5 Ways You Are Holding Yourself Back From Happiness

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Courtesy of https://twitter.com/anniemckee

Kevin Kruse: What are the five traps that are keeping you from happiness? Hello, everyone, I'm Kevin Kruse. Welcome to the LEADx Show, where we help you to stand out and to get ahead. Today in the show, I’ll talk to a leadership guru about what a manager's real job is, how purpose, hope, and friends are the secret to happiness at work, and what she believes are the five traps getting in the way of happiness. By the way, one of these traps I suffered all through my 20s, another trap I suffered from through age 30 to 40, and I still struggle against trap number three. There's only two that I don't have, or didn't have.

Before we begin, I hope you remember to tell your friends on Facebook and at work about leadx.org. We offer free leadership training and professional development for everyone, anywhere, at any time. The week that I'm recording this, we've run how to develop grit, active listening, overcoming procrastination, and how to fix your open door policy. Tell your managers to check out the free course of the day at leadx.org. Our quote of the day comes from someone who won the Pulitzer Prize for Reporting three different times, and was called the greatest reporter of his time. Herbert Swope said, “I cannot give you the formula for success, but I can give you the formula for failure, which is: Try to please everybody.” 

Our guest is a best-selling author, respected academic, speaker, and sought-after advisor to top global leaders. She's a senior fellow at the University of Pennsylvania Graduate School of Education, and has co-authored Harvard Business Review books, including Primal Leadership, Resonant Leadership, and Becoming a Resonant Leader. She's here to talk about her brand new book, How to Be Happy at Work: The Power of Purpose, Hope, and Friendships. Our guest is Dr. Annie McKee. Annie, welcome to the show.

Dr. Annie McKee: Thanks, Kevin. I'm so glad to be here.

Kruse: Now I'm excited to talk about your new book in just a minute, but I have a tradition where I always ask our guests the same very first question and that is, will you tell us about a time when you failed and what did you learn from it? Because I'm kind of selfish. I want to learn from your failure. I want to learn from your mistakes.

McKee: That's a great question. Oh, gosh. Well, you know what? I'll tell you about a story when I was hired a number of years ago. I was hired by a great company to do what I thought was great work. I liked the guy who hired me and I thought he liked me, but boy, six weeks or seven weeks in, I realized that not only didn't this guy like me, I think he despised me.

Kruse: Uh-oh. Uh-oh

McKee: Yeah, it was bad news, and this guy was really toxic. So, what did I learn from this, right? It was really miserable. I was really unhappy and I wasn't at my best. What did I learn from it? A number of things. Number one, I had taken that job more because I thought I should than because I wanted to. I kind of got stars on my eyes because of the big name and all the rest of that. Then secondly, I closed my eyes to the reality, because the clues about this guy were there. Then third, and this is what I learned about myself, I spent a little bit too much time blaming him, and I didn't take as much responsibility for my own actions as I probably should have. Honestly, I think I became a little bit part of the problem in that situation, and it wasn't until I realized that I was able to step away and really make some decisions about what I needed to do.

Kruse: It sounds like, I mean, maybe this early experience sort of informed or drove your later research and interest. Is that right?

McKee: It did. At the time, I was already interested in leadership. I was doing some writing about it, but not anything major at the time, but I became fascinated with how we manage ourselves in the workplace, how we use our emotional intelligence, how we lead others, not only because of this particular individual who happened to be a toxic boss, but because of my own response. What could I have done better?

Kruse: Right, right. A true partnership approach to success in the workplace.

McKee: Exactly.

Kruse: You know, I mentioned when I read your intro in the beginning of the show that your previous work, your books on leadership, you've obviously worked with a lot of very successful high level executives, but I'm wondering what type of advice would you give to a younger first-time manager who wants to emerge as a great leader.

McKee: Another good question, Kevin. I think the first bit of advice I would give is try to make sure that you understand what your job really is. If you're a manager for the first time or maybe your second management job, your job really no longer is to do the work. I mean, you've got things you have to do, of course, but your number one job is to take care people, motivate people, create an environment where people can be at their best, and that takes time. You can't squeeze that in in five minutes on a Friday lunch. It takes a lot of time to create that kind of environment, so my advice to young managers is to recognize that your main job, your primary job is to create an environment where everybody else can do their work, and not focus so much on your own tasks that you forget about people.

