What the humble Hacky Sack can teach us about being happy at work

Here’s a great little meme you can start today which will make your workplace just that little bit happier. Thanks to Tom Bailey who told me about it over a cuppa the other day.

You know those times when someone makes a mistake and goes overboard with “sorry, sorry, I’m really sorry, arrrgh, my fault, I’m sorry!” Or conversely, when someone points the finger of blame at someone else for a mistake? The next time one of those things happens, simply say the words “Hacky Sack.” This, of course will be met with complete bewilderment the first time they hear it, giving you the opportunity to explain something wonderful about the simple game of Hacky Sack.

In a game of Hacky Sack, failure is part of the process. At some point, the Hacky Sack will dropped. Probably many times in a session. This is just the nature of the game. And if it’s just the nature of the game then there’s no need to go overboard with an apology when it happens, and no need to chastise anyone for screwing up. So in Hacky Sack, the etiquette is to just pick it up and carry on. No apology expected; no blaming allowed.

This sounds a lot like how workplaces should be. At work too, failure is just part of the process. It’s not something we need to go over the top with apologies or blame for. Hell, it’s even something to celebrate at times.

OK, I’m sure there are exceptions like where you’ve broken trust or failed to respect someone and a sorry can go a long way towards repairing a relationship. And perhaps it might not apply quite so well where lives are at stake, but that’s a tiny minority of workplaces. But for 99% of the everyday failures and mistakes that are made at work, make Hacky Sack the rule in your office.

Are humans selfish or cooperators?

I’ve previously written about dangerous and wrong assumptions about human nature. That the view of humans as fundamentally self-interested limits us to ineffective methods of motivation, and that we actually have evolved to cooperate.

I’ve heard more evidence over the last few days at the Imagine conference that humans are naturally cooperators. Let me give you a couple of examples.

David Erdal, author of the brilliant book Beyond the Corporation looked at first contact reports of hunter-gatherer tribes. He found that across the world they all had one thing in common: When they hunted meat, it was shared amongst all members of the group. You might expect that it was shared mostly with close family to help propagate ones own ‘selfish genes’ or shared in reciprocal agreements between individuals, but in every case it was discovered that ‘the criteria for receiving meat was simply having a mouth to feed.’

This is group selection in action – something that for many years even Richard Dawkins denied (but I believe has since come around to in the face of the evidence.) Beyond an individual’s own genes, it’s advantageous for the whole group to be well fed. Hunting meat is sporadic and tribes where nobody goes hungry are ultimately better for everyone within them.

Bringing this up-to-date, there are modern studies which show that in more equal societies which have smaller gaps between rich and poor, there are lower instances of social problems like infant mortality, crime, teenage pregnancy, alcohol and drug abuse and domestic violence. Most interesting is that beyond a certain point in wealth, it’s income equality rather than extra income that correlates with healthier societies. And surprisingly, both rich and poor people in less equal societies suffer more from social problems. In other words, you are likely to enjoy a higher standard of wellbeing being slightly less well-off in a more equal society than richer in a less equal society. So cooperation with others in your society to create equality is actually in everyone’s best interest.

There is also cognitive psychology research (G. Cory, 2006) which indicates that humans have dual motives – ego and empathy. We have a drive to protect out self-interest but also others. This makes sense based on the evidence about cooperation. Further, it seems that the binary question of whether people are selfish or cooperators is actually wrong. I heard a speaker assert that studies have shown that around 40-45% of people are indeed more selfish dominated and the slight majority are inclined more towards cooperation. This is why the hiring process is so important for organisations which want to set up a high-performing team that works together towards common goals rather than an under-performing team of selfish individuals working solely in their own interests.

There are many examples which break the theory of the ultimately selfish human. In the hugely successful, employee-owned retailer John Lewis, partners (owners) have consistently invested in their own company on timescales that would benefit future generations of employees rather than themselves. They understand that empathy for future generations gave them the business that they benefit from today and they work to improve it for those that will follow them.

I talked to a director of a credit union in Australia over the weekend which is 100% owned by its members (customers.) He was planning to direct some of the organisation’s surplus (profit) into a new charitable fund and he expected that the members would be supportive of this and not only that, contribute more of their own money on top. There’s no explanation for this kind of behaviour in the model of the purely selfish human but it is very heartwarming to know that humans can and do think beyond themselves and behave cooperatively.

So yes, humans can be selfish, but we are a sophisticated species which has evolved to cooperate in order to reach higher levels of wellbeing for ourselves and the societies in which we live.

Happy IN work vs. Happy AT work

I had an email from a reader who gave me permission to anonamise it and share:

[After working in sales and feeling something was missing] I moved into the care sector, retrained and was running the company after 3 years. He’s where it differed, there was and still is very little margin in the sector for any financial rewards. Care practitioners are on slightly more than minimum wage and do not have a reasonable fuel allowance. In domestic care they are accountable legally for the care/support they give and must attend quarterly supervision (by law) and have to retrain yearly. They work 24/7 365 on a rota.

