I recently had the opportunity to interview Annie McKee, Senior Fellow at the University of Pennsylvania Graduate School of Education, about her new book How to Be Happy at Work (Harvard Business Review Press). Many of us think that our enjoyment of our jobs is limited by factors out of our control. Unhappiness at work can be debilitating. We spend so much time on the job that it is logical that our experience there will affect our overall lives. Therefore, I was so excited to speak with Annie and learn from her years of research. Below is an excerpt of our conversation.
Many of our readers work in sales, on a sales floor and not at a desk in a corporate office. Should we all have the same definition of happiness at work?
The work I’ve done has led me to a definition of happiness that includes purpose, meaningful work, hope for the future, and friendships. We interviewed people all over the world in all kinds of jobs including retail; what we found is that it essentially does not matter what job you’re doing, everybody wants to feel that they’re making a difference. A great example when it comes to retail is a company that I worked for that manufactures and sells eyewear and they have stores in the mall. I was absolutely struck by how most of the employees defined their jobs! For example, instead of saying “I sell sunglasses in the mall,” they say, “I help people feel good about themselves,” “I help people see better,” “I help people protect their eyes,” or “I help people look pretty or handsome.” This is a completely different way of looking at it! This is exactly what the best beauty sales associates do: they transform what they are doing on the floor from a simple sales transaction to helping people feel confident, to helping women feel like they look good, to helping people learn some skills that make it easier to get ready for work. These salespeople see their jobs as meaningful because they see themselves making a difference in people’s lives.
Talk to me about pursuing the wrong goals. Or what are the wrong goals in an environment where you are given new ones daily?
That’s a good question. A lot of people take jobs because they’re excited by the possibility of growth. When we choose our jobs for that reason we should keep our eye on the future, while also enjoying the moment. So it’s important to balance our current job and our responsibilities with where we want to go in the future. Unfortunately, a lot of people take jobs for the wrong reasons—they take a job because they think they should.
When we do what we should do instead of what our hearts and minds are telling us, we can actually get stuck in what I call a happiness trap. We should listen to our gut or we can get ourselves in trouble and be unhappy. It is similar when goals are imposed on us. The research says that imposed goals don’t work. I don’t know why the retail industry hasn’t figured out how to get past that obstacle. The best managers, the best retail stores and companies I’ve worked with, know how to help people make the goals their own. That takes work, that takes dialogue. It takes figuring out what motivates people. The same goals don’t motivate everybody.
Goals today are quantifiable. How can someone who doesn’t relate to the number that they are being given, dollars or number of people a day, etc., work within those confines to make themselves happy but at the same time be valued and rewarded?
One of the things to remember is an old saying that days, “Money follows good work, not the other way around,” and sales follow good workers. If you have a sales target, you’re not going to meet it unless you master the product, work to build trusting, warm relationships really fast, and learn how to make people feel good about themselves without deceiving them. That learning develops good work.
So, you’re saying that achieving a sense of pride and accomplishment in good work, connecting with people and products, will materialize in the money.
It should. There has been research that shows that professional development, being seen as an expert in whatever field it is, and building warm, trusting relationships quickly makes a big, big difference.
What makes customers happy in your workspace, a retail environment?
You need to listen. There are competencies that are linked to this, what we call emotional intelligence, and one of those is empathy, and that isn’t just feeling for somebody, it’s accurately reading them.
So that is something that you need to develop over time and is a skill set that will differentiate you from other people?
It does. The one set of skills that will lead to success is being able to read people accurately, to be able to manage your emotions so that you stay positive when things are challenging, and knowing yourself so you can manage yourself in both stressful and good times. It takes work.
You talk about how competitiveness in the workplace leaves us empty, unfulfilled, poor leaders and makes us no fun to be around. What if you have corporate goals set for you—how do we manage our own hyper-competitiveness and even others in an environment where we have these goals?
A lot of managers and a lot of organizations make the mistake of pitting employees against each other. While good-natured competitiveness can be fun, it often gets out of control. Rather than supporting one another to meet goals, we start undercutting and stabbing each other in the back. Once you have that in the workplace, frankly our brains shut down because we feel threatened, we feel scared, we feel frustrated, so it’s counterproductive.
If we’re working towards a goal, we don’t necessarily need to be competitive. We can focus on doing the job well, on reading our customers, on having fun with our colleagues in creating an environment that attracts customers to the counter.
Having been on both sides of the counter, how would you say we can both express and read authenticity?
Good question. When we’re in an environment where we are working with customers and clients, there is an expectation of a certain kind of behavior, a certain look depending on what the product is—but we do have to figure out what those expectations are.
Within that set of rules, we must find a place where we can be unique, we can be a little bit different, and be ourselves. Push against the boundaries a little bit. I find that people don’t push against those boundaries enough.
So how do you “own it”?
You’ve got to read your environment well, another emotional intelligence competency—we call it organizational awareness. You have to recognize what the absolutes are. The absolute rules that truly must be followed. Then, recognize what the guidelines are that aren’t really rules and make choices about what you do. If you’re in an environment where you feel like you have to cover up really important things about yourself, you’re probably in the wrong environment.
Retail environments are different now. Customers aren’t even shopping the same way. You may not even have to work on the floor to work in retail. You can work at a call center and be the best salesperson you can but maybe you’re not on your feet. There’s a range of ways to participate.
Especially with the movement of working at home, a lot of people are taking jobs that require work from home.
So, you need to identify if this environment is right for you and if it’s not, to realize you have other options. We are fortunate that you can sell and love beauty in so many ways, to find the best fit for you.
I think that that realization will be able to free a lot of people up to think differently about the industry and be happy in their roles.
There are so many opportunities where if you find what’s right for you, you’ll meet those goals in your sleep. Because it will fit.
So, to summarize, it sounds like it’s all about connecting. Connecting to people, connecting to the larger company that you are working for, the products you are selling, the people you are working with.
Well said, absolutely.
Originally written for Counter Intelligence Issue 02
Photo: Kim Carpenter via Unsplash