I sat on the bumper of my Odysessy in the parking garage, furious and sobbing after a terrible meeting. I realized right then — my dream job was over.
I said to my friend: “I don’t fit in this culture anymore. He’s going to fire me.”
“If you don’t fit the culture, it’s because our culture has lost its way.”
Dang, was she right.
Unresolved conflict was the symptom of our team hiding and covering for an unskilled leader. For this story, we’ll call him Chad. The toxic work environment utterly pummeled me. I lived in constant stress and definitely not working at “my highest and best self.”
And yet, I hung on. Until that very moment, dirt from the bumper smudging my navy blue dress, I still hoped it could be different.
Or at least, I thought I had hope.
I had placed my hope in me and my team, our abilities and processes — our sheer desire to make it better. I was the Energizer Bunny — if I just kept going, I could fix this. Really I just had a wish that we could have joy again.
If you’re connecting my story to your work life, I’m so sorry you’ve experienced toxicity, trauma, and pain at work. And you might be tempted to think, “This is just how work is. It’s supposed to be hard, and most of the time, your boss sucks.”
I refuse and refute that assumption. Work-life can absolutely be full of joy. In fact, joy is an essential part of a healthy and profitable organization.
I promise this is more than a wish. You have the agency to bring joy to work.
Let me tell you what joy is, why it matters, and how to cultivate it on three levels.
What Is Joy
My definition of Joy: Intense happiness from a feeling of deep connection and appreciation and experiencing something greater than ourselves.
Joy isn’t the absence of pain or difficulty. It’s also not just a helium balloon that floats away, leaving you scrambling to find that fleeting feeling again.
Real joy has deep roots. And roots are formed in the dark.
Your roots are often from pain. That deep, internal pissed-offness that says, “It shouldn’t be like this!” Now, believe you me, I want to run from pain. I’d love to just dance away from that for forever. But what I’ve learned is pain shows you what you really care about. It shows you what you value (more later on values and creating joy at work).
Real joy has deep roots.
And roots are formed in the dark.
Why Joy Matters
Let’s use satisfied employees as a baseline for productivity. You’ve likely heard that disengaged employees concern organizations. It’s because they’re 18% less productive than a satisfied employee and 62% less productive than an engaged employee.
And that’s where most folks stop. But what about joy, inspiration, and meaning? Bain & Company partner Michael Mankins found that inspired employees are 143% more productive than that disengaged employees. (If you don’t want to do that math, that means inspired employees are still 81% more productive than engaged employees.)
Inspired employees find joy in the impact of their work (more on that in a minute). And currently, we have a joy deficit at work. Harvard Business Review published a research analysis that shows 90% of workers expect to feel joy at work, yet only 37% actually do.
Inspired employees are 143% more productive than that disengaged employees.
Dr. W. Edwards Deming argued the overarching pursuit of leaders should be to create a system in which everybody has the opportunity to take joy in their work. This is why joy matters at work. For joy’s sheer benefit to our lives, but also, joy is a money-maker.
Three Levels to Cultivate Joy at Work
- Start with your values.
If joy is deep connection, you’ve got to have something to connect to. The best way to do this at work: Know your values.
Doing values work is some of my favorite exercises to do with clients. Remember the pain that shows you your values. In my work situation, my values of curiosity and valor were nowhere to be found from my leader. Use your experiences to uncover what values were threatened or ignored. Here is a chart to get you started.
- Connect the work to purpose
If joy is connection to something greater than yourself, at work this looks like meaning or purpose. Clearly connect the small task to the larger purpose for yourself, your team, and your organization. This means worthy goals related to a greater good.
That is a thread from onboarding through annual meetings. Tell the story of what each role does in meaningful ways. Say you lead a team in finance at a university. Maintaining the accounting system allows the professors to do their expert work so students gain the knowledge they need to contribute to society and live fruitful lives. Those aren’t just numbers on a spreadsheet. You’re facilitating the next great contributors to our world.
And pro tip: if you’re working with Millennials and Gen Z, this is table stakes for them. Connect tasks to purpose and remind them of their connection to the purpose.
- Share the joy.
Your tone is catchy. Joy begets joy. And this can be scary. Brené Brown believes joy is our most vulnerable emotion. We sometimes feel awkward or even “unprofessional” (don’t get me up on that soapbox!). So why face that vulnerability? Back to Brown: “If you cannot tolerate joy, what you do is you start dress rehearsing tragedy.”
So play that out on your team. If someone isn’t showing the way to express joy, each person starts spending time and energy on the negative what-ifs. And we’re back to fear and disengagement and far away from inspired.
Pollyanna happiness and toxic positivity isn’t going to do it. Empathy, gratitude, and inclusion will bring the deep connection and purpose. Explicitly celebrating joy and operationalizing purpose will facilitate more joy.
You have to lead the way. First, with yourself. (And if you don’t have a leadership position, let me remind you that you are CEO of your own desk. You will always lead yourself first.) Then specifically with individuals you work with regularly. Then move to systems.
So back to that parking garage and the dirty bumper and my realization. Here’s what happened:
For four years, the pattern was clear. When we raised a concern, Chad had an excuse, a deflection, some reason it was not his problem to solve. It was like the tap dance scene from the musical Chicago. Each time Chad came close to facing responsibility, he flapped, shuffled, and heel-clicked his way out of it. And eventually, he chose to target me.
That was the devastating realization on the bumper. After 20 years in education, I’d never been the scapegoat. I’d definitely earned some blame in my life, but being the fall guy was a new experience.
Chad fired me from my leadership role. And then offered me a different position I should never have accepted. For the next six months, I kept trying to make it work. And Chad was still passive-aggressive, gaslighting, shaming, and unskilled. (Sidenote: remember my values of valor and curiosity. You can see why there was no joy.)
I knew there had to be freedom somewhere, but I needed to leave. It was terrifying, and yet, joy started tiptoeing back in.
I passed Chad my letter of resignation with three weeks’ notice. And he was ugly. All the blame, shame, and attacks came. And, full of anxiety but choosing valor, I said, “I wanted to make this work. But your actions made that impossible. I cannot allow you to treat me this way anymore. I wish you well.”
I drove away that day, doing my own dance of freedom. This time car dancing in the driver’s seat of my van, belting with Keela Settle, “This Is Me.”
Wouldn’t it be great to end the story here? A Disney musical, singing off into the sunset?
But the brave truth? The next year was terrible.
Wouldn’t it be great to end the story here? A Disney musical, singing off into the sunset? But the brave truth? The next year was terrible.
I wrestled and self-examined. I saw parts of myself I didn’t like: when I feel trapped, I abandon trust. I assume wrongly, both good and bad assumptions. I allow my idealism to block reality. I want others to see the world the way I see it, so I will stay too long trying to convince them.
Real joy has deep roots. And roots are formed in the dark. And so is healing. Years later, I help leaders and organizations solve these types of problems so employees stay. So they move beyond employee engagement to inspired teams. So when I come talking about joy at work, I’m not chasing a balloon bouquet of happiness or just some fun team-building activity (although I do love them!).
Joy is vital to your holistic life.
Joy is vital to your holistic life, including your business efforts and your work culture. If you are curious about how to work on this for your team, let’s talk.