The Age Old Question of What Makes People Happy is Alive and Well in the Workplace
People are changing jobs within the information technology field at a rate not seen since the dot com boom and Y2K phenomenon of the late ’90’s. Perhaps one factor in this trend is that more people are thinking about the value of their jobs beyond the workplace and, unfortunately, age old reward systems are simply not providing fulfilling answers. In many cases, traditional reward systems are not enough to keep people happy.
Understanding the Purpose and Impact of Our Working Lives
Because we spend a lot of time at work, most of us need to understand how our work provides value. (As I will explain later, an element of this is about the impact we make and the reach that impact has in the world.)
The first thing we need to understand is that we are all connected. The work we do matters. Our actions ripple outside the walls of our offices and conference rooms. Once we understand this, it can be a source for inspiration and, by extension, our work (even the more mundane activities) becomes uplifting rather than draining.
Knowing that our work has value enriches us once we understand the connections. But sometimes we cannot see the value of our actions or the impact we have in the world. Maybe we were never shown. Maybe it is not obvious. In an environment where someone writing a piece of software for their organization can literally impact millions, you have to wonder how we cannot see it? But, I would contend that this blindness is endemic within the working world and many managers don’t see the importance of communicating this message.
Ok, I understand that sounds like another ivory tower proclamation. So let me put a real world example forward. A team of people (contracted through consulting company A contracted through consulting company B via individual contracts on an H1-B visas) are assembled to support a software development initiative in Healthcare. The work is break/fix and small enhancement work that will be given to them a drip at a time. The team gets no big picture understanding of the grandiose initiative. But, they accept their work. They show up on time. Within the context of their narrow perspective, how do they prove their value? Typically, by being the best they can be at the technical tasks in front of them. (Thank goodness for cultures that support hard work or this would easily turn to chaos soup about half way through day two.)
Now imagine this same group assembled the same way. But instead of being told they are being hired as software developers for break/fix work, they are told they are working on a major Healthcare initiative that will improve the lives of tens of thousands of people by making it easier to use their Healthcare benefits. For example, their work will help the overstressed mom in the emergency room to receive the care she needs for her fevered 3-month old daughter without a call to a benefits help desk. Or maybe they will help a man who has just been told that his wife has a serious illness by allowing him to focus on helping his wife instead of arguing with his Healthcare company about a Declaration of Benefits statement.
Wouldn’t this be worth putting in a few hours each day in the life of the average IT professional? What if you kept a scorecard on the number of problems removed? I think it would be very powerful and give the team renewed perspective on their personal impact. (Especially if another company calls with an offer for more “exciting” or “valuable” assignment).
But our value in the workplace goes even further. While most of us understand the value of our jobs for our own families, what about the impact we have on our coworkers and their families? (Some great insight on this is Three Signs of a Miserable Job by Patrick Lencioni). Do you ever think about how you affect a co-worker’s ability to send their children to college? What about the families of your clients or our clients’ customers? The events of the recent recession have pointed to how tightly connected we are and how the ripple effects of a small group of peoples’ actions can affect huge numbers of people, positively as well as negatively.
People Want to Do Their Work and Go Home, Right? Nope.
Positive Psychology is the study of happiness. Over the past 35 years this research has given us tenants that can be applied to the workplace to enable employees to feel connected, have autonomy, pursue mastery and work towards a find meaning beyond self benefit.
So how do we address the challenges of workplace turnover? How do we get engagement from employees and make them happier? Maybe one answer lies in getting a new perspective about what we do and its ripple effects. Start by communicating how our work adds value to co-workers and the world beyond. What we do matters when we understand our impact and the reach we actually have to make a difference from the work we do.
Reference material in addition to the inspiration of my colleagues and clients:
- Martin Seligman – Learned Optimism 1990
- Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi –Good Business 2004
- Ed Diener – Happiness 2008
- Tal Ben Shahar – Happier 2007,
- Shawn Achor –The Happiness Advantage 2010
- Patrick Lencioni – Three Signs of a Miserable Job 2007
- Daniel Pink –Drive 2011
About the Author:
Mr. Heusner has over 16 years experience in all aspects of software development and technology leadership. He has successfully led software development teams from multiple industries in startups, midsize companies and the Fortune 1000. Currently, Mr. Heusner is a Client Partner at the Chicago-based custom software development firm Geneca, and plays an instrumental role in the adoption and success of Geneca’s unique Getting PredictableSMb best practices.
Special credit to Jessica Chipkin for her assistance in editing and helping me to be a better blogger!