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  • Silver Linings for 2012

    Saj-Nicole Joni, Silver Linings for 2012

    If you pay attention to workplace surveys, the news sounds pretty bad. According to a January 2011 American Psychological Association (APA) survey of 1,546 working adults, 44 percent felt that their stress levels have increased over the last five years, and more than a third said they felt tense or stressed out during their workday, citing low salaries, lack of opportunities for advancement, heavy workloads, unrealistic job expectations and long hours.

    Bad news, right? But I'm not certain such surveys tell the whole story. And I predict that leaders who get the whole story, and act on it, will reap unexpectedly better workplace morale in 2012, despite all the uncertainty and volatility of the global economic realities.

    Certainly, times are terribly stressful, and I don't mean to downplay the reality that too many employees face. It's difficult to be a one-income family if your spouse has been laid off, or if you are worried about losing your own job. But I don't conduct paper-based surveys. I spend a lot of time on the ground in large and medium-sized companies. And anecdotally, I don't really get the sense that most people are sitting at their desks with frowns on their faces.

    I speculate that this lack of dourness may have to do with the privileges of survivorship: the people I talk to feel lucky to be employed at all, and they seem to accept the new reality that the ambition-crazed, hyper-consumerist world of the previous decades is behind us. They want to get on with things. They want to chug ahead, like the Little Engine That Could. I also think something else is going on, and leaders need to pay attention to this subtle but notable shift in employee energy.

    Consider George, a CEO of a large building-engineering firm in Silicon Valley. George has climbed up the corporate ladder for 20-odd years. His firm grew explosively during the 90s and right up through 2008, constructing offices and high-end homes for the technological elite. In that time, people thrived on their own ambition. As business boomed, new hires and managers competed hard with each other to scramble up the corporate ladder (while prying other people's fingers off of it). Sometimes they hurt themselves and each other in the process. But then the market slowed as companies moved their construction overseas and construction jobs disappeared. The firm had to lay off some even of these ambitious, hard-charging people — an awful experience for most managers, including George.

    George has tried to be a steady leader through all these years, and admits to some difficult times that he kept mostly to himself, his board, and his executive team, though he wisely and carefully chose to let the remaining employees know that, with their help, the company would pull through and that no one else would be let go if it could possibly be helped. And once the firm right-sized, the people who had remained in their jobs seemed to get past their grief and regain their footing. Things felt different; sad at first, and then, eventually, a lot less turbulent. And somehow more peaceful and human. "In a way," he says, "the slower market has been a blessing. We're not as frenetic. People have a little more time to do their work. We're still making OK money, but we're not sweating quite as much."

    George and I are observing a slight change in the workplace. Employees are seeking to be productive, and are no longer yearning for the expectations of the past. They want to be useful, peaceful, and happy, and they realize that happiness is not about money.

    Is this a tipping point in employer-employee relations? Perhaps. I'm seeing and hearing more on the general (if foggy) theme of "happiness," and the discussion has reached the workplace terrain. (The January-February 2012 issue of Harvard Business Review has — count 'em — five articles on this.) What does happiness mean? Where does it come from? Employees (and the more enlightened leaders I know) are realizing that happiness doesn't have much to do with endless "growth" or P&L sheets; it has much more to do with employees' personal fulfillment, if only for a few moments, each day at work and in life.

    Recognizing this, I'm seeing employees taking matters into their own hands. They may be taking up meditation (I've noticed glass office doors closed, and the people behind them sitting quietly with their eyes closed). They are ready to take on more, but in a human way. They may go walking at lunch. They may spend more time chatting with colleagues, or picking up flowers to enjoy at their desks. I see more "Gratitude" lists pinned to cork boards. They may not necessarily be happy with their firms' leadership or trajectories, but they are trying hard to hold up and appreciate what is, for themselves. People feel more personally engaged in the knit of life and work — which after all, are pretty inseparable.

    I predict that employers who recognize this shift, and tap into it, can unleash new levels of productivity and innovation — but only if they play their cards right. Your job as leader is to keep bickering and turf wars to a minimum while assuring that people engage in honest debates and what I call "right fights" about the hard stuff that really matters.

    Realize that your people understand that the new realities are here to stay. They are ready to do more, to work differently, to share humor and excitement. Make room for this, and you will be rewarded with leaps in productivity (and, dare I say, fun).

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