Happiness, failure and vulnerability: what are organisations missing?
Happiness is not an inherent feature of the human condition; it is a social construct. And as with most social norms, attitudes toward happiness don’t just vary; they change. The fact is that the happiness imperative in Western culture is relatively modern. The idea that we should all be happy at work is less than a century old. Yet, we all feel the pressure to chase this ideal, mostly without an understanding of what it actually means, so we end up pretending that we have found it.
So what are organisations and people missing in the happiness equation? We asked Julio Salazar, Co-Founder of Fuck Up Nights –a global movement born in Mexico in 2012 to share stories about failure– and Cirklo –an agency working on disruptive innovation–.
Julio was one of our speakers at FutureFest, an event where we ran explorative discussions on the future of work in July 2018.
How should organisations go about creating workplace happiness?
I think a key element is fostering real connections. Work environments that focus on profit and/or climbing the corporate ladder can create a vacuum where your colleagues are no longer people you can be vulnerable with. In this highly competitive setting you have to develop a shell that hides a certain level of distrust. And this will have terrible consequences; people will feel they don’t belong, because in order to belong somewhere, you need to have moments of fragility.
For many reasons, society today has conditioned success to be linked mostly to profit, but we have forgotten that profit without fulfilment becomes meaningless.
It is important to distinguish two types of 'workplace happiness'. One I would call 'synthetic' or false, where everyone is smiling all the time, almost like wearing mask because real emotions, especially 'negative ones' are not allowed. Employees are afraid that if they show any sign of unhappiness, HR or their bosses would think badly of them, or question their engagement or loyalty to the company. In these cases, you are not really connected, but in an environment that tries to simulate connections between peers by providing distracting gimmicks, like office parties and afterwork drinks. But in the end, the pressure to appear 'happy' all the time prevents you from fostering real human connections, where being vulnerable is key. This eventually hinders any sense of purpose and fulfilment, ultimately sabotaging happiness.
I believe a lot of the workplace issues are people trying to hide their inner selves. A lot of organisations promise many frivolous perks like spas, retreats and parties, but it's like putting a band-aid on a more serious problem. Instead, companies need to actually fix workplace culture to prevent many of its problems. I would like to see them redefine what happiness is.
Honestly, do you think happiness can be top-down? In the future, do you see companies caring more or less about their employees' happiness?
Today, there is clearly a growing trend where workers don't see themselves staying in the same place all their lives. That is already changing how organisations recruit, develop and retain talent, and the incentives are not necessarily going to be economic.
In my panel at FutureFest, for example, I spoke about being a stay-at-home dad, having stepped out of the workforce for six years to let my wife advance her career. I think organisations really need to step up in that regard, and create safe environments where both women and men don't feel that their careers are at risk for having personal lives. Such issues might sound silly, but we hear about them more and more. I think the work-life-gender balance is going to be the biggest disrupter of how we understand happiness in the workplace.
The key element is providing a safe place where employees can propose solutions to their individual problems. For example, one of our collaborators at Cirklo is a father, and he asked to be a stay-at-home dad until 2pm for one day a week. We tested this new model, with four people from the team monitoring his performance for three months. Because there wasn't a change in the quality of his work, we can now offer this model to other employees.
Organisations of the future need to balance responsibility and freedom within the workplace. Responsibility to keep performance metrics, but freedom to explore new ways of achieving them. As the leader of an organisation, my role is to provide the framework and work culture so my team feel empowered to test their ideas.
In this context, we should redefine the role of a Chief Happiness Officer as a facilitator in this cultural transition. Happiness is individual, so achieving it should come from all of us, but facilitating that change of perception requires an outsider. My hope is that in the future, companies will be designed with this in mind, so a CHO wouldn’t even be necessary.
As one of the founding members of Fuck-up Nights, how do you understand failure?
I like to define failure as the first attempt in learning. It's a necessary step through adversity. Unfortunately we have been taught to walk away in shame as soon as we hit a wall, questioning our capacities and values. Failure is really about perception. What most people are afraid of is what others will think of them. We are constantly afraid of doing things, not for the fear of not accomplishing them, but out of the fear of our reputation. If we change the way we perceive failure and the narrative around it, we could become a much more creative and healthy society.