Kruse: I love that advice, and often I've said I wish that that word, ‘manager,’ sort of didn't exist because I think people become managers of tasks rather than of people. If we just changed the word to like coach, then it would be a little bit more clear what the role is supposed to be about.

McKee: I love that. In fact, the word manager brings up all kinds of notions, like controlling people, making sure they do what they're supposed to do, and none of that is going to inspire people to walk through a wall for you when you need them to. In fact, they're going to start fighting you before you know it.

Kruse: Right. Now your new book, again, is How to Be Happy at Work: The Power of Purpose, Hope, and Friendship. I'm curious, are you using the term ‘happy’ and ‘happiness’ the same way I might use the term ‘employee engagement,’ or do you make a distinction?

McKee: I make a distinction. You know, there's been a lot of study or measurement of engagement over the last few years. I'm sure you've heard and our listeners have heard of the Gallup studies that show approximately two thirds of us are either disengaged or neutral about work, neither of which is good enough, by the way, when we spend eight, 10 hours a day in the workplace. Happiness is a bigger concept, I think.

Happiness, the way I define it based on my work with managers and leaders around the world, is a deep and abiding sense of purpose. Our work is fulfilling. When we are happy, our work feels meaningful. It is a sense of hope that's tied to our personal vision about the future, as well as our career, and happiness is also linked to having friendships in the workplace, so that's bigger and deeper than engagement.

Kruse: Right, right. Just for our listeners, I want to sort of underscore those again because they're central themes in your book. You know, the secrets to being happier at work include purpose, hope, friends, friendship, and I thought what was sort of unique is when you talk about hope and purpose, it isn't just that you've bought into the purpose of the organization or the future of the organization. It really needs to be personalized. It needs to tie back to your own future vision. Is that right?

McKee: That's absolutely right, Kevin. You know, in my work with leaders I often do studies of organizational culture, how people are reacting to the institution or the company. I do a lot of interviews, or we would, my team and I. I bring their findings, the results, and themes back to senior leaders. One of the things I often find is that people would say, “There's no vision here,” or, “The mission here is empty,” and senior leaders would be shocked to hear that, shocked because they thought the vision was really clear, they thought the mission was compelling, and partly because they lived so close to it, but farther out from that C-suite you got, the less likely it was that people would really feel the mission or see the vision. In fact, what these senior leaders and what many of us don't do all that well in our organizations is translate the mission, translate the vision so that people can really understand it, so that's point number one.

Point number two, no organization can ever provide you with a full personal vision for your life. That's not the purpose of an organization. That's not what they're there for. they're there to provide goods and services for clients, and provide us with meaningful and fulfilling work for sure, but an organization's vision is only going to partially fulfill our vision. We have to really focus on this personally, and our vision at work has to be part and parcel of our vision for life, not just for our careers.

Kruse: Yeah. I think that's so important, and I don't want to derail us on a whole separate show about work-life balance or work-life, but I think a lot of people do separate work from the rest of their life and they sort of have that eight, 10 or more hours. Then they think they do what they really want to do with their life or what they really want to do with their relationships and friendships, but life is really short and it's kind of sad to think that so much of our time, so much of our life would not be at least in some way supporting or aligned with these personal goals.

McKee: Yeah. I think life is really too short to be unhappy at work, and life is far too short to forget about our personal goals and personal vision for our lives. You're right. I think we often buy into that old-fashioned myth that we go to work to get a paycheck so we can be happy in the rest of our life, and that's just not how it works.

Number one, as I said a minute ago, we work a lot. We carry our work in our pockets in those little devices we carry around. We can work all the time if we want to, and unfortunately some of us do. If we're going to have access to work literally all the time, that phrase, “Work-life balance,” if it ever did work, it doesn't work anymore. Right?

Kruse: Right.

