Who should be responsible for happiness?

I spent last week in a remote Scottish location, which meant that I could catch up on some podcasts that had backed up on my phone. As I listened to a few in succession, some interesting juxtapositions were thrown up. One in particular got me thinking about the balance of power and responsibility between individuals and organisations.

Strathossian ruinI would guess that everyone knows someone who is unhappy in their work, even if they aren’t themselves. There may be many reasons for this, but the prevailing trend seems to be that the unhappy owe it to themselves to find a way to change things so that they can become happier. (Or to manage their own unhappiness.) An old friend of mine, perhaps worn down from years listening to HR complaints, was robust in her assertion that people should leave if they didn’t enjoy working at the firm: “we don’t put bars on the windows.”

So, as I listened to the Thinking Allowed discussion of happiness and wellness, I was particularly struck by comments about the way that this individualistic approach has allowed organisations and even society at large to transfer responsibility for making things better to individuals. This is often dressed up as ‘agency’, even when people may actually have very little power to make real change, short of changing jobs.

A little later, on their excellent Shift podcast, Euan Semple and Megan Murray had an entertaining conversation about navel gazing as a key business skill. Jack Vinson blogged a key point:

The thing that struck me hard enough to do a quick blog post is the idea that some people get wrapped around the axel of self-improvement without thinking why.  On the opposite end are people who have no interest in self-improvement (but who are happy to point out situations in which they are unhappy).

I have always liked the idea that if I am upset about something / someone, it is because something inside me is out of kilter.  It is not the other person / situation is necessarily wrong, but my take on it has me upset.  In other words, it is my responsibility to figure out why that business meeting made me so angry, and then DO SOMETHING DIFFERENT.

I don’t disagree with Jack’s view that one should always consider whether there is something one could change about oneself. However, I am concerned that when organisations assume that people should always take responsibility, they are more likely to allow poor situations to persist.

People make decisions about difficult working situations for so many reasons that each may well be unique. They may stay because they have built up valuable support networks amongst colleagues and have no wish to let them down. They may have external commitments that make it hard to move. They may feel no such constraints. They may be natural disruptors so they drive change wherever they are. If the organisation has no interest in understanding people and the reasons why they are happy or unhappy, it has no way of knowing whether there are fundamental problems that need to be addressed at the organisational level. (This can produce stagnation, but may also allow unfettered change initiatives to flourish.)

It is time for the pendulum to swing back. By all means encourage people to take some responsibility for making the changes they need. But organisations also need to take more responsibility for being aware that people are unhappy and why this might be, and for making sensible changes to improve overall happiness.

Fortuitously, last week also saw the launch of a new tool that gives organisations a better way of understanding what is really going on. Cognitive Edge’s cultureSCAN can be used to take a snapshot of the way people feel about their work, or it can be used repetitively to test the reception of organisational change (for example). As a Cognitive Edge network member, I can work with law firms (and others) work out how best to use cultureSCAN and the information it produces. Please get in touch if you are interested in knowing more.


A summary of cultureSCAN is provided on the Cognitive Edge site, and I have excerpted it below.

Culture is a crucial part of most organisations’ success or failure – yet, given its complexity, is also one of the most difficult things to influence. The organisational culture, people’s behaviour and the narratives they share when they meet are all interwoven – co-evolving together.   Looking to understand the overall system and see which levers to pull is a futile – and mistaken – pursuit.

Instead anyone tasked with changing a culture must work to understand the narratives – the stories and fragments of meaning – that are exchanged each day in the many interactions that happen at the coffee machine, in the corridor and in meetings. Change then becomes a matter of amplifying the narratives that lead in the desired direction, dampening the ones that draw people away – and looking for opportunities to improve and innovate along that path.

Cognitive Edge’s cultureSCAN is a unique opportunity – a pre-configured tool for online and smartphone users to gather organisational narratives and understand the culture as it stands.

cultureSCAN is a culture-specific set of signifiers allowing users to signify audio/text/pictures quickly and easily (audio and pictures available only on iOS and Android apps).  It uses SenseMaker® – the only software licensed to use Cognitive Edge’s patented signification methods – meaning that organisations have the objectivity and scalability of quantitative data, supported with the insight and richness of qualitative micro-narrative material.

So it is easy to see – and prove – where the organisation is today, as well as delving deeper to understand why – and where it can be taken tomorrow.

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