Flicker of Light

Diaries of a Recovering Cynic

by Guest Writer

This guest post about choosing happiness at work (and in life) is by Catherine Wheeler. Thanks, Catherine!

Picture this…City woman moves back to her small hometown to care for a family member. She leaves her dream job to start a new job and now faces the unknown on all fronts ⁠— a new team in a new town. Now, imagine the new job includes team turnover, reductions in the workforce, economic downturn, decreasing demand for the company’s services, and regulatory shifts that have been ongoing for years. Welcome to the world of competing priorities and conflicting needs. 

Back then, “tough” described my world. Cynicism described me, but I tried to support everyone using tried and true strategies: cascade information, raise expectations, practice thankfulness, maintain clear work/life boundaries, and communicate honestly and authentically. I displayed professionalism, calm, and focus, and worked together with my team to meet our goals⁠ — but with limited success. I paid for my underlying cynicism with emotional fatigue and lower productivity. Many of my team members paid the same price for reasons unique to each of them. We all missed one vital piece: happiness.  

I gradually discovered that I missed happiness, and I will not lie ⁠— it did not come like a flash of light. Instead, it was like a light at the end of a tunnel, gradually getting bigger and brighter. The light first became visible in my personal life, then grew to encompass my work life.

Flicker of Joy

Believe it or not, it began with a candle purchase. I had tried various strategies to be peaceful and grateful. But when I bought the candle, I chose a scent that promoted joy and energy on the label, rather than peace and calm. News flash! It made me realize I wanted to be happy, not just peaceful. In my mind, the quiet acceptance of peacefulness did not meet my needs. Instead, a purposeful focus on happiness refilled my cup over and over.   

With one candle purchase, I began to seek out joy, happiness, and energy, and found them in unexpected places, including the workplace. In my case, I needed to focus on happiness so I could start to see (and, more importantly, allow myself to experience) all the small joys I was surrounded by but couldn’t seem to focus on. Giving myself permission to be happy was challenging. However, once I gave myself that freedom, everything else began to fall into place.

At work, making that shift required time and attention. A perceived barrier to the positive, proactive motion was created by a constant stream of demands and negativity. Despite the best of intentions, my team was caught with me against the same barrier of negativity. For a while, none of us could find the way over, under, around, or through the wall, despite everyone trying as hard as they could. However, we found that choosing happiness was our most useful tool to make progress. Bit by bit, we deconstructed the wall. Piece by piece, we created a path through. The adage “Go Slow to Go Fast” describes the process we found effective. We took small steps over time that built momentum and buy-in.

Here are the strategies that worked for us:

Build Trust

It all begins with relationships and trust. There is a positive relationship between workplace performance and employee trust, as cited in a scientific study by Sarah Brown, et. al. 

All the members of my team need to feel important, respected, and appreciated. This looks different in every team. No two people or teams react the same way. Most importantly to the team-building process, all members need to contribute ideas and actively implement them. Some things that worked for us and may work for others: 

  • Safe, no-fault brainstorming
  • Time at work to get to know each other personally ⁠— casual conversation built into lunches, meetings, etc.
  • Holiday gatherings (inside and outside of the office)
  • A week of “Secret Santa” style gift-giving (names are drawn and small gifts are given daily, with a big reveal lunch at the end of the week)
  • Staff Retreat (planned and implemented by all team members; everyone has their piece to lead)
  • Spontaneous group fun and impromptu group chats (with everyone involved)

Once some basic structures are in place, most of the trust-building happens spontaneously. But keeping an eye out for opportunities that are meaningful to the team helps create structures that are authentic and thus effective.

Attitude of Gratitude

As trust builds, it evolves into the perfect time to encourage an attitude of gratitude. All teams face challenges, barriers, and change daily. Although it can be easy to focus on the negative (due to negativity bias), there are many positive moments to notice and pay attention to. We worked as a team to give those moments center stage!

  • Catch people doing it right ⁠— Acknowledge the greatness in others aloud, in the moment, and make it a big deal. Our company has a PRIDE campaign where employees issue tickets to each other when they do good work, providing a moment of acknowledgment. All ticket recipients (and givers!) are entered in a quarterly drawing for prizes, so everyone benefits from catching each other doing it right.
  • Praise Reports ⁠— On our team, praise reports become the stage for all the good news. We talk about all the good things that are happening in the first 20 minutes of our team meeting, without fail. If we get off track, we work together to remind each other to focus on the positive and table other concerns until later in the meeting. Even if we need to cancel the meeting, we still get together to acknowledge all the good things that are going on.
  • Formation of a Celebration Mindset ⁠— There are many tasks the team works on regularly, such as staff evaluations and plans that need to be reviewed and updated annually. We celebrate the completion of these items by ringing a bell. This may also include honoring the person who completed the task with applause, hoots, and⁠ ⁠— dare I say it⁠ ⁠— some hollering if appropriate.  
  • Shared Experiences ⁠— These vary and change over time depending on the needs of the team. Some items we have shared as a team include:
    • Meals
    • Book Groups
    • Potlucks
  • Stay Flexible ⁠— Some of the biggest leaps in our team’s happiness have occurred by seizing opportunities of naturally-occurring joy and happiness. Celebrating and sharing these spontaneous moments brings us closer together and sets the stage for the positive. They include everything from telling a good joke in the hallway, to a water balloon fight, and all points in between. These types of opportunities arise in the moment, and team members are encouraged to identify, share, and participate in them.

Choosing Happiness

These strategies stretched my ideas of what works to increase success. However, after creating a workplace with space for⁠ ⁠— and an intentional focus on ⁠— happiness, the benefits were undeniable. Our company’s Key Performance Indicators rose gradually over time, and are now near the top at our company. Our regional office’s staff retention is one of the best in the company. Employee satisfaction and morale are up. Customer satisfaction is up. Relationships with each other (as well as with coworkers across the organization) are continuing to trend upward. One of the items I am most proud of is that our team works together as a united front to help others every day with a smile. 

Happiness is a choice. But as we consciously worked as individuals⁠ ⁠— and then as a team ⁠— for happiness, productivity and success ultimately followed!