Happiness at work: The false profit of resilience


In his series on change, Max Bailey challenges dogma in organizational change methods; showing why they fail and presenting an alternative, more sustainable approach to change which focuses on the interpersonal aspects of change. In his previous articles, Max explains the concept of resilience, and why it is needed more than ever in the 21st century, and looks into why it is so difficult to invite change, particularly why knowledge without embodiment changes very little.  In this article we look more deeply at ways to create experiences to help people move towards a more resilient state of being.

Everyone is talking innovation, collaboration, intra/entrepreneurialism, agility, decentralisation of power, digitalisation, the VUCA world, but all to few realize the sort of changes we will have to make to achieve it.

And what is it, organizations want to achieve by innovation, collaboration, and agility etc? To me, this talk is a symptom of a wider desire of f organizations to become ‘resilient’ - being able  to stay the course, develop and expand in the face of massive and unrelenting change in society. In simple terms, let us define a resilient business as an organisation that is able to continuously evolve with the market and social environment; thereby experiencing sustainability and success.

For any organization to become resilient, it needs resilient employees - or people, as I tend to label us. Becoming resilient is difficult, but we are all capable of it, when we invite change at a human level as a opposed to merely on a technological level. Beyond buying in digital tools, collaboration platforms and collecting data, even beyond trying to roll out innovation tools and spaces, there is the need for people to change. What follows is a change philosophy developed through years of experience at a large and well established industrial company in Europe.

In order to unlock the resilience sought at a personal and organizational level, It is possible to use a combination of ‘standard’ change methods and ‘Disruptive Action’.

Disruptive Action is designed to challenge existing beliefs and behaviours by creating uncomfortable situations. Discomfort is where the magic happens as by default it places people outside of the comfort zone of known ideas and experiences (i.e. being uncomfortable increases the likelihood that people are aware, and open to learning new things).

As a side note, my change philosophy goes directly against the current trend for ‘happiness at work’, where happiness is expected and promoted, due to the fact that we all think about happiness as a stable, a prerequisite for just about everything. A good life is always about being happy: If you’re not happy there is either something wrong with you, or something wrong with the system and the people around you. This is surely an unreasonable target: how can someone be happy all the time?  How can things run smoothly all the time? My position is that happiness comes from the knowledge and deep understanding that real life is about riding with the ups and the downs: there cannot be ups without downs as surely they are defined by each other.  Therefore, trying to chase happiness all the time without accepting that there will be unhappiness is not feasible.  Isn’t the secret to true happiness simply to accept the downs as part of life, knowing that they will pass sooner or later (and that good times will come again)?  This idea of ups and downs, fronts and backs, order and chaos and any other duality that you can imagine is ancient and logical. Take a moment to reflect on your view: do you think it is really possible to be happy all the time?

So why I am writing about happiness, when it’s change we are after?  In essence it’s very simple: we want to create, through conscious choices and action, situations where people have to experience the other side of things and learn how to be ok with that. That is to say, a bit of chaos against the order, a bit of fear against the safety, and bit of unhappiness against the perceived happiness, and so on.  

Discomfort comes in all shapes, sizes and speeds. Perhaps even this article is creating a tiny bit of discomfort?  This is good: if it happens, take stock, look into your inner feelings, be with the physical sensation, let it be without judging it as good or bad. Then before reacting, read the rest of the article. If you can do this, you’re already digging into your mental model, your beliefs and your behaviours. You’re giving yourself the space to become more resilient by welcoming new perspectives and situations.

Disruptive Change Making - How Does It Work?

