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Happy Companies Aren’t Enough

Champion Meaning. Not Happiness.

Don’t get me wrong—happiness matters. People deserve every opportunity to be happy. The challenge with happiness is that it can be fleeting. As soon as we trip over it, we’re looking for our next fix. Employers need to accept there are many factors for happiness in our lives, but work is only one (and that’s if we’re lucky).

There’s a philosophy that we spend so much time at work, we should ratchet ourselves into a Pollyanna, or Uni-Kitty “Happy at any cost!” mindset.

You have a greater shot at attracting and retaining rockstar talent through a simple reframe:

We spend so much time at work, each of us deserves the greatest sense of meaning.

Companies who only pursue happiness can struggle with authenticity and accountability. Redirect your efforts to discovering, and then promoting a sense of meaning in your work. Viktor Frankl, in Man’s Search for Meaning captures the essence of effective organizational design.

“…Success, like happiness, cannot be pursued; it must ensue, and it only does so as the unintended side effect of one’s personal dedication to a cause greater than oneself.”

The writing is on the wall with emerging Gen Y and Millennial leadership: inauthenticity makes their Spidey senses tingle, and they have no patience for transactional work without greater context. Especially if it comes packaged in: “but look how happy our culture is!” In the film Office Space, remember the annoying server’s 37 pieces of flare?

Gen Y and Millennials need to be continually reminded how their work matters to the goals and values of the organization. This can only be accomplished by pursuing meaning, which is a precursor to happiness. Skipping over meaning and promoting only happiness creates a shaky foundation at best, and a fake, perma-grin culture at worst.

5 ways to inject more meaning
into your culture

  1. Ask your people. Try: What aspects of our work together gives you the most fulfillment? -or- What feels great when you accomplish it? If they throw out a necessary evil (ie. finishing my expenses) dig deeper.Have them describe their best day of work in the last 3 months, and what they did that day. Relive it with them. Watch their posture and enthusiasm lift.
  2. Think 80/20. Help your team identify the 20% of their work day (or year) that generates 80% of their sense of meaning, purpose, or belonging. The answers may surprise you.Find the common themes: Developing people, creating real impact in the business, or using my creativity. What can you do as a leader to move everyone closer to their right seat on the bus? You no doubt hire people who rock their role. Now figure out what they are truly capable of.
  3. Always tie your why. Humans aren’t birds that instinctually fly in lock formation. All major decisions need to include a brief why, ideally tied to purpose of the business. Yes, it requires slowing down and greater intention. But you can’t can’t keep everyone on the bus without it. You’re not just selling your strategy internally. You’re inviting people to own a personal story of why this will get us to the goal.Have them repeat it back to you on their terms. That’s the story worth repeating. Not yours.
  4. Celebrate Realness. A high-achieving friend runs education for a global company with staff exceeding 100,000. She knows her job cold, creates major impact, and is always innovating. Her manager’s primary feedback? “It’s too obvious when you’re upset, or not engaged.” World events are making it harder to keep up the mask.Vulnerability allows people to actually step up and help one another. Invulnerability creates an ego facade of “I got this.” Can your business afford to punt collaboration down the field for a later date? Don’t make people spend their days digging for the real issue. Create an environment where people clear what’s bugging them so they can move forward.
  5. Reward acts of meaning. Two of my organizational clients just rolled-out new mission and values. Everyone in the team provided input first through focus groups, so it wouldn’t feel pushed from the top-down.When we launched we designed 2 sets of “Values Cards” for everyone on the team: one set to live, or keep with them. Another set is to give, or reward others for living the value. When I visited a General Manager proudly showed me their dedicated Slack channel. It was full of happy faces who had received a card.

What’s more likely to grow our sense of meaning, the open bar at a company event, or receiving a “Be Bold (Innovation)”card from a respected leader?

What has worked for you in helping people feel connected to their work?

What companies impress you with their sense of meaning, or how they reward it?
I’d love to discuss further in the comments below.

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