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Positivity (Happiness) in the Workplace and Organizational Change

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The Happiness “Challenge”

I titled this section of the paper “The Happiness Challenge” because happiness – or positivity – does not manifest easily, particularly in the workplace – certainly not without effort for most of us and it is particularly challenging in most work environments where deadlines, budgets and performance issues can compromise most people’s sense of happiness. Indeed, as Frederickson describes (2009, p. 28), in the United States, despite “The Pursuit of Happiness” being guaranteed in the Declaration of Independence, the US was rather forged under the influence of a harsh Protestant work ethic; a philosophy that holds that enjoyment, pleasure and leisure are bad and that people can only show their worth through hard work and toil; Happiness and fun should be shunned in favor of long, hard work hours and deprivation. Without doubt, this ethic was alive and well in the banking group example I described at the beginning of this paper. The US and many other societies have entrenched harshness in the very essence of who we are as a working nation. Its not surprising that even using the term “happiness” in the workplace, as I have personally experienced, can elicit dismissive eye-rolling and even a degree of contempt. As I describe in more detail later in this paper, the change management consulting methodology known as “Appreciative Inquiry”, in my experience, faces challenges simply based on its title (“Appreciative”) and its focus (the positive). It is common, I find, that business leaders focus on “problems” as their default lens of attention. Seeking out the positive and appreciating what is good in an organization is dismissed or ignored as irrelevant or even worse, a diversion from what is important and urgent.

The focus on negativity in the workplace can create a culture of anxiety, fear and distrust over time. How often do we experience co-workers arriving at work with full-blown flu or other illnesses because they feel guilty about staying at home, and half-joking comments about co-workers who arrive at work late or leave work early with the implication that they are lazy? Or colleagues who have difficulty taking vacations out of fear that they may fall behind at work. A former boss of mine frequently described how he had never fully completed a planned vacation because he felt compelled to get back to work – this is an individual who had a minor stroke in the office next to mine at the age of 42, and is a perfect example of what Achor (2010, p. 73) calls the “Workaholic’s curse”. Despite writing this paper in what is almost 2012, the workplace is still an environment more commonly characterized by harshness and negativity rather than positivity and upliftment. Indeed, as Fredrickson (2009, p. 28) comments, happiness in the workplace may even be considered “Un-American”:

“The United States – and much of the capitalist world – was forged under the influence of the Protestant work ethic, a philosophy that holds that enjoyment and leisure are sinful, and that only through austere work activities can people prove their true worth. This worldview produces characters who shun all pleasant impulses and activities that might generate joviality … in favor of long work hours and personal thrift. It produces a culture that celebrates intensity, competitiveness and doggedness.”

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