McKee: It doesn't work. It's not a phrase I like because it always leaves you feeling guilty. It's never balanced. What's more important is that we find a way to manage work and a way to manage life so that we are engaged and fully present in each of the activities that we're doing, whenever and wherever we're doing them, not segmenting or pretending to segment out, which is literally impossible to do anymore.

Kruse: Right, right. Listeners, I want to share that we've been talking about secrets to being happier at work, but a little bit on these principles of purpose, hope, friendships. As managers, as leaders, you can help to create a culture that can foster these things. As individuals, we should be striving for them, but then, Annie, you have a section in your book that really grabbed me. I mean, it was almost like a Buddhist philosophy of suffering in life and the causes, and it's not that serious, but you talk about the five happiness traps, which I really was like, “Oh, wow.” I was either thinking of times in my life where I had fallen into those traps, or people I know today where I'm like, “Oh, she's got that trap or he fell into that trap,” so walk us through the five happiness traps.

McKee: Yeah. When I was doing my research and trying to understand what it is that we need in order to be fulfilled and happy at work, I realized a couple of things. Number one, work doesn't have to be grueling, and we really do deserve to be happy in the workplace and we need to claim that. We need to honor that.

Number two, sometimes despite the fact that a lot of us point our finger at the proverbial ‘them’ and blame our leaders or our manager or the culture of our organization for our unhappiness, sometimes we do it to ourselves, and we do it sometimes with good intentions behind us but things just backfire.

Take the overwork trap, for example. Overwork is our modern disease. A lot of us work all the time, and this is particularly true, ironically, for people who love our jobs, who love our work. It's really hard to turn off, and couple that with access to technology and the demands of our workplaces, and we can find ourselves burning up and burning out in very short order, even if we're strong and resilient. Nobody is going to be happy in life or at work if we're working constantly. We've got to find some way to ensure that we can renew ourselves as well, so that's one of the happiness traps.

Another one that again starts in a good place, we often choose jobs or follow a career path or do what we think we should do at work rather than what we want to, rather than what we're passionate about, and in any society we have to follow some rules. You know, we get a good education so we can be contributing members of society, and you're not going to show up wearing a bathing suit to work unless you're a lifeguard, right? But I've seen too often where the ‘should’’s in the workplace really do tap down our creativity, our innovation, and frankly makes us show up as inauthentic and sort of putting the game face on rather than being who we really are.

That has real implications for our effectiveness because you can't do that for too long before you start feeling resentful, so the should trap. I encourage people to really follow your passion, follow meaning, and yes, you're going to make some compromises and it's not always perfect, but if you're making decisions about what job to take or about what career to pursue because you think you should, rather than because you really want to, then you probably want to look at that.

Another happiness trap is what I call the ambition trap. This is interesting. In working with managers and leaders, as you do, Kevin, and as I do, you've probably seen all too often that individual for whom the goal is the goal, right? Each new goal is a new challenge and it sounds really exciting, and for a while it is. That next promotion, that next new job, that next bonus. You know, hanging on to that brass ring and then going for the next one. The problem is that year in and year out when we're constantly seeking that next goal, and when they're fairly short-term and they're really about achievement and not true meaning or following our passion, it can feel really empty after a while, so that's number one.

Number one, along with ambition often comes overheated competition and hyper-competition. The way that plays out is we're competing with our colleagues, and that is destructive, it's toxic, and it's definitely not good for us or for them.

Another topic that I talk about when I talk about happiness traps is money. Listen, we all need money to live. We decide on a certain lifestyle or we want a certain lifestyle, and we strive for that and that's fine. There's nothing wrong with that. I don't have a problem with money. We all need it. Ask anybody who doesn't have it, right? But I have too often met people who trap themselves in jobs that really don't work for them because of the money, and really if you scratch the surface, it's not the money that's keeping them there. It's fear, fear of insecurity, and money is often a proxy for success, and we're afraid that if we give it up somehow we're going to fail. You go down that route of insecurity and fear, and well, that's the antithesis of happiness now, isn't it? It really truly is.