Disruptive change making is about mixing up classical change ideology with something a little more radical. Typical Standard Methods of Change Management include:

  • ‘As is’ and ‘to be’ Analysis and Ideas of what the business should look like, often communicated from the top down

  • Deployment Roadmap (linear planning, cause and effect thinking)

  • Nominated change agents, who job it is take ‘make’ change

  • Planned awareness & inspiration sessions with identified attendees and known speakers (normally top down)

  • Large scale events (e.g. an Innovation Showcase) to inspire all levels - typically a one way flow of information

  • Workshops & facilitations sessions to support and sustain the change (sometimes mixing levels of hierarchy)

  • KPIs to monitor and control the state of the deployment

Disruptive Action is different, because it is designed to shock people out of normal proceedings. Disruptive Action can happen at any time and at any level of the organisation and be acted out by anyone.  Now we can start to see that this is not linear, it is not really controllable once started: this alone can make it highly uncomfortable.

Disruptive Action can be as simple as asking an unusual question in a regular meeting (for example: “is anyone else experiencing extreme boredom and lack of meaning here?”), or it can be as radical as an unofficial mass gathering of employees flash mobbing or peacefully protesting at the CEO’s office. It is the

Disruptive Action that is the catalyst for the deeper reflection of what is going on. Once people are shocked into a state of discomfort, then you can start to have the meaningful dialogue required to get the change movement started and scaling. See the stateflow diagram below that gives a very simplified model of how it works:

Resilience - State Flow.png

Due to the complex nature of humans, the game of discovery may never be over: there may always be the need to disrupt, go deeper, be empathetic and re-discover resilience. When there is a growing tendency of people towards this resilient state, and there is more openness safety and trust, my experience shows that there will be:

  • widespread upskilling in listening with empathy, and expression of what is really going on (i.e, stepping away from simplified models of how things ought to be)

  • Individuals and groups openly questioning their own normal habits, beliefs, behaviours and systems.

  • There will be proactive disengagement from outdated systems that don’t make sense in the current context

  • Softening of boundaries: cross silo groups collaborating in the creation of new , emergent and continuously evolving systems.

  • The growth of informal networks

  • The spirit of continuous innovation and leadership embedded in each individual

  • Less attachment to rigidity (positions, grades, titles, size of department, needing to be the one seen as the best...)

  • More willingness to try things out (innovation and digitalisation), less need for knowing all the answers before starting

  • The feeling that people are not alone in this movement though community action

  • And ultimately an open switch to a dialogic way of moving forward together.

And importantly for scalability, a natural, non-linear scaling of change made from the grass roots and through all levels of the organization: like crystals forming and growing. The people in the organisation will feel that they are doing the change, and that you are all in it together. This is about helping people to realise that they have the right to act; giving them tools to take Disruptive Action in an inclusive way, to handle the pain of letting go of the old ways through shared practices AND to know that they are not alone in doing so.

Taking Care & What To Expect

Do not confuse this movement for resilience with some shortcut to happiness at work or higher engagement. Engagement will come as a by product over time, but setting it as the formal target might kill any radical change movement off before it’s even begun.

If you are going to go into beliefs and behaviours, it can be a painful process. Consider that people are facing up to comfort zones that may have existed for years, perhaps since childhood. There may be a lot of uncomfortable emotions; there may be tears. You are going to learn, all together and at different speeds, how to cope with this real human life and you are going to help each other out as human beings. You will step away from simplified ‘work’ personas and into a more vivid experience of being together as actual individual people.

Not everyone will want to go down this path: the comfort zone is very appealing. Welcome this and do the best you can to help dig into things. Expect some people to leave. Expect some people to resist. The more authentically you can relate to their experience, the more likely they are to soften and open. Sometimes immediately, but more often than not, over time.

All people, including those with titles of leaders and executives need to be ready to have their behaviours and beliefs challenged (both by others and by themselves). When it happens, make it an open and honest dialogue. Make sure you all hold each other to account, but do it tenderly. Look out for people challenging behaviours as a way to challenge people. If challenging is not done from a place of empathy it may become personal, and even end up in bullying. Nevertheless people will make mistakes; it’s part of the journey. Through authentic relating practice people will learn how to express their true feelings, needs and thoughts, hold each other to account safely.