We are constantly afraid of doing things, not for the fear of not accomplishing them, but out of the fear of our reputation.
How do you connect the idea of sharing failure to feeling satisfied, and eventually happier at work?
Changing our perceptions on failure at an individual level means we can allow ourselves to be vulnerable, which in turns means we can be more transparent about our experiences, which can be used to learn and teach others. This eventually will increase our sense of freedom and belonging, reducing the barriers to try new things. It is in this scenario that people can be happier, not only at work, but with their lives because they no longer feel the need to wear masks.
A lot of issues in organisations, especially in governments, come from their need to hide a mistake. So we really need to get rid of the stigma around failure; imagine how different things could have been if people were able to come clean and learn from their mistakes, eventually preventing more?
Once you have created environments where people can be vulnerable and transparent, your organisation becomes resilient. If somebody falls, the team helps them get back on their feet. Eventually they can pick themselves up if they don't feel that failure defines them.
You also co-founded the Failure Institute, a research centre that promises to transform collective knowledge of experiences around failure to better inform businesses, policy-makers and researchers. What has been the trend or discovery that surprised you the most?
What really surprised me is how little people think about the human condition as a factor of failure. How much our biases and lack of emotional intelligence determine our capacity to overcome challenges. People always tend to focus on business plans and strategies, without thinking on the human side. For example, most entrepreneurs partner up with either close friends, family or former colleagues. But despite that level of proximity and dependence, very few people have real conversations about their expectations, personal situation, fears and even non-negotiable limits, because they are afraid it will create barriers at the beginning of the startup. But it is precisely those vague understandings that trips them up later down the line.
Disputes between founders is in the top three reasons why startups fail.
Entrepreneurship is a very hostile environment and no school or post-graduate degree prepares you to emotionally deal with such highly conflictive environments. This could mean understanding and handling difficult emotional states, and just asking those you work with, 'Why are you upset? Do you want to talk to me about it? Is it something that I did? If we don't agree, then how can we come to an understanding?'
At a public policy-level, we often see a mismatch between incentives and desired outcomes. A big surprise is that eight out of ten companies that launch result in failure. But, we have designed a system that supports only those who succeed, not those that try. So how can a government talk about the need for more innovation and entrepreneurship if it treats the few that succeed like heroes and simply ignores the ones who fail? If we could shift the model and treat those who try like heroes, it would really incentivise innovation.
Another problem is that because the risk of starting a business is so high –risk of debt, damaging reputation, etc– the entry barriers push a lot of potential entrepreneurs away. Some governments are aware of this and have made agreements with banks to give longer debt repayment periods in case of failure. This is an incredible step, so why aren't more governments doing this?
Right now we are working with governments, companies and civil society to change perceptions about what failure means, and to embrace it as a key path towards understanding success. We learn much more from those who try and fail, than from those that try and make it, and if 80% of projects fail, how much knowledge and experience are we missing?
The FUN motto is "living life without filters". In a world where people feel more obsessed about using filters (literally and metaphorically), what is your key advice to live life more naturally?
Keeping it simple is definitely one of our key values. In work, relationships, and with ourselves. We tend to forget that life could be simpler. Vulnerability is also essential. You can be more powerful than you imagine if you allow yourself to show your emotions. For most people, showing their moments of vulnerability has a very negative connotation, but it is ultimately what makes us human and helps us foster deeper relationships with those around us.
Across all our research, it is proven time after time that being vulnerable makes you a better leader. Yet people don't buy it. So we have to fight the social norms that keep us believing that showing emotions signals a lack of character.
Finally, it’s important to really get to know who you are, so ultimately you can be less afraid of showing yourself without these filters.
Because we are all using the same filters, we are losing our authenticity and our individuality; and that is a tragedy.
I know it is hard for most people to be ok with who they are. For a long time I was too. FUN helped me to stop living my life for others; it taught me how to be more authentic in so many ways, especially professionally. I became an entrepreneur because I stopped being afraid of failure. Like Hanna Gadbsy brilliantly said in her stand-up show, Nanette (which I would recommend anyone to watch), it all comes down to the narrative that we build around our experiences. It's about the stories we tell ourselves.