Busted: 4 of Our Favorite Employee Happiness Myths

Pim de Morree
Written by Pim de Morree March 02, 2016

During our journey we discuss our learnings and experiences with friends, family and complete strangers. We have realized that we are exploring a sensible topic that is often raising lots of questions and interesting discussions.

When we discuss the liberation of organizations and the success stories we have encountered so far, we stumble upon a wide variety of emotions: from enthusiasm to doubt, from excitement to disbelief. During these discussions, we frequently encounter some myths.

People feel these myths are reasons for why the success stories could not be translated to their organization. We therefore like to debunk 4 of our favorite myths.

Myth #1: "People in my organization cannot handle freedom and responsibility. My people need control and somebody to tell them what to do." 

We often hear this myth from (beginning) middle managers that have absolutely no trust in the people they are supposed to lead. Mostly, they support the fundamental idea of organizational liberation but are convinced their teams need intensive control and clear orders.

There is a list of reasons that managers use to justify their standpoint. A small selection of the many reasons we encounter so far: "my people are not mature enough", "my people are not smart enough", or "my people just do their work from 9 to 5 and are not looking for more responsibility".

However, there is no solid ground to believe that people need intensive control and clear orders in order to perform well. We have come across many liberated organizations with a diverse workforce that prove that these statements are rubbish.

A long list of real examples will have to convince you: there are the nurses at Buurtzorg, the contributors at Voys, the lawyers at BvdV, the people at Semco, the construction workers at Kesselaar en Zn, the biscuit bakers at Veldt and Poult, the printers at Drukkerij Wedding and the metal workers at FAVI.

It turns out that already in the 1960's, MIT professor Douglas McGregor proposed his now famous Theory X and Theory Y. His theory states that managers subscribe to one of the two believes of human motivation. Theory X believes that people work because you pay them and that they need strict monitoring and control to motivate them.

The opposite counts for Theory Y, which states that people work for intrinsic motives and that they work better when they have more control over their own work. McGregor has shown that leaders or managers who believe in Theory X, turn out to have a workforce that needs constant supervision and control. In contrast, leaders or managers that believe in Theory Y have a workforce that is intrinsically motivated, works autonomously and doesn't need intense control.

It seems that Henry Ford's quote "Whether you think you can or you can't, you're right" is applicable to this theory as well.

Myth #2: "Only successful companies can afford to focus on the happiness of their employees."

A lot of people mention that successful companies can afford to focus time, money and energy on the happiness of its employees. They see it as a luxury that most companies cannot afford. Shawn Achor, writer of 'The Happiness Advantage', describes why this belief is limiting us. He accurately explains why we should change it:

"If you work hard, you will become successful, and once you become successful, then you'll be happy. Success first, happiness second. The only problem is that this formula is broken. The formula is broken because it is backward.

More than a decade of groundbreaking research in the fields of positive psychology and neuroscience has proven in no uncertain terms that the relationship between success and happiness works the other way around. Thanks to this cutting-edge science, we now know that happiness is the precursor to success, not merely the result. Happiness and optimism actually fuel performance and achievement."

It is therefore crucial for companies to focus on employee happiness to increase their success and not the other way around.

Myth #3: "We are schooled in this system so this will never change."

Another myth that has been proven wrong. Dan Pink proves in his book 'Drive' that behavior is made, not born. He shows that behavioral patterns aren't fixed characteristics, they just emerge from circumstances, context and experiences. We can change our pattern of living once we learn ourselves novel practices and attitudes and exercise them constantly in a supportive setting.

Luckily, this change arises from universal human needs, and does not depend on age, gender, or nationality. So, there is no valid excuse to believe that our behavior will never change. Still don't believe it's possible? Read our recent story about printing house Wedding and discover the mindset transformation in a real life scenario.

Myth #4: "Every human being needs ambition, without a clear hierarchy there is no room for ambition."

People have a natural drive to learn, to grow and to develop oneself. We call this ambition. In an attempt to satisfy this need, most companies today are still using an operating model that dates from the industrial era. Recently, Mike Arauz showed us an organizational chart of the New York Erie Railroad from 1800.

Org chart

This chart resembles the charts we come across in traditional companies nowadays. This organizational model was designed a long time ago for a world that was quite different from the world we live in today. It considers the organization as a machine, a term assigned by Frederic Laloux. We tend to talk in engineering terms like units, layers, information flows and bottlenecks. Leadership on top of the pyramid is goal-oriented and often putting tasks over relationships.

Once organizations remove the traditional pyramids, more natural hierarchies develop. The natural hierarchies are based on recognition, influence and skills. These are therefore the areas where people can develop. By developing in these areas, people fulfill their ambition and automatically start developing mastery on topics of their interest. Within these natural hierarchies, one can grow by demonstrating expertise and added value to the organization. Stop doing this and you will stop growing.

This clearly shows that without the traditional pyramid there is still plenty of room left for ambition. How far you can satisfy your own ambition depends on your talents, interests, character and the support from your environment. Not on your position on the organizational chart!

Any other myths to bust?

Let us know if you have any myths that you would like us to discuss. Just reach out to us by using one of the boxes below!

Written by Pim de Morree
Pim de Morree
As co-founder of Corporate Rebels I focus on: researching, writing, speaking, and building our company.
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