Then finally there is a helplessness trap. You know, “It's their fault. They did it to me. If it weren't for that horrible colleague or that boss or that team member I'd be fine, but I can't do anything. There's nothing I can do.” Ugh. That is soul destroying. When we feel that we don't have any power over our own work environment, over what we do on a daily basis, over our own happiness, it can lead to real problems, mental health issues, depression, all sorts of things. So for our listeners out there, if you've gotten to the point where you're feeling a little bit cynical and you're feeling like you're kind of stuck, before it gets to the point where you feel helpless, you might want to really take some time out and reflect on the power you do have to approach your work differently, the power you do have to have the conversation with that manager about getting you on some new projects or doing some things that are more engaging and exciting for you before you do get trapped by a feeling of helplessness.

Kruse: Annie, I'm just curious. I know these five have come from your research, but is there anyone in particular that sort of resonates with your own life or prior stage of life?

McKee: Oh, yeah. It's that first one. It's the overwork trap.

Kruse: Yeah.

McKee: That one, you know? I love what I do. I really love what I do. I love the people I work with. I love writing. I love teaching. I love consulting and coaching, and I can find myself saying yes to everything. Right? After a while, I've had to learn the hard way that as hard as it is to say no in the moment, it's really important for us to recognize what our own limitations are and what our own boundaries need to be in order to stay healthy and effective. I still struggle with it, Kevin. I still do.

Kruse: Yeah. I think mine is ambition. Well, most people would say overwork and ambition, I guess. I think that awareness helps, but it's almost something like, for myself, I'll speak for myself, but it's something I need to manage almost like a chronic condition rather than a cure. It's so ingrained. I'm 50 years old. It's so ingrained in me, some of these things, that I'm not as bad as I was in my 20s and 30s, but it's still there. It's still in the shadows. 

McKee: It's so there. You know, it sometimes feel like we're fighting an uphill battle with overwork or ambition because they look good on the surface, right? It's only in the extreme that they're not good, and we get a lot of accolades for working hard and for being ambitious. People would have us keep doing this for as long as we live because it's good for them too, right? So you just really do as you say. You have to put up some boundaries, and it's a constant work in progress, I guess.

Kruse: Yeah. I think it is. Let me back this up, Annie. With the LEADx Show, it's a daily show, so I'm always challenging our listeners, like just get a little bit better every single day. If you can go out and get this book and take one new idea, get one new behavior out of it, god, that's amazing. You're going to be doing so well, so give me something specific, like what's a specific behavior activity, action, something like that, that we could take from your book and implement in the next 24 hours to help us to get a little bit better, a little bit happier at work. 

McKee: That's great. I'm going to give you two really quickly.

Kruse: Good.

McKee: Number one, follow your passion, but in order to follow your passion, you've got to know what it is and sometimes we become so distant from what we really care about that we've got to take time out and really think about it, so what can you do in the next 48 hours? Take an hour. Take your computer, your notepad, whatever it is, and start writing down what's important to you at work and in life. Then start thinking about how you can do more of that on the job, so that's number one.

Number two is even more simple. Find a friend at work. Find a friend. Most of us have a friend or two at work. Spend more time with that person, and not just complaining or griping, which is tempting sometimes, right? It is, but find a friend and talk about what you want in the future, what they want in the future, how you can help each other. Go out to lunch. Go for a walk. Take some time and just be with somebody you like in the workplace. It is amazing how renewing that can be and how it can reconnect you with what's important to you in your own work, and you're helping somebody else to boot.

Kruse: Two great challenges. Annie, how can our listeners find out more about you, your work, and your new book?

McKee: Thank you. Visit me at my website, www.anniemckee.com. I put all sorts of great little articles you can read for free, things I've published on HBR and elsewhere, you can access a certain number of those every month without having a subscription to HBR. It's really great.

Then there are other things I'm published elsewhere, short little articles, very practical, tips and tricks you can use to make your life and your work more fulfilling, so that's one, and of course, my book is available on Amazon and all the major book sellers.

Kruse: We will put those links up into the show notes so everybody can make sure to find those. Annie, thanks for coming on to the LEADx Show.

McKee: Thank you, Kevin.

Kevin Kruse is a New York Times bestselling author, host of the popular LEADx Leadership Podcast, and the CEO/Founder of LEADx.org, which provides free world-class leadership training, professional development and career advice for anyone, anywhere.