Last year I moved to a new company and had to explain to 300 staff why their duties would expand due to ward closures, their area of travel would increase, but I wasn’t or rather couldn’t pay them any more. They were not happy. As qualified care practitioners, they were on less than staff on supermarkets check-outs.

I had of course checked the budgets, asked the directors for an increase and took another look over the council contract, where I realised that the contract was worth less than the previous year. When I queried this, I was told “carers do it because they care, not for the money“.

How about that for assumption. I handed my notice in soon after…

Classic management screw up, making an assumption about their people ‘they do it because they care, not for the money.’

The huge flaw in that logic is not understanding the difference between being happy IN work and happy AT work. The carers were happy to be IN work in a profession where they had real meaning and improved people’s lives, but it´s impossible to be happy AT work if you’re paid so little that money is a huge, pressing stress and you’re worried sick about paying the bills.

This is all too common in the charity sector where employers believe it’s enough for people to be working for a cause they feel passionate about and so don’t pay people enough or create a good working environment. At best, this is de-motivating, and at worst it makes great people leave and take their talents elsewhere.

Conversely, in many corporate jobs, including sales much of the time, the opposite is true. You get paid really well and have a nice comfortable life so you feel happy AT work but if you feel like you’re just being paid in order to make even more money for shareholders then there’s very little to make you happy IN work. And again this can cause great people to lack motivation or leave.

The key therefore is to create organisations with a very clear, higher purpose that people believe in and want to be a part of, and to ensure that you pay people enough to take money off the table as an issue so that they can focus on work. Once these base level needs are met you can then work up to higher levels of human satisfaction through recognition, social belonging and mastery of their craft which will take their motivation and performance to soaring heights.

Dangerous and wrong assumptions about human nature

Human Nature

In almost every decision made within a business there are embedded assumptions about human nature. We make assumptions about what customers want or how they will behave, and we make assumptions about human nature to try to get the best out of the people working there.

The danger comes when these assumptions are made subconsciously, or worse still, based on folklore or narrow experience rather than the truth about our species. The best companies deeply understand what makes humans tick and build their culture, products and services around this.

So what are the assumptions we make about the nature of the humans inside a business? These assumptions, conscious or not, shape the very fabric of a company: It’s structure, values, culture. Everything else that the business does follows this. But how much time is spent actually making conscious and wise decisions that really reflect what makes humans tick? By most businesses, not much.

Here are two scenarios:

First off, what happens if you assume that humans are fundamentally selfish? Assume that they care about themselves and those closest to them and everything else is deeply relegated. Above all else, they are motivated by what they can get out of the company for themselves. This is the assumption implicit in much of business-as-usual today.

These kinds of assumptions lead to hierarchies (because you need clear lines of ‘control’), ‘line management’ (because you can’t trust people to do their job of their own volition) and carrot-and-stick motivation tactics. If these assumptions are true, the only way you can really get people to do what’s best for the business is offer rewards for cooperation and punishment for behaviour you don’t want to see. The most visible example of this is offering bonuses or rewards for hitting performance goals. The reason it’s so popular is that it can generate short-term results (or motivate people performing highly procedural simple tasks – not the direction work is heading today). However, the inconvenient truth is that there is no social science research that I’m aware of to back up the usefulness of these assumptions, whereas conversely there is research to show that it can actually cause worse performance and lower motivation over the long term. It’s actually even been shown to be true in apes! In one experiment with children it was proved that kids who naturally enjoy drawing can actually become demotivated and will draw less if you introduce rewards for doing it.

To make it personal, how would you feel at work if you believed that your employer held these assumptions about you? Would you be able to deliver your best work in these conditions? Would it inspire your creativity and ability to innovate? Would it foster good relationships with the people you work with? I expect the answer to all of these is ‘no.’ Sure, you might work harder for a while if a bonus was dangled in front of you, but it wouldn’t sustain optimal performance and you’d probably leave as soon as you could find something just a little bit better.

In the second scenario, what happens if you assume instead that people certainly care about themselves and their families, but these are base needs and can be relatively easily satisfied by fair pay and good working conditions. Once these are met, there are much higher things that humans need and strive for which a business can tap into for the benefit of the individual as well as the company. This is the theory put forward at Abraham Maslow with his famous Hierarchy of Needs model, and something I wrote about before. If you follow Maslow, you satisfy base needs to take things like money and survival off the table, and create a culture that works up the hierarchy of needs, providing recognition and social belonging (not replacing family with work but recognising that great relationships help us to enjoy work and perform better.) Then further up still there is the opportunity to create ‘self-actualising’ experiences’ for employees. Setting up the conditions for them to be the best they can be and to master their craft.

Social science has also given us the ‘Theory Y‘ of motivation. This is the insight (which is bloody obvious to anyone who’s ever worked in a job they enjoy) that there can be ‘intrinsic motivation’ at work. Essentially – shock horror – that we can be motivated by the actual task itself, and to exercise self control outside of any rewards on offer.

If we believe this second set of assumptions, we can make radical changes to business-as-usual. We can throw out hierarchies and sometimes even management altogether (because we don’t need to control people) and we can focus on setting up the environment and culture to give people autonomy, great relationships and the opportunity to master their craft – the things that have been proven to actually motivate people.

