A joyful work environment

On a recent day off, I spent the better part of the day at the zoo. It’s been a long time since I’ve gone to a zoo. Animals are fascinating and a lot of fun to observe, and I learned some interesting information. What I noticed, too, which I don’t recall feeling as much when I was younger, was sadness because of the animals’ lack of freedom. I’m confident they are being well cared for at this particular zoo; but can any cage, however spacious, ever measure up to the wide-open spaces of their native habitats?

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the factors that make a workplace either healthy and joyful, or toxic and miserable. I won’t go as far as to make comparisons between people in their cubicles and monkeys in their cages—though I do think that’s the way some people feel.

Over the last couple of years I’ve read several books about organizational environments, and found a few in particular enlightening and inspiring. They all touch on similar key concepts from different angles. One of these is that having freedom or autonomy in one’s work is one of the most significant factors in motivation and job satisfaction. Conversely, lack of freedom to make decisions that affect one’s work is one of the most, if not the most, demoralizing factors in today’s workplace.

Reinventing Organizations1 looks at a number of organizations that in recent years implemented modes of operation that challenge the industrial-era paradigms that many corporate operations are based on. These “futuristic” organizations are centered around self-management and wholeness—that is to say, bringing more autonomy and freedom into the workplace, and helping people to live a richer work life and thus a richer life overall.

I don’t buy into the idea that everyone can and should find “work that doesn’t even feel like work because we love it so much.” That’s a nice ideal, and if it works out for some people, I’m happy for them. But I’m a realist, and I know that we’re not all going to get that. On the other hand, most of us spend eight or more hours a day at work; so I believe that even if we don’t “love it,” there should be some joy in it, some sense of purpose, of community, of achievement and fulfillment.

One of the concepts that comes up repeatedly in the things I’ve read is that to change an organization from an “industrial machine” type of structure into a “people-based” structure takes buy-in from top leadership. I’ve been thinking a lot, though, about what someone like me—a middle manager, not a CEO or higher-up—can do to make his or her workplace a more enjoyable and positive and productive environment, with more of a sense of community.

Joy at Work2 describes a company founded on four values—Integrity, Fairness, Social Responsibility, and Fun, defined as “rewarding, exciting, creative, and successful.”  The author says that “joy at work starts with individual initiative and individual control.” While I may not have full control, I can still have initiative. I can do things that work toward creating a healthier and happier work environment. And one thing I always have control over is how I act—specifically, how I treat people and how I attempt to motivate my team.

I have tried to take a closer look at my own assumptions about work in general, human nature, my role and personal motivation, and specific individuals. For example, do I base my interactions at work on the idea that “my coworkers put their own interest ahead of what is best for the organization and are selfish” or on the idea that “my coworkers want to use their talents and skills to make a positive contribution to the organization and the world”?

I know what motivates me. I know that it’s “autonomy, mastery, and purpose,”3 or to expound in my own words: having enough independence to make decisions about work that affect me, being able to learn new skills and get better at the ones I have, and doing something that I feel is worthwhile. For the most part, these same things motivate those I work with. I try to believe that deep down most people—especially those who, like me, work at a nonprofit with socially conscious goals—mean well, care about our organization and greater community, and are trying to do a good job. And if even just one person at the office—me—is happier and less stressed out because I’m looking at others charitably, giving them the benefit of the doubt, and trying to do my part to make things work well for all of us … well, that’s a start.

  1. Frederic Laloux, Nelson Parker: Brussels, 2014
  2. Dennis Bakke, PVG: Seattle, 2005
  3. Daniel Pink, Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us, Riverhead Books: New York, 2010