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Joy at work?

I remember a hotel general manager telling me how careful you have to be when assessing emotions at work. A member of his staff answered a weekly “How did you feel at work this week?” email question with one word: “Sad”. He went to find her and asked what was wrong with work, what he could do to help. “Nothing,” she said, puzzled. “Then why do you say you are sad at work?” he asked. “Because my mother just died,” she said.

I did some work ages ago with Robert Levering, founder of the Great Place to Work Institute, helping him identify UK employers who might be eligible for that description, before he launched the Institute in the UK (he’d come over from San Francisco, where it was well-established already).

I like that phrase ‘great place to work’ as something to aim for in the work experience. I had reservations about its successor ‘happiness’: I prefer ‘great’ as the employee can define what that means, whereas identifying one emotional state and saying everyone needs to be in that state else there is something wrong seems too prescriptive to me.

Many of us aren’t naturally happy people anyway. We’re fine, though. We may be laconic, idealistic, perfectionist, serious-minded realists. Doesn’t mean we lack a sense of humour or can’t find work great and fulfilling, creative and liberating, uplifting, all that good stuff, nor that we aren’t supportive of others, helpful, generous in spirit to colleagues and customers, with a smile on our face, not a scowl. But, we don’t go around happy as a natural state. Where do we fit into the happy workplace? Do we inhibit its development? Are we unwanted?

The emergence of ‘joy’, which came along more recently as something to aim for at work, has tipped me over the edge, as it seems to be language inflation – the upper end of happiness. I think both those emotions (happiness and its peak, joy) are, by definition, high points, experienced in moments. Aiming to make them a permastate during the work day seems unachievable to me.

I’d reserve joy for watching a child being born, not having a fulfilling and productive day at work. It just doesn’t quite do it for me. And, in a world of quiet resignation, this hyping up of work as an ultimate (joy is an ultimate, no?) experience increasingly seems tone deaf.

On the other hand …

In among all the ‘bowl oranges at plastic water bottles’ (Harvard University’s ‘morejoy’ resources page ) and similar stuff you find when you Google ‘joy at work’, I came across this, from W. Edwards Deming, father of Statistical Process Control (SPC may not sound joyful, but it liberated, for example, Harley Davidson employees to say they love their work by putting them in charge of it):

“Management’s overall aim should be to create a system in which everybody may take joy in his work.” Dr. W. Edwards Deming

And I find I can’t argue with that.

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