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Special Edition from Harvard Conference on Happiness x Work
Notes and insights from the conference...
This week I attended the SHINE Summit at Harvard University.
It was organized by the Harvard Human Flourishing Program and SHINE – two incredible organizations. The focus of the conference was, broadly speaking, the intersection of wellbeing and work with a focus on purpose, productivity, and the role of organizations in promoting wellbeing. In their words…
The SHINE Summit is the leading forum for visionary thinking, innovative research and practical solutions that advance corporate sustainability and public health. Join us on campus in Cambridge for the most important interdisciplinary conversations on the role of business in advancing human well-being, featuring renowned scientists and pioneering leaders of industry.
Domains of Human Flourishing
The Harvard Human Flourishing program uses the term “flourish” as their term for what I’d call thriving, Happiness, or an optimal life.
They break it down into five central domains: happiness and life satisfaction, physical and mental health, meaning and purpose, character and virtue, and close social relationships. Each of these is nearly universally desired, and each constitutes an end in and of itself. These operate through four pathways: family, work, education, and religious community. The domains are sort of factors or dimensions whereas the pathways are vehicles that influence the domain. For example, how does working life support physical and mental health? How does education affect sense of purpose?
If you want to understand the wellbeing of individuals or of the collective, this provides a useful structure to direct your thinking, research, or interventions.
You can read all about this research in their outstanding 2017 paper here.
How to Flourish at Work
There were two models for flourishing at work that caught my attention.
The Harvard Human Flourishing program explains that people are supported to flourish at work when they are…
Satisfaction and purpose come from a sense that the work has an impact on serving something greater than oneself. Health refers to basic safety, absence of abuse, financial security, and work demands that do not undermine physical or mental health. Engagement is a measure popularized by Gallup: they explain it as the involvement and enthusiasm of employees in their work and workplace.
A more in-depth model came from a panel with Piotr Białowolski, Nidhi Ghildayal, Heloisa Jardim, and Dorota Węziak-Białowolska. I have consolidated their categories to arrive at the below model.
The following factors determine happiness in working life:
Relationships – Psychological safety and genuine social connection.
Meaning – Sense of purpose and connection to organization’s purpose.
Balance – Adequate time for personal renewal. Not feeling overwhelmed which diminishes efficacy and performance.
Autonomy – Reasonable amount of control over how one works.
Compensation – Competitive and fair wages.
Recognition – Contributions are witnessed and shared.
Mastery – Opportunities to grow and develop skills.
Environment – Workplace setting is safe and does not damage physical or mental health.
If you’re thinking about your work life or your organization as a whole – the above dimensions can guide how you create a work experience that supports happiness and flourishing.
Business / Organization Applications
There were loads of insights, stories, and lessons that can be used to improve the climate and performance of teams and organizations. I’ll share highlights below…
In 1977, 583 people died in the worst aviation accident in history when Pan Am 1736 collided with KLM 4805 during takeoff. The most interesting part of this story as it relates to culture was that the junior copilot actually told the senior pilot that they hadn’t received proper clearance to go ahead. However, given the seniority dynamic, the senior pilot dismissed him and went ahead. This speaks to the importance of going beyond traditional, rigid organizational hierarchies to create a culture of collaboration and mutual respect.
Harvard Researcher Ramon Sanchez shared a case from his time as a plant manager in Mexico. Their plant was looking to innovate and cut costs. So they created a solution where any employee who proposed an operational improvement would receive 10% of the cost savings. In a few years they ended up with savings into the 8 figures. One employee proposed an idea that saved nearly $1M. So he got a $100K bonus (equal to about 4 years of his salary). This seems to be a framework that could be modeled in nearly any industry context.
Charlie and Meghan – coCEOs of NextJump – shared a ton of information on how we need a paradigm shift in leadership. They begin by distinguishing between connected and disconnected organizations. Disconnected organizations have highly tangible inputs and activities – eg retailer or manufacturer. There is mostly “light work” in that it is clear what needs to be done to create value. Connected organizations are things like financial services, media, etc. They have a lot of “dark work” aka ambiguity and uncertainty. The problem is that it used to be clear how to be productive – but it is increasingly ambiguous thanks to the “VUCA” dynamic of our modern world: volatility, uncertainty, complexity, and ambiguity. Compounding this problem is that our education system was designed in the industrial revolution to create factory workers. It is designed for “followership”. But what is most needed now is rapid judgement and discernment in the face of change and complexity. Thanks to our education system, which is founded on punishment for being wrong and reward for being right, most organizations have a so called “autoimmune disorder” – people are so set on avoiding conflict or being wrong that they become risk intolerant and go silent in challenging the status quo. As the saying goes – if you use carrots and sticks you get donkeys. So what is needed for 21st century leadership is to go from followership to decision making in the face of uncertainty. This requires risk management and innovation (making or doing something that did not exist before). Doing this effectively in teams requires trust and truth – truth comes by undoing our “autoimmune disorder” and learning to be comfortable being challenged, confused, or wrong.
