How to Find Happiness on the Job

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Author and Penn human resources expert Annie McKee explains how workers can feel more fulfilled on the job.

41MPnSZQIYL._SX329_BO1,204,203,200_Happiness is in short supply at work these days. Deadlines, staff shortages, productivity pressures and crazy stress push even the most talented and temperate people to want to quit their jobs. But that’s not a realistic option, even for folks in the C-suite. Annie McKee, director of the Penn CLO and Medical Education programs at the University of Pennsylvania where she teaches leadership and emotional intelligence, has a better idea. In her book, How To Be Happy At Work, she outlines three requirements that workers need to feel more fulfilled on the job. McKee spoke about the concepts in her book on the Knowledge@Wharton show on SiriusXM channel 111. (Listen to the podcast at the top of this page.)

 The following is an edited transcript of the conversation.

Knowledge@Wharton: How many people do you think are not happy at work?

Annie McKee: I don’t think we even have to guess. Gallup has been studying people for years, and upwards of two-thirds of us are either neutral, which means we don’t care, or we’re actively disengaged. Disengagement and happiness go hand in hand, so an awful lot of people are not happy at work. Unhappy people don’t perform as well as they could. When we’re negative, cynical, pessimistic, we simply don’t give our all, and our brains don’t work that well just when we need people’s brains to be working beautifully.

Knowledge@Wharton: Has this problem ramped up in the last two decades or so? As much as digital is phenomenal for us, a lot of people feel under pressure because of what digital does to accelerate change.

McKee: The world is changing at a rapid pace, obviously. As much as we love our always-connected world, it can mean that we work all of the time. We’re always one minute away from that next email that’s going to bring tragedy or crisis to our working lives. Some of us never turn it off, and that’s not good for us.

Knowledge@Wharton: Where did your idea for the book come from?

McKee: I’ve worked in organizations all over the world for decades now. I’ve looked at leadership practices, emotional intelligence, culture and all of those things that impact the bottom line and people’s individual effectiveness. I decided to take another look and see what people were trying to tell us. All of these studies that we did around the world were practical studies. People were telling us, “I want to be happy, I want to be fulfilled, I want to love my job, I’m not as happy or as fulfilled as I could be, and here is what I need.” And then they went on to tell us what they need.

Knowledge@Wharton: Are executives aware of their employees’ problems? Are they also aware that they may susceptible to this?

“Unhappy people don’t perform as well as they could.”

McKee: It doesn’t matter where you sit in the organization, you are susceptible to disengagement and unhappiness even at the very top. We think if you’re making all of that money and you’ve got all of that power and that great job, it’s going to be perfect. The best leaders in our organizations, at the very top and all the way down to the shop floor, understand that people matter, feelings matter, and it’s job number one to create a climate where people feel good about what they’re doing where they’re happy, engaged and ready to share their talents.

Knowledge@Wharton: What are the key ingredients to finding that happiness?

McKee: From my work, I’ve discovered three things. Number one, people feel that they need to have impact on something that is important to them, whether it’s people or a cause or the bottom line. They need to feel that their work is purposeful, and it’s tied to values that they care about.

Number two, we need to feel optimistic that our work is tied to a personal vision of the future. The organization’s vision isn’t enough. As good as it may be, we have to know that what we’re doing ties to a personal vision of our future.

Number three, we need friends at work. We’ve learned over the course of our lives you shouldn’t be friends with people at work, that it’s dangerous somehow, that it will cloud your judgment. I don’t agree. I think we need to feel that we are with our tribe in the workplace, that we belong, that we’re with people that we respect and who respect us in return. We need warmth, we need caring, and we need to feel supported.

Knowledge@Wharton: I would think most people looking for a job, whether they are coming out of college or shifting careers mid-life, are looking for that area that would make them happy. When you have that expectation of being in the right sector to begin with, you hope that you have the happiness to go along with it.

McKee: We do hope that we get into the right organization and there’s a good fit between our values and the organization’s values. We really try hard. But we get in there and the pressures of everyday life, and the crises and the stress can really tamp down our enthusiasm and our happiness.

Also, a lot of us are susceptible to what I call happiness traps. We end up doing what we think we should do. We take that job with that fancy consulting firm or that wonderful organization not because we love it and not because it’s a fit, but because we think we should. Frankly, some of us have ambition that goes into overdrive. Ambition is a great thing, until it’s not.

Knowledge@Wharton: Is that part of the reason why we see more people who have been with a company for 20 years, 25 years and suddenly pivot? They may be going to work for a nonprofit. You see these stories popping up, especially with people in the C-suite.

McKee: You do see that. You see senior leaders all of a sudden saying, “Enough is enough, I [want to do] something different.” But I really want to be clear, you don’t always have to run away. In fact, you want to run towards something. If you feel you’re not happy in the workplace, quitting your job is probably not the first answer, and some of us can’t. What we need to do is figure out what we need, what we want, how to have impact, what will make us feel hopeful about our future, what kind of people we want to work with and for, and then go find that either in our organization or elsewhere.

Happiness starts inside each of us. It’s tempting to blame that toxic boss or that horrible organizational culture, and those things may be true. But if you want to be happy at work, you first have to look inside and ask what is it that you want? What will make you feel fulfilled? Which happiness traps have you fallen prey to? And get yourself out.

Knowledge@Wharton: What are the happiness traps?

McKee: There’s what I call the “should” trap. We do what we think we should do. We show up to work acting like someone we’re not. That is soul-destroying, and it’s fairly common. [There’s also] the “ambition” trap. When our ambition drives us from goal to goal and we don’t even stop to celebrate the accomplishment of those goals, something is wrong.

