Happiness, fulfilment & work

One part of my job I love is getting to see inside different companies every week. Observing how they work from an outsider’s perspective can be revealing.

It’s interesting to pull out some common themes when thinking about work and happiness and fulfilment. Before doing so you have to accept the deep subjectivity of the subject. Some want to be challenged at work, some do not. Others have been conditioned to believe they are not capable of handling challenging work.  

We’re currently working with a large organisation to help it understand what life is like for its employees, and what unites them as a group. With 15,000 staff across 200+ roles it’s been a logistical challenge to say the least. What’s been fascinating is how different people view their roles.

Whenever I work on projects relating to employee satisfaction my own prejudices are exposed. I’d assumed as salary rose so too would job satisfaction, but this isn’t borne out by the interviews I conduct. Indeed some of the most satisfied have relatively low rates of pay. What seems to unite the satisfied is the amount of autonomy of they have, whether they have human contact and the tangibility of their labours. On top of this the most enthusiastic staff also talked about how their job allowed them to help others achieve something. So if I’m able to manage my workload, develop relationships with people I work with and go home at the end of the week knowing I’d made the sale/delivered the report/fixed the leak I’m doing well. If I’ve brought someone along with me and helped them achieve one of those things, all the better for both of us.

Looking at what others have written about what characterises satisfying work some overlap emerges. In his book Outliers Malcolm Gladwell defines three characteristics of enjoyable work:

  • Autonomy;
  • Complexity – tasks which engage your mind and imagination;
  • A relationship between effort and reward.

Whilst not all of us have the get up and go of a jet-setting ideas entrepreneur like Gladwell, to me this analysis feels about right. Steven Pinker would add the meaning of the work you are doing and the opportunity to become expert – the exhibition of mastery. Herzberg would add the opportunity to learn and to be recognised by others.

My own view is that all criteria need to be viewed through the lens of organisational culture. It never fails to surprise me just how different workplace cultures are. Culture-wise, similar sized companies in similar parts of the country in the same industry can feel like chalk and cheese.

One issue that’s implicit in corporate life is having to give visible support to initiatives you disagree with. We all have to toe the line and wear a work ‘mask’ from time to time especially at times of change. However some organisations require you to do this much more than others, like those restructuring every 6 months for example. Before you know it you work persona is based on a series of untruths accumulated over time. Before long you have to remind yourself what the party line is before you open your mouth. This has to be tiring at the very least. For the more sensitive it may sap at the soul.  

Research by OPP (a business psychology company) in 2008 confirms this. It describes “workplace chameleons” – people who feel the need to adopt a different persona as they arrive at work each day. Apparently UK workers feel the need to compromise their identity in the workplace far more keenly than their European colleagues. Suppressing or enhancing personality traits is not a relaxing way to spend your day. A significant majority of UK (37%) workers said they found work more stressful through being conscious of how they think they should act. Any benefits of impression management thus entail a cost.   

Taking the idea of organisational culture further the recent BBC series Child of our Time explored aspects of personality, and used 5 dimensions on which we all differ:

  • Openness – how willing we are to explore new ideas and ways of doing things.
  • Conscientiousness – how well we plan and exhibit self-control.
  • Extroversion – our desire for stimulation.
  • Agreeableness – how easily we get along with others.
  • Neuroticism – how we deal with negative emotions like stress or anxiety.

Their online test has capture thousands of responses from across the UK. When they analysed results of staff in different work environments some interesting findings emerged. They described the characteristics of staff in elite environments, for example a city law firm:

  • High levels of openness;
  • Low levels of agreeableness;
  • Medium levels of extraversion.

This second factor is particularly interesting. Being low on agreeableness can help you in business. Concern for others can be a burden in a fast paced, quick feedback business environment. What the programme also revealed was that the majority of high achievers with low levels of agreeableness are less happy than their peers. Conversely having high levels of agreeableness is correlated with health. Seeing the see good in others and trusting those around you is linked to better health and longer life.

Assuming that staff of a similar nature have all been attracted to a competitive environment, it introduces the idea of a trade-off. To be successful in an elite environment, it may help to push others’ interests to the periphery. However in the long run it might not make you happy. In a touching article in the Harvard Business Review (not an oxymoron believe it or not) called How Will You Measure Your Life?  Clayton Christensen reflects on the priorities his Harvard classmates lived by, and how despite achieving business success, other areas of their lives have not always prospered.

The touching part is that this realisation may come in later life. For the individuals Christensen refers to, work distracted them from ‘real life’ – friends, family and their own core values. It suggests that people who are very successful may not be that reflective. They are successful because they focus on the future, the next challenge. Perspective can be hard to come by, perhaps driven by hiatus:

“Over the years I’ve watched the fates of my HBS classmates from 1979 unfold; I’ve seen more and more of them come to reunions unhappy, divorced, and alienated from their children. I can guarantee you that not a single one of them graduated with the deliberate strategy of getting divorced and raising children who would become estranged from them. And yet a shocking number of them implemented that strategy. The reason? They didn’t keep the purpose of their lives front and center as they decided how to spend their time, talents, and energy.”

What Christensen argues is that intelligent, successful people often make the wrong decisions because they frame decisions poorly. They ‘misinvest their time resources’ – they are so used to allocating their time to activities that give the most tangible results they neglect family life, for example. The marginal cost of one extra hour at the office doesn’t seem so bad at the time, but in the longer term it leads to problems.

What’s fascinating is the way that Christensen talks about the successful: he makes them sound deficient. They have ‘a high need for achievement’. It is an interesting take on things from a Harvard Professor. Viewed from this angle you could take a programme like the Secret Millionaire and re-cast its roles; instead of the omnipotent benefactor parachuting in with little gifts of gold, it’s more about an empty vessel seeking to re-learn their humanity, parasitising the richer lives of the poor.

So, to summarise, what am I saying?

  • What defines satisfying work is subjective: it depends on who’s doing the work in question.
  • There are some common themes that commentators talk about when describing satisfying work. Gladwell’s three work well (autonomy, complexity and a relationship between effort and reward).
  • Characteristics that equip some people to be successful in work may not equip them for success in their personal lives (like low agreeableness, a myopic focus on the future, and a preference for tangible reward).
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About Simon Shaw

I'm a Director at a communications agency. I'm interested in marketing, market research & consumer psychology. The views expressed are not necessarily those of my employer.
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