You can’t make your employees happy unless you understand just what that means.

Top Three Ideas

  • Happiness isn’t material success, freedom from problems or being comfortable
  • Managers are not responsible for teaching adults how to be adult
  • Being happy at work means having meaningful work with people you respect

Who wouldn’t want to be the boss everyone wants to work for?

It was my first job out of college, and I was miserable

I was the file clerk on a large Boston real estate project and wasn’t using my brain, didn’t have enough to do, and my bosses had no idea how to manage. I toughed it out three years because my Great Generation parents believed happiness came later, after I’d earned enough money and status. While I eventually got good work and a great boss, that first experience left scars.

I eventually realized I didn’t know what happiness was, and that most people didn’t either. Like my parents, a lot of people have mistaken ideas about happiness. Weeding out those ideas should help managers focus on what matters.

Collaboration is a Deep Need

Competent and caring managers know that making employees happy—getting them engaged—isn’t ultimately about pays or perks, it’s about providing meaningful work in a culture of respect. It’s a deep human need to collaborate on something important. Simply, it makes us happy to do work we enjoy with people we like.

Three Bad Ideas about Happiness

Materialism. Money, status and power and things drive some people, including “successful” people. But most people only want enough money to be financially secure. A probing question is “What’s the difference between what you need to earn and what you want to earn?” The answer isn’t a dollar amount, but an attitude

Perfection. Our ego often makes us hold everyone except ourselves to a standard of perfection. Others are so worried about shame or punishment that they won’t let themselves be happy until everything is perfect. Bosses who can admit mistakes and avoid blaming people publicly can bring the best out of people.

Comfort. We’re constantly marketing ways to be more comfortable, so some employees demand a workplace that ensures both physical and mental comfort, that there’s never distress or upset. Buddhist talk about “Parental Mind,” helping others see the lessons in suffering—but of course making sure people are indeed physically and emotionally safe.

Accepting Reality Serenely

It’s a mistake to provide toys, excessive pay and “leadership training” so no one ever feels bad. Smart managers tell everyone often that they’re expected to be a mature adult, able to react patiently and kindly and not let problems escalate. See the TED Talk at 5.1 Management.

Work can’t have real meaning if people are unrealistic. Happiness means you have the maturity and wisdom to accept that you won’t get along with everyone, you’ll make mistakes and feel bad about them, and bad things happen you can’t control.

The Serenity Prayer, written by Reinhold Niebuhr (1892–1971), is commonly quoted as:

God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,
courage to change the things I can, and wisdom to know the difference.

Through practice, patience and prayer, we can become more attentive and respectful, helping others enjoy their work and our company. I believe we’re usually just one deep breath away from over-reacting to someone’s small unkindness.

Meaning and Respect with Competence and Compassion

These are the big questions about providing meaningful work:

  • Is your organization doing something important and good?
  • Does everyone know how they can contribute?
  • Do they have the resources and training to contribute to their full capacity?

These are the big questions about creating a culture of respect:

  • Do the chief executive and other senior managers set examples of respectful behavior?
  • Do they use their power to help others?
  • Have employees been reminded they’re expected to behave respectfully?

Management is a Calling

Think of management as a calling to serve and remember that one small act of kindness can change a life. You’ll then have the courage to answer these questions and help others be happy. Read chapter 8 in Atoms & Orchestras.

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