Have you ever reminisced about the one quirky idea you gave to your boss with the hope that maybe, just maybe, it might work? I recently recalled such a moment, which happened 25 years ago when I was at Hewlett Packard. We had just weathered reorganization and a physical relocation, and our spirits were low.
I was a young mom who had arguably been reading too much “Winnie the Pooh.” I walked into my boss' office and suggested we introduce Eeyore and Tigger into our next department meeting as a mood changer. Eeyore is the “glass half empty” donkey — downtrodden to his core. Tigger is full of hope and bounce, screaming possibility. The last line of Tigger’s song, “Fun, fun, fun!” says it all, and we were having none of it.
My specific idea was that everyone would have a Tigger on their desk to remind us to stay positive and energized by possibilities. We would share one large traveling Eeyore who on any given day would reside on the desk of someone feeling particularly grumpy. Eeyore would serve as a visual queue for the rest of us to step up and offer support. With only one Eeyore available, we had to ration our negativity and buck up.
My boss agreed, and the experiment was useful for a while until it ran its course. We laughed, found some new descriptors for our emotions, and supported the day’s Eeyore. Also, with Tiggers planted everywhere, we visually showed ourselves to be a group of non-conformists, which we liked.
I recall this experience because my recent conversations with colleagues have revealed too many people finding too little happiness at work. The Conference Board reports that 53% of people are unhappy at work. Gallup reports a mere 34% of people are “engaged” at work, which they define as involved, enthusiastic and committed. No employer could be happy with either statistic if it defined their work setting.
Curious about the prevalence of this meh attitude, I casually started asking people the question, “When work is fun, why is it?” Their collective feedback falls into four buckets. Namely:
• It’s all about the people: For these respondents, if the team comprises individuals who care more about the team than themselves, fun will be had. Said one respondent, “With interesting and invested colleagues, we get to create our own personal sitcom every day.”
• God bless creativity: A home decorator, a scientist and a software engineer each describe their need to explore and create something “cool.” Quiet time, prioritizing the need to solve hard problems and allowing the “efficiency leash” to slacken loom large in their battles.
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• Mission matters most: Purposeful work that can positively shape our world is the beginning of fun for this group. They share an “against all odds” mentality even at the risk of burnout. Tight budgets, bureaucracies and the intractability of the status quo are just some of the grist that fuels them.
• Honor me for me: One person explained that she loved an environment that played to her strengths. “Let me be me, and do the things that I do well.” While we might salute the notion of rounding out one’s skills, this group has a different dictum: Let engineers, writers, sales people, fix-it people, accountants, you name it … be who they are, and honor them for that.
In practice, most of us are complicated mixes (yes, not “messes”). We want good people, and we care where the compass points. As one person said, “Fun is working on challenging projects with terrific people, even if it means daily early AM stand-up meetings, potato chips in the conference room at midnight, or tough conversations. Making the impossible, possible.”
Still, it is hard to optimize on all factors, so knowing what matters most is helpful. Here are a few suggestions as we struggle to find the Tigger in us:
• Manage expectations: Patience is very important as it may take awhile to get our work to be how we like it. Things evolve — even the world took seven days to create.
• Turn negative energy into a constructive force: Whether it is lobbying for specific initiatives, mentoring peers, or coaching your boss to be a better boss, there are great places to redeploy negative energy for good use.
• Celebrate the misses with a fail-forward mentality: While we live in an efficient culture that prizes grand slams, we know that course adjustments and lessons learned help get us to our fun place. We need to appreciate our misses and adopt a fail-forward attitude.
Moving our work experience from meh to wow is a process that requires persistence and self-awareness. While we can empathize with Eeyore, we dream to be Tigger, bouncing through the hundred acre woods. But how to get there? There are no easy answers, but the jar of honey is waiting to be found, and it is so worth the effort.