Sunday, August 10, 2014

The genesis of unhappiness in the workplace


Reading time: 8 minutes 50 seconds.

Each motorcycle class was an experience to remember. My enjoyment and rise in skills and confidence had a lot to do with the instructors. They were competent, very sure of themselves, and warm. I was struck by how happy they were. Being a riding coach is not a lucrative profession, but it sure seemed to be satisfying. When teaching, the rider coach did not seem to be “working” and this realization led me to explore the reasons for the rider coach’s happiness. Was the happiness in the task, in their personality, or the fulfillment they feel when they improve riding skills of their students? To say “a little bit of all” is not incorrect, but it would be too simple an answer. 

I must confess, in the past, when I saw a happy worker, I would think about taking up that profession. Perhaps that would get me happiness as well. This is clearly a fallacy. Also, the advice does not scale. If anyone asks me, “What work should I do to be happy?” I can't very well advise him or her to become a rider coach. It is not practical to have everyone become rider coaches, so happiness has to be found at your place of work, in your profession, while doing what you chose to do.

There are a constellation of reasons to review before you can understand why you are happy or unhappy at work. These reasons are easy to understand when reviewed one at a time, but in real life, several reasons interact to cause happiness and unhappiness. When you are young, the reasons are few, but as you grow older, these quickly become complex, hard to explain and thus, difficult to understand.

Take for instance the task of troubleshooting a motorcycle defect. If you are a beginner staring at a manual, your process for troubleshooting will be linear and therefore, slow and frustrating. The experienced mechanic can diagnose the problem within seconds, but will be unable to explain how they did it. Thus, expertise in troubleshooting takes time to develop and is acquired by a combination of instruction, osmosis, and experience. As you reflect on your happiness levels at work, it is likely that you have experience, and perhaps instruction, and certainly a lot of learning via osmosis has taken place for you. That raises another issue, how many bad habits have you formed? How much “unlearning” do you have to do before you can “learn” and take on behaviors that will make you more happy or less unhappy?

So why is the workplace a petri dish for unhappiness? Let us begin by reviewing the facts.


Let us define “work” as any physical or mental activity with the intention of earning an income or meeting a goal. Since we cannot do this by ourselves, we have to collaborate with others, leading to the rise of “commerce”, where small and large organizations (including nations) interact to exchange value for money. “Commerce” is about making a "profit", defined as getting back more than what you spend. Non-profit organizations seek to increase "value" but still have to both work and to spend less than they raise from donations and contributions.

Commerce led to the need for “management” because to get back more than you spend, you have to control costs and raise productivity. Management need people to do the work and to supervise those who do the work, leading to “employment”. If you own a business, you are “self-employed”.

Now, the root of the problems begin to reveal themselves: paradoxical goal conflicts between employers and employees.

Employers want to achieve the vision, mission, and goals of the enterprise, while meeting their personal goals. Employees want to meet their personal goals (financial, safety, security, psychological, emotional, spiritual) while meeting their professional goals. When employees scramble up Maslow’s hierarchy, they become more valuable, but they also become more expensive. 

  • For employers, the ideal employee is one who is firing on all cylinders, and is low cost (both financially and emotionally).
  • For employees, the ideal employment is one which will help them meet their goals progressively, steadily, and in a predictable manner, with assignments and challenges that will inspire, not crush, energy and motivation.

As you know, finding this scenario is possible, but it seems to be the exception, not the rule. And it does not seem to last. Why is that?

For one thing, matching goals is not easy. It is hard for both parties to articulate what they need and what they are about. This creates needless goal conflict. Add to that sloppy hiring practices, leading to bad skill-position fit, and mismatched expectations, friction between the two parties is inevitable. If the matter is not resolved, employee turnover is the result, and both employers and the new employee have to start over.

Another reason is that skills take time to develop. But employers are impatient, and will demand higher productivity of those not ready to deliver. Employees are impatient as well, and will push themselves beyond their limit in unsafe ways. This leads to poor work habits, stress, and dysfunctional default actions to problems and pressure. The workplace abounds in poor role models, perpetuating the bad habits and ineffective problem solving. On boarding processes are conspicuous by their absence, it is sink or swim, with the survival of the fittest. Or, as the cynical will observe, survival of the ones with the most dysfunctional behaviors (big ego, aggressive Type A personality).