Following with the above paradigm shift, Charlie and Meghan outlined a developmental progression to create capable 21st century leaders.
Part 1 – Fix Over-Responsive Immune System
Awareness: Identify behaviors that prevent truth in teams (ego, defensiveness, etc).
Conflict & Recovery: Learn how to have tough conversations without shutting down.
Debate to Learn (not win): Practice peer sharpening and pursuit of truth.
Part 2 – Improve Decision-Making
Goal setting and building momentum.
Optimize team dynamics (habits, knowledge sharing, and collaboration).
Innovate with rapid rate of iteration.
Moving on, here is a simple way to prioritize activities or initiatives within a team or department. If there is a problem, ask for solutions. Then sort them based on ease, immediacy, and impact (in that order). The best are easy, immediate solutions with high impact. Next best are easy and immediate with low to moderate impact. Then you have easy longer-term solutions with high impact. Followed by the more complicated solutions and so on.
The Toyota Production System (TPS) as taught by Jamie Bonini is the original “lean” operation that led Toyota to be exponentially more productive than the US auto-makers. He explains that lean is usually misapplied and it is only lean if it is a win for employer, employees, and community/customers. The TPS is “highly engaged people solving problems as a learning culture”. TPS companies get better results and have better employee experience.
Hubert Joly, former Chairman and CEO of BestBuy, gave this outline for turning around struggling organizations.
Get revenue up.
Cut non-salary expenses.
Cut salary expenses (last resort).
How did this look in action?
He started by making sure the online shopping experience and pricing were on par with Amazon to recapture revenue. Then they looked at financials and found, for instance, that they spent $1B+ per year on broken merchandise.
Early on, he worked at an actual BestBuy in Minnesota. He got on the frontline and learned from store managers. He reduced KPIs for stores from 41 different things to 2 (store revenue and margin). He used this frontline time to create strategies for more revenue and lower non-salary expenses.
Once you are executing properly then purpose becomes the keystone of the strategy. The purpose should be an important purpose. He took BestBuy from this idea of selling unimportant consumer electronics to using technology to improve people’s lives. With this broadened and more inspiring purpose, he helped spin up BestBuy health which is a home health monitoring service for the elderly powered by AI and the Internet of Things – essentially sensors all over the house monitor activity and if there is an abrupt change, caretakers or family are notified to check in.
I challenged him with a question after his talk – what’s the role of purpose for companies that don’t actually do anything important. Think Budweiser who sells booze or Pepsi who sells sugar water? He told me it’s up to each of us to challenge the organization or team we lead to do something worth doing.
4 Day Workweek
I won’t go too far into the weeds on this. But Juliet Schor gave an outstanding talk on the four-day workweek. The highlights…
It is great for employee wellbeing and public health (less stress, better childcare dynamics, more sleep, more exercise, etc.).
It is positive or neutral for employers. Nearly all employers who tried it have stuck with it. Revenue tends to remain about the same or increase. Productivity hasn’t suffered.
This movement continues to pick up steam and has been heralded as a revolutionary idea. It has sparked rethinking the role of work in society and set the stage for societal transformation.
What’s needed most right now? (closing thoughts)
Erica Karp shared a great talk about impact investing. She emphasized that successful investing and prioritizing investments in things that do good for the world are not mutually exclusive. Right now, frankly, Wall Street doesn’t care much about how investment ROI is generated. I was inspired by her talk to think: what if we could live in a world where these trillions of dollars were allocated not just based on financial returns but impact on global wellbeing?
Organizational leaders need help with resiliency, navigating VUCA (volatility, uncertainty, complexity, and ambiguity), and (within connected industries like financial services and tech) developing great leaders or (within tangible industries like retail and manufacturing) retaining great leaders.
Beyond that – Daniel Shakhani tells me that it’s really all about access. The work we are doing here with respect to work and wellbeing needs to get to the key stakeholders who can drive large shifts in industry and policy. And it needs to be given to them in their language.
So that’s my mission – and I hope this resource is a start. I hope to translate the latest research into the role of work in advancing happiness and human flourishing to practical language for leaders and professionals like you.
Your happiness nerd,
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