Joy at Work: It's Your Right

Harvard Business Review

As a professional, you have a responsibility to use your talents wisely — and a right to enjoy yourself while doing so. But many people fail to meet that responsibility, and they don't claim their right to take pleasure in their work.

Consider a CEO I'll call Michael. His life isn't much different from the lives of many CEOs. From the outside, it looks busy but rewarding. From the inside, as I learned when I was hired to help him, his life included a string of disappointments.

He's an enormously talented and accomplished manager: Just before he landed this coveted position, he had successfully overseen the construction of a $100 million building project and masterminded the relocation of nearly a thousand employees into the new space. But when I first got to know Michael, there were so many demands coming at him he could barely get through the day in one piece.

New to his role, he felt he needed to be personally involved in everything under his purview — which was everything. He was consistently overbooked, even though his assistant tried to convince him not to accept every meeting request. He was always running late, and he began to develop a reputation for being unfocused and unreliable. The day he failed to attend a meeting with a trustee subcommittee, the chairman of the board insisted he get control of this problem. That's when we started working together.

In our first meeting, I asked Michael why he had pursued the CEO position and how it compared with what he'd hoped it would be. He confided that while he was in the trenches, he'd often believed he had a better handle than the former CEO on what the company needed, and he relished the chance to be the chief decision maker. But he wasn't comfortable letting go of the details, so now, as chief executive, he showed up at meetings where he wasn't needed and missed meetings where his input was required.

When he disappointed his colleagues, he disappointed himself. Where he once felt the pleasure of daily victories, he now lived under a cloud of dissatisfaction with his work and home life.

The last thing he needed was to be reminded of yet another responsibility, but the truth was that he wasn't fulfilling his key obligation to use his talents wisely. What's more, he was standing in the way of his staff's ability to fully utilize their own gifts. He needed to trust his people and let go of trying to control everything.

He needed a strategic framework for setting priorities, and he needed to assure himself that he had the right people on his team so he could stop micromanaging and concentrate on his own work. We first performed what I call a Time and Emotion Study, reviewing how he'd spent his hours and assessing how well this aligned with his objectives (not well at all). We then created a task map of what needed to be done and matched his team members' skills to the required work, reassigning some tasks and filling skills gaps.

Finally he agreed to back off and let his VPs lead their initiatives independently. That allowed him to reclaim dozens of hours for tasks that were clearly in his domain — one of which was making it home for family dinners at least twice a week.

This simple framework helped him get his priorities straight, and in the process, claim his right to joy on the job.

Joy? Does any busy executive really have a shot at finding joy on the job? We usually think of high-level professionals as attaining a certain level of achievement-related satisfaction and getting external rewards such as raises and promotions. Rarely, if ever, is their happiness given serious consideration. Joy certainly isn't in the core curriculum for most MBA programs.

But achieving joy at work is not only possible; it's a necessity. I've come to appreciate that happiness on the job is a leading indicator of an individual's ability to sustain high levels of passion, performance, and productivity over the long run. If we can uncover our true gifts and find work that makes regular use of them, we've fulfilled our responsibility to use them wisely and we've optimized our chances for claiming our right to enjoy the process.

When I work with people, I track their joy quotient, which is a measure of their joy-to-hassle ratio during any given situation. In fact, I keep a joy meter in my office. When I worked in the executive suite at Massachusetts General Hospital, countless people — even world-famous doctors — would come into my office, close the door, and move the dial toward hassle or joy, depending on what had happened to them recently.

We can't always control what assignments we accept at work. But regardless of our position, the choice we make about how we approach our work is up to us. Consider examining your business priorities — the goals you've promised to meet — then conducting a Time and Emotion Study to see how you've spent your time over the past few months. How well has your use of time fit with your objectives? Follow that up by making a task map and examining how well your responsibilities are aligned with your talents.

If the fit isn't as close as you would like, try talking to your colleagues to see what you can do as a team to reassign some responsibilities. The goal is to move the dial on your meter closer to joy. It's your right.

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