We all want to be happy.  Of course we do.  And why not start with work?

The theme of ‘how do we make our workplace happier’ has come up a lot recently.
(It may be something to do with that Blue Monday in January casting a longer shadow than necessary).  It is such a well-meaning, worthwhile and valuable ambition: and so fraught with the potential for unintended consequences.

I heard a talk from a bouncy, energetic, open and enthusiastic person responsible in his organization for ‘helping people work better and go home happier’.

It’s a lovely goal, isn’t it?

The content fizzed with, creative, light-hearted, energising ideas, events techniques and beliefs that engendered energy and happiness.

Oddly, I felt panic rising.

There is something especially disquieting about forced-fun, isn’t there?  And later, a clue as to why this open hearted, apparently generous, workplace culture-creation may not be all it purports to be appeared in that serendipitous way that clues sometimes do: A remnant of a poster for King Lear.

The Fool is a key character in the play.

The Fool is responsible for… helping the King work better and go home happier… isn’t he?  And a key ingredient of his persona and role is to tell the truth; to say what no one dares to say; to perceive what might be unpalatable; to reveal through fun and foolishness the hidden things that need to be brought into the light.

It’s dark stuff.

A truly happy workplace doesn’t seek only to move from dull to interesting, from grey to colourful, from serious to light hearted.

By choosing – imposing – only the ‘light’ aspects of our work community cultures, we actually stay in an infantilized place of a ‘new norm’, of being told how things are and how they should be. And how we should be.

A truly happy workplace seeks to move from constrained, compliant, closed to energetic, diverse, open…and sometimes dissenting.

It will feel happy a lot of the time.

And sometimes not.


Penny Hunt and Change Chemistry logo imageA boisterously beautiful young person landed at a table.

I’m clumsy, and in awe of those who move fast without damage. I steadied my espresso cup just in case. But this was a choreographed whirlwind, energy with a purpose. Her companion threw up a hand for a high five and laughed.

The mise en scène. It was another Blue Monday apparently (Again! How many are there?) and the i-pad to-do lists were all out in the café. There was condensation on the windows. We were all well into broken new-year resolutions, and perhaps drinking in the caffeine of resolve for replacements. Hey, Mondays.

I want to tell you about our heroine because what unfolded was so cheering and wise.

She had a job interview. The latte was champagne this morning.

Espresso coffee - part of Penny Hunt's executive coaching regime!

So what are they looking for?’

They want someone who can lead a team, and has brilliant judgement.
I so want this. I am like so going to be that person! I could tell from the way the headhunter described the MD and the stuff he does that this is going to take loads of preparation and psyching up.  You’ve got to help me on this.

‘Right here. Drink your coffee and tell me slowly what they actually want. And what you actually want.’

The voices lowered, the heads leaned towards each other and the coaching and prep work between friends began. Isn’t it great when you see one person really listening attentively to another? Doesn’t it support and transform the person speaking? I am bound, because of my love of espresso, and years as an advertising planner in the coffee market, to think that the coffee / caffé environment has a wee bit of magic to contribute here.

How many serious issues might be resolved or helped in this simple way?

I heard an extraordinary sentence from Nick Clegg during an interview about the resolution-resisting developments amongst the Lib Dems around Lord Rennard. Round Lord Rennard. Mr Clegg had chosen not spoken to LR. He didn’t judge that necessary. The issue for a leader, he said, is to uphold the principle of mutual respect within the party.

Mutual respect. Not speaking. Ah.

Experience suggests to me that there is no reason strong enough to refuse a conversation. Never. Just about all good things start with that mysterious dance of speaking out, and then of listening.

And the dance at the table next to me gathered momentum. Our heroine had been demonstrating the different ways in which she was going to tackle this interview.

She was going to convince this difficult MD that she is the perfect person for his business. She was going to employ techniques to convince him that she has leadership, and team skills that put Angela Ahrendts to shame, and that it is a mystery amongst her peers why she is not queen of the world.

The attentive companion listened. And listened.

After a pause, he spoke.

‘Or you could just be yourself.’