Do you know who made the china you are drinking your tea from as you read this column? Your great grandfather would not only have known the artisan who made his cup but also would have gone into his shop, admired his work and thanked him for his fine craftsmanship.
The mass production society has taken the meaning out of work, according to workplace analysts. When was the last time you went to the assembly line at Royal Doulton and personally thanked the workers for the fine china you eat off of? Our ancestors had more confidence in their ability to do their jobs well and meet customer demands because they received direct market feedback every time the door chime rang.
More importantly, they did for a living what they were good at and often honed their skills at the knees of their fathers and grandfathers. Self-confidence in one’s skills and abilities was high. These craftsman were the town ‘glassmaker,’ ‘potter,’ or ‘ironmaker’ because they were the experts. No one questioned their role or ability to competently do the job. Indeed, self-confidence was the very definition of happiness. “That kind of life is most happy which affords us most opportunities of gaining our self-esteem,” wrote the author of the first English dictionary, Samuel Johnson:
Today, happiness in the workplace is a popular topic because it has eluded us and we are coming to realize that happy workers are more engaged workers which lead to higher productivity. To rediscover happiness in the workplace, the human resource and management advice machines are churning out lists on how to make happy employees. Making sense of and implementing the hordes of happiness tips can be a daunting task. These lists have a recurring and persistent theme that can serve as an effective organizing principle. Notably, all the tips on happiness revolve around building confidence in an employee’s ability to do his/her job.
Job confidence was a common trait of the 18th century craftsman who worked under the optimal conditions to create happiness in the workplace. Here is what we can learn from Dickensian times.
Find meaning in work – Studies show that employees are more motivated when they find meaning and value in their work. Note the famous study of the Wall Street bankers who were less motivated by million dollar bonuses than job tasks that were aligned with their values. When the baker was the only person in town who made bread, his value to the community was never questioned. Today, we have to work harder on helping employees understand their own intrinsic value drivers and aligning them with work.
Make work challenging – Challenges are opportunities to solve problems, develop skills one has an aptitude in, and prove one’s worth to oneself and others. Even if an employee fails at the challenge, it will provide personal and professional growth opportunities.
Ensure employees have balanced lives – Your employee can win every customer account you send his way but if he is failing as a father because he never sees his children his overall sense of self-worth will suffer. Work-life balance programs can help to provide the balance employees require.
Make work engaging – Provide lots of opportunities for employees to use their skills while participating in industry associations, workplace improvement programs and other volunteer initiatives. For example, kick off the workplace flex research you do not have time for by asking employees to form a committee and research its viability. While important work is being accomplished, employees can develop new skills while adding association and committee representation and other credentials to their resumes.
Do not micromanage employees – Autonomy is a key ingredient in people development. Leave your employees lots of room to stretch and grow and make their own decisions. Sure, they will screw up from time to time but they will learn from these mistakes and their overall performance will improve.
Provide job variety – Happy employees do not stay in the same position for a long time. The best way to learn new skills is to serve in different roles. The most successful companies in the world stretch their employees across many roles and regions.
Do not erect barriers between the market/customers –Today’s workplace, in contrast, disconnects the worker from the fruit of his hard work, innovation and creativity. A product is created, it enters the market six months later and another six months later the design engineer is informed that the product received a tepid market reception. The engineer who is working enthusiastically on a new product naturally becomes demotivated.
The craftsman, in contrast, worked directly with the customer to create a customized product and received immediate market feedback. Five degrees of separation did not exist between the craftsman and his customer. This direct market intelligence afforded him market responsiveness, allowing him to immediately improve the quality of his products while refining his skills.
To rediscover bliss at work, focus your workplace improvement initiatives around building the self-confidence of employees in their ability to do their jobs. Ongoing training and education opportunities should be at the center of your happiness program. As noted in previous columns, personalized training programs are far more effective at developing employee skills than general programs.
It is harder today to put employees face-to-face with customers but the closer you can get to what is meaningful to them through personalized development programs, the more successful they will be.