November 2006 Insight News



To expand on last month’s discussion of Jonathon Haidt’s new book, The Happiness Hypothesis, we often associate “success” primarily with money, status, job advancement and possessions. It’s important to stop and reflect occasionally on the fact that there’s not only more to it, but actually a completely different meaning to what is most gratifying.

Another recent book for comparison is Vital Friends, by Tom Rath, one of the Gallup research team, which expands on their most peculiar finding. When studying what makes for strong employee engagement (and happy employees generally) they use their Q12, a 12 question survey that shows high engagement if employees answer positively. The most controversial question (among others like, ‘do you have the right tools to do your job’) is this: “Do you have a best friend at work?” Most people react to hearing this – is it valid, is it ethical to ask and how can it be relevant? The fact is high scorers show engagement behavior 84% of the time versus low scores only 12% of whom are engaged.

Rath cites lots of justifying facts, some startling, some less so, that incidentally make a lot of sense and point to the key role of happiness at work. First let’s point out that we don’t know or need to know the exact definition of “best friend,” only that people who say yes are happier and highly engaged, whatever definition they have in mind when answering.

The book makes the point that these individuals work more safely, are concerned about others, feel obligated to some extent, but willingly so, and are following well-proven principles form other studies. For instance, surprisingly, when people are asked when they’re happiest, they put “time with friends” higher than time with… relatives (2nd), spouses (3rd), children (4th), all the way down a list to the very bottom person – “my boss.” Time with my boss ranks just below “cleaning the house.” Bosses have a long way to go to create better climates.
They note that the worst bosses are those who ignore you and only speak to criticize. The ideal boss pays attention and gives positive feedback, but even a tough, critical boss who pays attention is rated much higher than one who is silent. We like relationships with people. And apparently the easiest are with “friends,” easier than relatives, spouses, and others to varying degrees.  
People with at least one friend (at work or otherwise) tend to be healthier and more successful overall. With three or more friends they reach an even higher peak and then level off beyond that. So it isn’t a limitless opportunity and manageable for  most people. If any of those friends follow a particularly healthy diet or lifestyle, for instance, that raises the chances that we will, too, by several hundred percent, substantially reducing the rate of adverse events such as heart attacks.
When we pair these findings with Haidt’s collection of what makes people happy, we get a well-rounded picture. Haidt points to the value of positive, consistent habits at three levels: physical, mental or logical and spiritual. Our physical happiness “set point” or normal level of happiness can be raised over time by consistently developing habits of meditation or “talk therapy” as well as, in difficult cases, the use of Prozac-like drugs, which today have many fewer side effects than earlier pharmaceuticals.
On the logic side, we need to train ourselves in habits of thinking positively and finding things to be thankful for or appreciate regularly in our lives. Spiritually, religion offers a solution for many, a set of comforting beliefs reinforced by the fact that others believe, too. It’s been shown again and again that individuals who don’t share common beliefs with others may do as well, but more of them are prone to depressive, less happy lives.
A clear common theme: at every level – physical, mental and spiritual – “friends” can make a difference. They are people with less of a stake in our measurable success (money and possessions) than relatives, spouses or children. They provide a recognized form of “talk therapy” – so much so, in fact, that experts in workplace wellness have shown that the first line of counseling in every business is a person’s co-workers. Individuals will turn to them for help, advice and an “ear” long before talking with a supervisor or employee assistance counselor. Some companies now train employees in better listening skills specifically to ensure a healthier, happier, more engaged workplace.
At the logical and spiritual levels as well it’s easy to see the role of “friends” in reinforcing our sense of accomplishment, appreciation and beliefs, both on a practical, workplace culture basis as well as the more complex “spiritual” level.

I was intrigued and somewhat surprised by just how logical and well-proven this “friends” value is and how well it fit into what we know about happiness and engagement when you pay attention to what it really means. The Amazon review page for Vital Friends is HERE
♦ What’s In Progress?

Over time, the major goal is to offer more value via the web site. The new site infrastructure allows easier editing and now that it can be done, I can see there’s plenty of opportunity to make pages more accessible and add more useful information via cross-linking and cross-referencing within the site. More information appears daily on key subjects of interest to everyone who faces leadership opportunities and challenges. Getting at that information easily and making sense of it are the main challenges we all face. In time my hope for the site it that it becomes a repository for a growing body of knowledge of what really works and how it can be made simple enough for everyone to use so that everyone can contribute. Only in this way will we see the world truly make the progress we’re capable of.   
♦  Bonus Book Comment: Fit In, Stand Out

This book provides great reading for anyone wanting to expand their career horizons in business corporations especially, but organizations in general. Author Blythe McGarvie was one of the first ten female Fortune 500 CFOs and takes an interesting look at what it takes to get to the top. She recommends that you first learn to fit in, then stand out in six key areas of business: financial acuity (expected for a CFO), integrity, linkages (with others), learning, perspective and global citizenship.

In a refreshingly direct, easy to read format she makes her points and ends each chapter with short bullets on how exactly she recommends you act to fit in and then to stand out. I like the paradoxical nature of the advice. The ability to see paradoxical opposites as both necessary and value-added aspects is rare to see in such clear, easy to digest form. The Amazon review page is HERE
♦ Resources of Interest 

The key interwoven aspects of success in life and work seem to be: engagement, friendly relationships and happiness. It seems the three are present together more often than not and lead to success rather than being a result of it.

I recalled writing about some of this before and clearly these books take the study one step further. A quick search of our web site for the main researcher in the area of positive (or happiness) psychology turned up the February 2005 newsletter HERE and another reference in the exercises I often use and recommend to people as the first key step in presentations for defining their major goals: HERE.

Marty Seligman who has spent his life in this research and developed a Masters program in positive psychology offers a number of useful ways of assessing our levels of happiness and optimism (a key ingredient) on his site HERE.

While there will undoubtedly continue to be considerable scepticism in business circles about these factors and their relevance to financial results, the increasing evidence is powerful. From any personal point of view it’s reassuring to know that not only do we not have to be miserable to be successful at work, the pursuit of friendships and happiness are actually positive contributors. The implications of this for future workplace strategies are just now being recognized. 
 ♦ Quote of the Month

“The leaders who rise to the top are approachable. They roll up their sleeves and fit into their teams. At the same time, they stand out as beacons of confidence and trust. they lead from the front as stewards of the organization, it’s brand, reputation, values and people.” 

     – Joe W. Forehand, Chairman, Accenture in the forward to Fit In, Stand Out