doomed to slide into the twilight world of the “fully competent”. 
  • “Appraisal” – Another game, this one designed to anoint a chosen few, but to undermine the confidence of many others to the point when they will leave the business feeling a failure, but thinking it is their fault. In the “Appraisal” game the range of options is typically from “exceeding expectations” to “has development needs”. In the middle is “fully competent” and this is the killer descriptor. 
  • “Development needs” – No-one is ever described as having “development needs” because it triggers a whole load of form filling and risks a grievance claim. 
  • “Exceeding expectations” – A pointless self-aggrandising charade for achievement. It denotes nothing except that colleagues probably did your work while you were off being self-important. 
  • “Fully competent” – There is a silent lingering death that comes from being labelled “fully competent”. It will hang in the air like a malodorous mist. It will elicit sympathetic glances, but everyone knows the recipient of this epithet has no more than 18 months left before they will be “managed out”. 
  • “Managed out” – the means by which a business can stifle talent and suffocate confidence until the victim leaves. 
  • “Do more with less” – The jeux de jour. Executives strip away support and ask hapless employees to be more effective. It is corporate Ker Plunk. 
  • “Email” – Emails are like Tribbles. 

(Source Wikipedia: Tribbles are fictional animals in the Star Trek universe who first appeared in the episode titled “The Trouble With Tribbles”. They are depicted as small, furry, soft, gentle, and slow-moving, and they usually produce a soothing purring or cooing sound when stroked, all of which are endearing traits to humans and Vulcans. However, because tribbles reproduce enormously fast, and consume exponentially larger and larger amounts of food as they multiply and crawl stealthily from one place to another, Starfleet considers them dangerous organisms and forbids their transportation. The Klingons, in whose presence tribbles produce a convulsive, shrieking reaction, go as far as to consider them “mortal enemies”)

  • “Our people are our greatest asset” – Worth noting that words which are typically associated with “asset” include “sweated” and “depreciated”. 

I could go on…

I started this piece by asking the question “What makes you happy”. My guess is that if the world of work makes you happy you will be more creative, more productive, more useful and more valuable. My guess is, as well, that nothing I have described here will make you happy.

That is worth a thought or two. Shall we try and make it different?

Paul Gilbert

Chief Executive, LBC Wise Counsel


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