Joy, happiness and nudging your system

“A joyful life is made up of joyful moments gracefully strung together.” Brené Brown

Last night was one of the last concerts of the season for the orchestra of which I am member. The programme was full of well-known film soundtracks and joyous Hungarian and Slavic dances with different tempi, different signature tunes and different keys. Seemingly simple, they actually require laser-like precision and a degree of letting go – a real system of systems. Our performance and rehearsal space is lent to us in a partnership with the town’s hospitals and medical services, and the concert was specially commissioned to thank the hospital staff for all their hard work. It was envisaged as an event at which they could relax, be rewarded and feel joy – that energy filled with little sparks of joy, anticipation and the feeling of being able to let go, give up the urge to control everything and step into the music and the moment. The output is joy (a fluctuating feeling), satisfaction and a collective purpose for those playing. 

The experience of joy obviously means different things to each of us, but there is a common underlying feeling of joy that we can all relate to: the feeling that brings a smile to our face and makes us laugh on the inside and the outside as we connect to joyful memories or experiences. It is a powerful and transformative feeling. So what happens if we apply that analogy to the workplace? 

Connecting with joy 

“Innovation comes from people who take joy in their work.” W. Edwards Deming

Joy, and emotions, are very often put on the back burner and left unspoken and indeed unattended. Yet this is where the trigger lies for us to do our best work – work that is meaningful and rewarding, even if it is hard and demanding. People don’t often link joy and innovation, just like they don’t link inclusion and innovation, but feeling like we belong, are connected to other humans and are thriving are essential for creativity. When this happens, we also experience a feeling of great pleasure and happiness evoked by well-being and success at work. This can be powerful and is as simple as that, but also as complicated as that – to cultivate and nurture – particularly on a collective level!

“How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives,” American author Annie Dillard reminds us. Given that we spend a large part of our life at work, work will shape and influence how you feel, think and act. This can translate into your work being a way in which you find meaning in the world and therefore a part of your life that nurtures and energises you. On the other hand, it can also translate into stress, sleep deprivation, unhealthiness or just plain boredom.

 If you can’t find joy in the path you are on and what you are currently working towards, how do you expect to find joy once you get there? How can you know when you are ok and not ok? You cannot connect when you are stuck in everyday details, logistics and busyness, reacting as opposed to responding. This is one of the most simple and frequent questions that crops up in my coaching work when leaders are struggling with motivation or meaning: What brings you joy? 

 Nudging happiness

What is happiness? What makes us happy? There are of course as many definitions as there are people, but for Matt Phelan, happiness consists of feeling joy and eudaimonia (the underlying feeling of how happy you are, spirit) and also unlocks the freedom to be human and take opportunities, which is one of the top four drivers for happiness at work. We discussed this very subject in our recent podcast (listen here) as well as the data insight gained from the research done on the Happiness Index platforms and what it brings to our understanding of the question at both a local and global level. Again, we are back to breaking things down into smaller visible systems to create awareness of how things can be different. A good example is the cultural slant, where differences are revealed in the data. For instance, in Denmark, there is a concept known as arbejdsglæde meaning ‘work happiness’, and it is an openly discussed and recognised subject. In some cultures, however, the scientific question of ’what makes you happy?’ is perceived as too personal and a reluctance to have conversations can be a huge barrier. Equipping leaders to bridge this gap and create the conditions for these courageous conversations to happen is a key skill for leading and navigating complex systems.

It is also important to understand the smaller systems too, and how it might be possible to nudge at that level, connecting to their experience and looking at how it may be relevant to experiment differently here, before reconnecting to the wider system. Relationships are the currency of systems and only by creating meaning through what brings you joy will you create the deeper relationships both with and in the system. Joy can also be fierce, feisty and fast-moving, it doesn’t necessarily need to be ‘soft and fluffy’. Quite the opposite in fact: we need to intentionally cultivate and use the positive energy it brings into the system flow. 

The power of us 

I have always been a big believer in the power of us and even use it as a mantra. Through my work on inclusion and human systems, and as a coach, I see the ‘power of us’ unfold in different ways almost every day. The energy that comes from this collective wisdom is often accompanied and fuelled by both joy and happiness: thriving from a sense of purpose being fulfilled and shared. This doesn’t mean that the work is easy and that there’s no stress, but it does mean that we’re not alone and that we’re connected to something bigger than us. We are starting from a place of abundance.

We are indeed more intelligent together, and our constant quest to get things done quickly and individually ironically slows down the progress at an organisational level. It is always a ‘Russian doll’ analogy of smaller systems within systems. This is particularly true in digital transformation where things are more and more interconnected and systems are growing and evolving, as living organisms do – organisations are evolving systems and full of smaller sub-systems.

To focus on these smaller visible sub-systems, you need to really listen to what is going on in the system and look for patterns, trends, and other insights that could uncover the coherence in the systems and be relevant to your capacity to act or shift elements within the system.

Building in time for sense- and meaning-making is key to creating the power of us: how are the elements in the system working together or not and what does this mean? Where could we intervene and for what purpose? How can we empower and support the relational elements of the system? Purpose and sense-making are not a ‘one-off’ activity, just like sustainable transformation, but rather a moving dance – an individual and collective journey of reflection, with support from co-workers and peers to maintain this positive sense of purpose and keep the energy flowing through the systems and systems of systems.

General Stanley McChrystal’s ‘team of teams’ concept focuses on using the incredible power that small teams have to manage the difficult and complex issues that arise in organisations. By building a system of many teams (smaller systems) that collaborate and work together as one ecosystem, we can empower individuals and teams within the organisation to act quickly and coherently, while not overlooking the necessary guardrails that define the teams’ decision-making. This supposes clarity, collective vision and sense-making, people having the space to be seen, heard and valued and psychological safety to express emotions (whatever they may be) and be themselves. All of these are factors for happiness and an inner sense of joy.

This notion of engaging with the smallest visible systems makes sense because we can often become overwhelmed by both the complicatedness and complexity of larger systems, and this allows us to break them down and nudge accordingly. A good example is considering how to move the needle on inclusion. At the systems level, there are many interventions, actors, pathways, and ways of understanding the experience of inclusion or exclusion. While there are entry points into this larger system, they sometimes seem opaque, unattainable and like sliding doors opening and closing in different sequences – if you miss the opening, you miss the opportunity to impact the system. 

Focusing on smaller visible systems allows us to set up several smaller action groups such as leadership round tables or learning community structures to understand peoples’ experience of the workplace through lived stories, trends and data. This in turn allows us to focus on the impact locally, whilst constantly feeding back into the global system. Such understanding enables us to nudge and influence the local systems by building strategies at this level. With the pandemic and more hybrid models, most of us have been thrown into smaller systems quite radically, as online team units have become smaller and more intentional, often leading to more focus, more connection, and ultimately more meaning.

As we think about our systems of systems, let us think also about how we can bust the myths that surround expressing emotions at work; how we can create a flow of communication, energy and joy in the system; how we can use technology and human connection to help to link joy and happiness to the strategic objectives of our organisations; and how we can dare to intentionally push for sense-making as an integral and iterative part of both strategy and execution.

Thank you for reading.

If this resonates with you please share your thoughts in the comments, and subscribe for more thoughts on human systems. 

You can also find more subjects like this in my podcast, Let’s talk Transformation, available on Apple PodcastSpotify, and Google Podcast.

If you’re looking to build and lead agile ecosystems differently, check out our Human Systems Practitioner course :

Suzie Lewis

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