Social science has offered us this second scenario and it is backed up with 50 years of research. It’s not a naieve and fluffy view – it’s created by neutral boffins – and it is finally starting to catch on. You can read some of the descriptions of how the ‘Most democratic workplaces in the world‘ operate and you can see these assumptions in action.

I think it’s time for all businesses to face up to the assumptions that they have been making about human nature and start a process of recognising the true potential of our species which can improve everyone’s life as well as generate success for the business.

Using Maslow to create happy employees, customers and more

Chip Conley’s book ‘Peak: How successful companies get their mojo from Maslow‘ is brilliant for two reasons. Firstly it’s an amazing turnaround story of a business (The Joie de Vivre boutique hotel group) on the brink of failure; and secondly it provides an incredibly simple but powerful framework for thinking about what a business offers to its key stakeholders.

Using Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, you can think of each group as having a pyramid with three levels. The base needs of a stakeholder group at the bottom, working up towards delivering self-actualising, transforming experiences for them at the top (what Chip calls ‘Peak’ experiences.) Once you have got the base needs covered, it’s these Peak experiences that can truly set a business apart and will lead to success.

For example, the base needs of an employee are to be paid a living wage and have a safe working environment. Working up to the second level they have the human need for recognition for what they do and have good relationships with colleagues. Then above this, right at the top are things like opportunities for mastery of their area of skill and working towards a higher purpose which they truly believe in and transcends both themselves personally and the company.

Any business can expand on these three levels of the pyramid with specific policies and practices, but the key thing is that once the base needs are covered, it’s focussing attention on the higher needs at the top that creates the magic.

For customers, the baseline is a product that satisfies their needs at an affordable price; then moving up from here we have things like listening to and responding to their wishes and right at the top we have experiences that are beyond the customer’s expectations and meeting new needs and wants. Think Apple creating the iPod in the age of the Walkman or a time when a business has really treated you like a VIP and gone out of their way to help you (doesn’t happen too often, sadly, and this is an opportunity!)

Chip goes on to explain how you can use this same principle for investors too and I also think that the same can apply to suppliers and the local community although Chip doesn’t cover this in his book.

I’m working on a new business plan at the moment and have found it a really helpful framework to have a pyramid for employees, customers, investors, suppliers and local community and fill in the three levels for each to show how the company will deliver real value, right up to Peak experiences. It’s a very exciting process as you begin to see how your business steps up from the ordinary to do very special things. I also found that thinking about the top of the pyramid sparked new ideas and made me think bigger and higher about how the business can be awesome.

As an experiment you could try creating a pyramid for each of your company’s stakeholder groups and filling in how base needs, right up to Peak experiences are being delivered at the moment. You’ll probably find some gaps which can be filled in, and you can also reflect on how you’re allocating your energy – whether it’s purely to satisfy base needs or deliver truly transforming experiences. It’s no co-incidence that Zappos – the online retailer bought by Amazon.com for $1BN and famed for its incredible happy working environment and delighted customers has Maslovian pyramids on its walls, and makes Chip’s book required reading for new employees.

Why SMART objectives aren’t always smart


Ever been in a meeting where people are discussing objectives or goals? Someone invariably says, ‘We must make our objectives SMART!’ and everyone else nods sagely in agreement. We often use the same logic with personal goals.

The idea is sound enough. If your goals are Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant and Time-bound, it focusses the mind, allows you to say for certain whether or not something was achieved, and you can keep tabs on whether you’re on track along the way.

But there’s a big and often overlooked problem with this type of goal setting, and that’s our old friend human nature. I’ve written about intrinsic motivation before – it means the inherent satisfaction in working on something, above and beyond any material rewards (or threat of punishment.) Psychologists have discovered that the way we set goals affects our motivation and the extent to which we meet them. So whilst SMART objectives can be useful some of the time, you have to be careful and avoid using them in all situations.

Take learning a language for example. You could set yourself a SMART objective something like ‘Learn French and score an A at the test before the end of the year.’ This is what phychologists call a ‘performance goal.’ Getting the A is the target. The alternative is setting a ‘learning goal’ which would be more along the lines of ‘Improve my French to get more out of my holidays there, make French friends and get absorbed in the culture.’

The learning goal is not SMART. It’s actually pretty vague, but what it promotes is mastery of the topic – that is, continual improvement towards perfection (which of course can never be fully reached.) The big difference is that mastery is one of the factors which really motivates humans. Performance goals less so. In studies with children, it has been shown that they perform better at tasks when the goals are learning, not just performance. For example, when the focus is on a specific measure of performance, it has been shown that people work hard to achieve it, but that they often stop there, short of their potential to do even better. They are also less able to apply the skills to new situations than with a broader learning goal.

So next time you’re setting some goals think carefully about whether a SMART objective or learning goal will actually help to motivate and get you there.

Finally, another plug for Daniel H. Pink’s excellent book, Drive which talks more about goals and motivation and has the citations behind these insights on goal setting.