No one arrives at work wanting to do a poor job. However, even as everyone does their best, mistakes happen. Feedback is often critical and harsh.  Those fortunate to get coaching and encouragement overcome their shortfalls and move on to success. On top of this self-critical behavior lowers self-esteem. Poor parenting is often blamed for lays the foundation for such behavior, but I digress.


Social obligations and pressures begin to take their toll at an early age. Parents may expect too much or not enough of their children. Friends and peer groups may set the standard for “cool” behavior. Before you know it, keeping up with the Joneses becomes a full time occupation and the rat race consumes us 7 by 24 by 365.

Finding happiness in the workplace has a definite process. The first step is "self discovery" and initially you may need to fund that journey by taking on jobs that you are not thrilled about. If you are fortunate, you will get a job where you follow your passion and it is no longer “work” but more like “play”. If you are less fortunate, you will “work” during the week to pay your bills, and spend the weekends in “play”, so that you can recharge yourself to get back to work on Monday. If you are truly unfortunate, then your life is filled with drudgery all the time, with no relief in sight. There is one level below “truly unfortunate” and that is the “drifter” who spends time in self discovery, may or may not turn to recreational pharmaceuticals, cannot hold a job down, spreads frustration and negativity, and is a burden to themselves and to society.

If self awareness is the first step, the building blocks are a calm mind and good habits. As mentioned earlier, it will take time to develop your ability to troubleshoot your unhappiness or understand why you are happy. Only then will you be able to change your behavior and take action to improve your happiness.

Regardless of your opinion on the matter, I am sure we can all agree that your happiness in the workplace depends on productive and meaningful interactions with co-workers and other humans (stakeholders, customers, vendors). Their sponsorship and support is like wind in your sails. Their resistance is like chains on your ankles. Their indifference will make your life like a desert without rain. Making a professional, personal, and emotional connection is crucial. Navigating this complexity is one of the prerequisites to finding happiness in the workplace.

If you buy into the above, the questions you might ask are:

  • Is work a source of income only or can it be a source of happiness?
  • Can I find happiness at my current place of work, or do I need a new job?
  • My situation is so unique, no one seems to understand me, can I get help or do I need to figure this out myself?
  • Is there best (and only) way to do find happiness?

To find happiness at work, you need a playbook. This playbook has three parts. The following is based on Dr. David Redish’s (a professor in the department of neuroscience at Minnesota) explanation, published in Sports Illustrated August 11, 2014.

One section will help you diagnose situations, identify the patterns in the situation, and select the right course of action. As Sid would say, “remove ignorance.” You will need knowledge of self (traits, values, preferences, habits) and knowledge of the context in your workplace. The most important parts of this section will help you explore the question, “What will make you happy?”

A second section will help you take decisions. “What do I do now?” or “What do I do in such-and-such situation?” The answer has to come quickly and instinctively and the solution has to work. You have to be strategic, make the right choices and take the right action.

A third section will give you the steps to execute your plan to find happiness in the workplace. Your plan is likely to require multiple projects, each with numerous tasks. Strong project management will help you set the goals and timelines for improvement, and track your progress towards your goal (happiness in the workplace). If you achieve your timelines and milestones, meeting your goal is assured. One key milestone to include is a check to see whether the project is still relevant. If you are pursuing an irrelevant project, then happiness will be elusive, even if your project is a success.

If you ask Sid, he will tell you that one of your biggest problem is adjusting to impermanence and change. Each life stage in the workplace presents a new set of scenarios and challenges. The faster you recognize, understand, and act, the quicker you will gain happiness in the workplace. In short, you have to become adaptable and flexible.

Pieces of this playbook abound. Just look at the number of publications (books, video, and audio tapes) on Amazon.com. Unfortunately, there is no curriculum that will take you in a progressive manner from where you are to where you wish to be. Reminder: We are still talking about happiness in the workplace. The vision of VMM is to provide that curriculum and roadmap to find happiness in the workplace.