We commented earlier on the intended Government Happiness Survey, observing along the way that happiness is ultimately a personal thing. If we can discover what makes the majority of people happy and implement that, chances are we’ll annoy, offend or bore some of the others. It’s easy to confuse populism (the undiluted will of the people – not frequently seen in workplaces, to be honest) and popularity (a sort of workplace version of first past the post, as alternative voting isn’t widespread in organisations either): but a manager’s job isn’t really to implement majority rule. The role is much closer to delivering the greatest possible level of motivation and inspiration to all the team. It means a more diverse, tailored or nuanced approach, that is modified to take into account the different inspirations of the people who (do or could) make their own individual contributions. Much harder to put on a ballot paper, let alone into practice.

Recently, a bullet board I’m a member of (apologies for the lack of link, but it’s a closed group) saw someone post an interesting question: “What is your happiest work memory?”. Given the huge range of jobs on offer, the responses ranged equally widely, including:

  • Building animatronic dinosaurs for an exhibition for blind kids, and watching their reactions as they played on it
  • An archaeologist uncovering an Anglo-Saxon palisade
  • A teacher working with a great group of others of similar age, and working hard but having enormous fun with it

For several other people, however, getting out of a particular job was their happiest recollection. The workplace equivalent of celebrating that eventual divorce after something that once seemed full of promise but had long gone sour, that final freeing from a commitment that you learned to wish you hadn’t made. None of the posters talking on that theme made any mention of whether it had indeed once been good, merely that they were heartily glad it was all over. It wasn’t hard to wonder how those they’d worked with might have felt reading it. Glad that they’d moved on and become happier? Bitter that their efforts – assuming they’d made any – had come to an unhappy ending? Or sad that things hadn’t turned out better? The reasons and reactions will be different everytime: as Checkhov pointed out at the beginning of Anna Karenina:

Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”

Having a ponder-y moment, I looked back over my own eclectic working life to pick out some happy memories, and try to think who to be grateful to. I guess I should start by having quite a few to choose from – more than I expected when I set myself a-pondering – so here are just three:

  • Working in the R&D Division of a national organisation: on the face of things just a routine clerical job, processing grant applications, but a time and place I remember fondly, for a number of reasons. Firstly, a terrific boss who took time to care for how each of us felt, and help us to work together and get along harmoniously. Secondly, colleagues who took someone in the first job under their wing rather than teasing them or giving them all the dirty little jobs that any office has. Thirdly, an environment where individual interests where noticed and picked up on – having been a trained calligrapher, I got to experiment on some early (and endearingly hopeless) handwriting recognition software; knowing how to type, I also became one of the first people in the UK outside a research lab to have an email address. If I could have afforded to live in London on that salary, I might still be there.
  • A national database of higher education courses: a Government-sponsored project, I played a role in developing the first CD-ROM database in Europe, and put University places in clearing online with real time updates, even if it was initially through Teletext. The sense of breaking new ground was exciting, but the knowledge that it was directly helping a large number of people at a stressful point in young lives was even greater. It was also the easiest interview of my life: they phoned me to ask where to send the application form, and the first interview question was ‘How soon could you start?’. After three years, however, it also taught me that good things can’t last and you have to be prepared to move on: I had to choose between staying in a smaller, privatised version 300 miles away or find another role in the University that played home to the original project
  • Founding a national organisation: that early Internet adoption paid off some years later, working for another University, when someone passed me a (print) ad asking if any University managers were interested in setting up an offshoot of the national body that co-ordinated the University academic network to explore how it could be used for management and administration. Speaking too much at a subsequent ‘mm, what could we do if we tried’ meeting meant I wound up as it’s founding chair, but within a year, over a 1000 people were comparing issues, experiences and solutions online, and a national research survey realised that it could be managed electronically rather than producing a million photocopies. I had a lot more email to respond to, but a lot of other people’s working lives had been changed for the better (while many of those who signed up for the job notification emails simply changed to better jobs). And I should thank my then boss, a man whose technical savvy began and ended with tin-openers, for encouraging me and allowing me the time to run with the idea, as well as those I worked with in setting it up.

Looking at them, there are some common threads: working for people who took the time and interest to find out what motivated, excited or interested me; having opportunities to develop projects or ideas; being encouraged in these even where my manager might not have a great deal of understanding of the actual project – but was prepared to trust that I wasn’t ‘skiving’ or wasting resources on something pointless. Working for people who didn’t feel the need to constantly remind me ‘you’re at work now’, but had the intelligence to realise that I – and my colleagues – could actually tell that much. Working with people who made sure that they supported each other, and whose first reaction to a problem wasn’t to try to pass the ball but to ask what they could do to help.

I’ve not named names, and doubt that any of the people involved are reading, but if you are and you recognise yourself … thank you. You made a necessary process – paying the rent, feeding and clothing myself and having something to do between 9 and 5.30 – into a considerably more enjoyable one, and did the organisation in question a service by doing so.

But that, of course, prompts a much more challenging question: what have you done to contribute to someone else’s happiest work memory? I’m hoping the answer isn’t ‘leaving’.

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