In the courts of ye olde rulers there existed a post called “the naysayer”. His job was to act as a critical voice in any and all matters and bring forth the problems that taking any action would cause, no matter how ridiculous (“Providing everyone enough food to eat would TOTALLY lead to people getting lazy and fat, my king”). The reason for this was to force the ruler and the governing nobles to consider all propositions more carefully, no matter how lucrative or stupidly good they seemed. While the word has a slightly different definition in modern times and quite the negative stigma as well, back in the day they were, effectively, their own age’s quality control.
Ok, I didn’t actually find any historical records saying that they were a thing during my extensive 10 minute Google search, so I might have just lied straight to your face. But you get the point, hopefully. The reason I wanted to bring the term up is because I am here now to play the devil’s advocate, so if you’re hoping to read a blog post about sunshine, rainbows and unicorns, you’ve come to the wrong neighborhood.
Let’s take a quiz. What do you think is the biggest problem in improving your own wellbeing at the workplace? Insufficient resources? Bad planning? Too big a workload in customer projects that take priority? Not enough opportunities to do things together?
Plot twist: none of the above. You are.
Proof’s in the pudding. Or post-its.
I recently facilitated an innovation workshop at work for some dozen people. The topic of the session was wellbeing at the workplace, a broad and highly subjective topic, yet one for which everyone has ideas and opinions once it is brought up. The amount of participants was just perfect and though I personally hadn’t solo-facilitated this kind of workshop before, we got through it alright. I’m not much of a public speaker so the instructions were probably kind of hazy, but fortunately people still seemed to get an idea of what they were supposed to do.
The results and findings from the workshop were very interesting. While concrete ideas and ways of improving our work environment were aplenty, perhaps more interesting were the pain points that emerged from the data. Naturally, people want to be nice to each other, they want to be trusted by their employer and feel accepted. Freedom of choice in many things was extremely important to many, be it in the hours they work or the location from where they work. All in all many of these things are most likely very general and could apply to a broad string of companies, but they are still concrete findings and should be treated as such instead of simply shrugging them off as obvious.
A more unique and common theme in this particular workshop’s context, however, was a desire to do more things together with your colleagues. Ideas ranged from sports activities to even sleepovers at the workplace, but the common denominator was that spending time together would increase happiness at work as well. Regardless of the idea or its actual feasibility, the problems with actually achieving these plans and making them a reality always tended to boil down to a single factor.
But, but… it can’t be me, I do things! Right?
Almost everyone has probably heard the age-old saying “The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few”. But what do you do when the many do not express themselves nor are willing to step outside of their comfort zone or break their ordinary routines, regardless of how (un)reasonable they are? The brave few are now presented with a tough nut to crack: on one hand, your ideas have plenty of room to grow and have little competition for attention as most people do not put anything forward. On the other hand, most people have a tendency towards aversion in regards to everything that doesn’t fall into the lines of their everyday routines. Even trying out new things is more and more difficult as time marches on, especially if a person has no prior experience with similar activities due to lack of interest or opportunity.
Most employees want to do things, but nobody is usually willing to take the first step. It is always ever so slightly easier to join something that already exists than build something from the ground up. More importantly, when someone does manage to gather the courage to start up something, the vast majority, even among the people who have expressed interest in the activity, simply fail to walk the walk for one reason (or excuse) or another. It’s understandable that most have pre-existing commitments and responsibilities, but failing to organize time to try out something week after week still seems dubious at best and actively harmful at worst. Naturally, you cannot force a person to participate in anything and if you’re simply not interested in something, that is perfectly fine. The issue that keeps muddying the waters is expressing interest in something yet never following up.
This kind of behavior also sets a terrible example for any similar attempts in the future. If you cannot rely on your co-workers to even give your idea a shot, especially if they’ve given you false support in getting it off the ground, it is extremely easy to just let it go without even trying and refrain from similar endeavors in the future. A big part of this deceptive attitude is settling to routines at the workplace. Every day you go to the same spot, you sit at the same table on the same chair doing very similar things. At the end of the day, you go home, possibly via an established hobby you’ve been doing for years. The readiness to break this cycle gets lower and lower over time, which is in direct conflict with new innovations and improving the workplace environment. The dark side corrupts slowly and gently, but inevitably.
So what now?
The saddest part of all of this is that it is more or less voluntary. By letting yourself fall to familiar tracks every day may get you comfortable most of the time, but in the long-term it is a massive dead-end. No innovation or improvement EVER came from accepting things as they are. Every pioneer and innovator in history had to break the boundaries of what was thought to be reasonable, feasible or even possible. Did Alexander Graham Bell give up on his experiments when the first doubter appeared? No, and we got telephones for that. Did the Wright brothers pack up and leave when their early attempts at flight were laughed at? No and today tens of thousands of people fly through the skies in highly secure planes every day. It is said that lazy people tend to find the fastest way of accomplishing a task, and though it may not always be the best one, it’s definitely a start. To quote Orlando Bloom from the movie Kingdom of Heaven:
I’ll be ending this post/analysis/rant shortly and I’ll try to do so on a positive note. One thing that was clear from the results was that our employees do enjoy each other’s company. This is a good starting point, but ONLY JUST THAT, a starting point. Continuous improvement requires out-of-the-box thinking and sometimes stepping outside of your comfort zone. Take chances, give new things an opportunity, organize activities and events and, especially, participate in them when someone else makes the effort. All the pieces are there, it just takes more than just staring at them to create something from them. There is exactly one place where change begins and that can make our office a better place for everyone. It is not some distant management level nor is it our already active HR.
Improvement starts with YOU.
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