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Happiness Is Now a Requirement at Work

It’s bad enough that our managers expect us to be productive, submissive and committed. Now, it appears that we also should be happy.

As reported in a recent article in The New York Times, titled “Do Happier People Work Harder?” studies by Harvard Business School professor, Teresa Amabile and independent researcher, Steven Kramer, show that “workers perform better when they are happily engaged in what they do.”

I guess a “happy engagement” could be used to describe your endless hours of non-stop complaining and carping, but this is not what the researchers have in mind. Nor do they define happiness like any normal employee, who would be happy to see a manager pelted with water balloons, or a supervisor’s Jaguar filled with a ton of cottage cheese.

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Apparently, the researchers actually believe there are people who do not simply endure their work, but actually receive “joy and excitement.” You could call these people happy, or you could call them delusional. Either way, they’re not you. Not even close.

Even if you are not happy in your job, you can feel happy in the knowledge that you are not alone. As cited by the authors, the Gallup-Healthways Well-Being Index, which has been happily polling 1,000 adults every day since 2008, “shows that Americans now feel worse about their jobs — and their work environments — than ever before.”

This sorry state of disgruntlement is not limited to battle-worn workforce veterans. “People of all ages, and across income levels, are unhappy with their supervisors, apathetic about their organizations and detached from what they do.”

I’m not sure you need three years of survey data to learn just how miserable work can be these days. Forget the overpaid management class, gorging themselves with salaries and perks as they squeeze your salary like an over-ripe grapefruit. Ignore the cadre of middle managers, who work you like sled dogs in the Iditarod. If anything is going to make you feel detached from your job, it’s the knowledge that, at any moment, you could be booted out of your position and booted into permanent unemployment. Now that’s being detached from a job!

The cost of all this workplace misery is estimated by Gallup to be $300 billion in lost productivity annually. With that kind of bogey, you would expect managers to do everything possible to keep their work force smiling. Fat chance. “Conventional wisdom shows that pressure enhances performance,” the authors report. And who could be more conventional than your management team, turning the screws on workers like you in the screwed-up idea that nothing improves performance like a non-stop campaign of bullying and intimidation.

No wonder attendance at horror movies is down. We get all the terror we need at the office.

It may make you happy to know that there is a cure to workplace misery. It isn’t free candy corn in the snack room or adding a disco ball to the conference room. It isn’t even a raise or a promotion.

“Of all the events that engage people at work,” the researchers discovered, “the single most important — by far — is simply making progress at meaningful work. As long as workers experience their labor as meaningful, progress is often followed by joy and excitement about the work.”

Naturally, this important fact is almost completely foreign to today’s management community. Of managers surveyed, 95 percent “failed to recognize that progress in meaningful work is the primary motivator.” In fact, they ranked it last of the five choices they were given. (The authors don’t reveal what were the top choices, but I imagine the No. 1 motivator chosen by the managers was the opportunity to work for someone as brilliant and attractive as themselves.)

Of course, making progress in meaningful work requires both meaningful work and progress, both of which are in short supply these days. You may have to settle for making progress on meaningless work, which is often quite a lot of fun, especially if you can regularly report to management on your success at achieving imaginary breakthroughs on the road to totally worthless outcomes.

Your bosses can help by reinventing themselves as facilitators, managers who see their responsibility as removing obstacles instead of becoming obstacles. Best of all, they could simply remove themselves completely, leaving you free to actually get things done. Management may not be happy at finding themselves unemployed, but if you can make it happen, that’s making progress at meaningful work and a very happy ending, indeed.

Bob Goldman was an advertising executive at a Fortune 500 company, but he finally wised up and opened Bob Goldman Financial Planning in Sausalito, California. He offers a virtual shoulder to cry on at bob@funnybusiness.com.

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