Happiness at Work – OK for businesses but not for museums?

on November 24th, 2011 by admin | No Comments »

On 22nd November Steve Gardam from the Happy Museum Commission at London Transport Museum went to an Action for Happiness event at Cass Business School in London, to hear Henry Stewart talk about happiness at work. Henry has just written a new book ? ?The Happy Manifesto’ ? based on his experiences of running a successful IT training company called? Happy www.happy.co.uk. You can download the Happy Manifesto for free at http://www.happy.co.uk/the-happy-manifesto-download-for-free/

Here is Steve’s report from the event.

The first thing I learned at this event was just how interested people are in this topic. I would guess at least a hundred people were there, and tickets were £15 a head (although this was a voluntary contribution? I wonder how many of us actually paid?). I also learned that Cass Business School has a Centre for Charity Effectiveness http://www.cass.city.ac.uk/research-and-faculty/centres/cass-centre-for-charity-effectiveness/ and they run a lot of talks of this nature. I was reminded again that museums – whether public or independent – have a lot to learn from other parts of the Third Sector. If nothing else, a slightly different spin on common themes is refreshing.

Back to Henry Stewart. Henry made it plain from the start of his talk that his ideas for happy workplaces came from mistakes and failures in his career before starting his company Happy. This put the talk firmly on a foundation of practical experience. Henry asked whether the audience agreed with a key statement: ?People work best when they feel good about themselves’. Yes, we all agreed that they ? that we ? did. So the overall point was that making people feel good, be happy, SHOULD be the main purpose of management. We also all agreed that in most workplaces, it probably wasn’t.

Henry gave a couple of stories which backed up this link between staff happiness and productivity:

The chicken restaurant chain Nando’s did some analysis as to why some sites did better than others. The closest correlation they could find was in staff satisfaction levels from annual surveys. Nando’s have apparently now changed their national managers’ bonus scheme to make at least 50% of it about increasing staff satisfaction rather than increasing profits? because if you increase staff satisfaction, profits go up as a result. The change is in the emphasis.

Alex Edmans, an economist from Wharton Business School in the United States, decided to investigate 25 years of data from the annual ?Best Places to Work’ survey. He used some serious economic theory (which you can read in this article, if you really want to!  http://finance.wharton.upenn.edu/~aedmans/Rowe.pdf)  to compare what an investment in the top 100 best places to work would have returned, against investing in the stock exchange without thinking about a company’s working environment. I didn’t quite understand the maths, but in short, employee wellbeing made these companies more profitable!

Henry asked the audience if they worked at their best when they felt trusted; 90% of us agreed that we did. Henry suggested a ?hierarchy of management needs’ (based on Maslow’s hierarchy of needs http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Maslow’s_hierarchy_of_needs), in which ?reward’ sits at the bottom, followed by ?communication’. Once these basic needs are met by management, people need ?support’, ?challenge’, ?freedom’ and ultimately ?trust’ in order to at their best, at work. In order to achieve trust, Henry proposes ?pre-approval’ by managers i.e. assume that your staff will come up with a good idea, so approve it before you’ve heard it or they’ve even thought of it (I think this is very interesting for enabling genuine participation in museums).

All this was qualified with an acknowledgement that ? at work, at least ? most of us want freedom within guidelines, within an overall vision or strategy which is well communicated and understood. Also, a key element of trust is accountability, in that anyone should know and agree what they are responsible for. Organisations should be prepared for and encouraged throughout to admit failure, to allow for learning.  As Henry said, the problem is seldom a mistake in itself, the problem is usually the fear of revealing a mistake, and the mess and tangle that comes from covering it up.

This was all good stuff. But I found myself wondering about the inherent restrictions on some of Henry’s ideas that come from the public and grant-funded museum sector. For example, Henry said managers should ask their staff ?what do you need from me in order to do better??, and then give it to them. In other words, let your staff tell you what they need, don’t impose upon them. ?Brilliant,? I thought, ??but what if what they want is not in my gift, like a longer contract, or a three-year funding plan??.

I don’t think Henry is wrong, but his ideas seem like they would work more quickly in a business environment. A wise commercial business makes money through increasing staff happiness, thereby increasing resources and appetite to maintain staff happiness, and consequently makes more money (hello Google! http://www.google.com/diversity/culture.html). The business has a clear goal: making money. In doing so, it fulfils the ?self-actualisation’ that Maslow puts at the top of his hierarchy of human needs; a successful business owns its own future.

In museums, we have many, many equally valid goals? education, preservation, social cohesion, well-being, happiness, etc, etc.  But as a sector we are arguably still too dependent on the gift of others; grantmakers and other funders, to achieve self-actualisation. Do funders sufficiently engage in the process of change within organisations they fund? Do they trust funded organisations to make mistakes and celebrate them? As a result of Henry’s powerful and engaging talk, I also pondered whether we museums need greater focus in our work. Perhaps if we were brave enough to do fewer things better? museums could become engines of happiness.

Steve Gardam |  Head of Live Programmes

London Transport Museum

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