Some of us feel helpless, stuck. The “helplessness” trap may be the most serious of all. It’s really hard to get out of because we don’t feel we have any power. My message is we have a lot more power and control over not only our attitude but what we do and how we approach our work on a daily basis and in the long term than maybe we think we do.

“Ambition is a great thing, until it’s not.”

Knowledge@Wharton: Earlier in your life, you found yourself fitting into these patterns as well.

McKee: I did. Early in my life I wasn’t teaching in a wonderful institution like Penn. I didn’t even have what you would call a professional career. I had jobs like waiting tables and cleaning houses and taking care of elderly people. I was making ends meet. And it wasn’t easy.

I had two choices, I could either say to myself this is miserable and I hate it, or I could look for something that was fulfilling in what I did. I tried to do that. I did find aspects of my job, whether it was cleaning houses and feeling like I was doing a good job or finding a mentor in some of these workplaces, that really made it worthwhile to me.

Knowledge@Wharton: Do you have to be 100% happy all of the time? I think if you can find areas of happiness, it can make your job or your life so much easier to go through.

McKee: Happiness isn’t just about feeling good every moment of the day, and it’s not just about pleasure. That’s hedonism, and we’re not seeking that. Frankly, a little bit of stress is a good thing. It pushes us to be innovative and to do things differently and to push harder. So, it’s not about just feeling good. But we do need a foundation of purpose, hope and friendships. We do need to know that what we do matters at work, that we are doing something that is tied to our future, and that the people we work with are great.

Knowledge@Wharton: You mentioned taking the time to recognize your accomplishments, but there are companies that want you to push on to the next project. They don’t give you the opportunity to slow down even for an hour to enjoy it.

McKee: Most of our organizations are really hard-driving, especially publicly traded organizations. I’m not even sure they’re that different than other institutions these days. The pressure is on everywhere, and the reality is we do move from project to project, goal to goal. What choices can we make in the middle of that culture? We don’t have to be victims of our organizational culture, and we don’t have to be victims of that bad boss you might have or maybe you’ve had in the past. We can make choices about what we do with our time, our energy and our emotional stance.

Knowledge@Wharton: Going back to the friends component in the workplace, does it matter where those friends come from within the structure of the company? A lot of people say you have to be careful if you want to try to be friends with the boss.

McKee: It doesn’t matter where your friends are, but it does matter whether or not you have your eyes open and recognize what people are thinking about how you are behaving and who you are friends with. You’ve got to be aware of your organization’s culture and the rules of the road.

If you’re violating some of those rules — for example, going up the hierarchy and building friendships with people who are a couple levels above you or maybe in another division — you need to understand what the implications of that are. And you need to be maybe a little bit careful.

Knowledge@Wharton: How does the middle manager deal with this?

McKee: Middle managers get it from all sides. They are pulled in every direction, and it is probably the hardest job in any organization. They, more than anybody, need to hear this message. Life is too short to be unhappy at work. Middle managers have a tremendous impact on the people who work for them, and recognizing that you more than anybody are the creator and the curator of the culture in the organization is an important place to start.

Knowledge@Wharton: Sometimes managers forget about the life people have outside of work.

McKee: We’re here at the Wharton School, and we’ve been studying management now for over 100 years. Some of the early approaches to managing organizations are really destructive, and one of the aspects of that early research has been the attitude that people don’t matter and that private lives ought to be left at the door of the office. It’s impossible to leave our private lives at the door of the office. It doesn’t mean that we talk about it all of the time, but we bring our experiences with us and we bring our feelings with us. Managers need to recognize that.

It’s also hard to find what is commonly called work-life balance. By the way, I don’t like that phrase. I think it’s a myth. I don’t think there is any magic formula that says if we get it just right we’re going to be happy at work and happy at home. It’s more about understanding that the lines are blurred between work and home now, and we need to learn how to manage our choices and our attention.

Knowledge@Wharton: What about those who work remotely and can feel very isolated and disconnected?

McKee: I understand the isolation and feeling kind of left out. The reality is that it takes a lot more effort to build relationships when we work remotely. We need to take time. When we’re working remotely, we get on the phone, we do the work that needs to be done, we talk about the project, and we get off the phone. That leaves us feeling kind of empty. We need to take that extra five minutes to have a chat, have a laugh, feel like we are in a relationship with somebody. It takes effort and self-management because the temptation is to just do the work. You talk about the gig economy, right? We’re all sort of working in a portfolio manner these days. We take on this bit of work and that bit of work, and much of it is virtual.

“Life is too short to be unhappy at work.”

I think we need to figure this out because the bottom line is that we have not changed as human beings. We still need to feel like we belong, we need to feel that we’re cared for, and we need to be able to care for others in return. If we’re working far away, we’ve got to take extra time and make a concerted effort to build those relationships in a different kind of way than if we’re in person.

I’m a big proponent of working from home or working remotely. I think it’s really helpful to individuals and companies. People who are able to work at home feel trusted, and when you feel trusted you are more committed to your organization. A lot of people report being able to get more done away from the office because you don’t have the interruptions. The downside is that you have to find a way to keep the relationships fresh and alive because that’s as important as getting that project done.

Knowledge@Wharton: Companies seem to be more aware of employee happiness than they used to be, which is a good thing. Do you think we’re going to continue down that path?

McKee: Companies are more aware, so are enlightened CEOs and enlightened leaders. I think we will continue down the path for the following reasons. It’s not just nice-to-have, and it’s not just about feeling good. We’ve got solid research coming out of positive psychology, neuroscience and management that tells us that feelings matter. When we feel good, we’re smarter. And we need smart employees now. We need people who are committed, who are engaged. The research is pretty clear. Happiness before success. If we want our employees to be at their best, we need to care about their emotional well-being as well as their physical well-being.

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