Friday Pulse: Why is challenge a key part of happiness at work?
Challenge is about stretch, and not staying still. As human beings we
like novelty, learning fresh things. If we are not challenged, then we
can become bored and stale.
That sense of mastery that comes from working and improving at something
is incredibly good for wellbeing. We may not always want to feel
challenged in all areas of our lives – like our relationships or hobbies
which might be more about enjoying and playing – but I think we look to
work to provide challenge.
If we have a good match between the challenges we face and the skills
that we have, it stretches us out of our comfort zone. That’s where we
get into a state that psychologists call “flow” – the experience of
being absorbed in something, in the moment – and this tends to lead to
However, with too much challenge people become stressed. Yet, too little
can often lead to feeling disengaged and apathetic. The trick is to get
the right balance between challenges and skills – and this is hugely
important in teams. Are you challenging your teams to stretch themselves
or is their work too boring? This becomes part of the process of
managing people's growth.
You mention people look to their work to provide challenge. Why is
Well to caveat that, I don't think everyone does. Some people just want
to go to work, do what they do well, and go and get on with the rest of
their lives. But, generally, people are less happy when they're bored.
And, challenge is an exciting place to be. We are built to seek, explore
and try new things, so why not do it at work?
A huge part of the human experience is betterment and challenge. It’s
how we learn and adapt. Many people challenge themselves to see if they
can achieve their goals. And, both the process and the achievement are a
source of pride, and work is a great opportunity for this. It’s a place
where we solve problems, and the solving of problems is deeply
David White, the poet, talks about us being in a conversation with what
we bring to the world and what the world needs from us. When we're in
that conversation it's an exciting place to be. Where do our skills and
strengths and energies lie, and how can we meet the world’s needs?
If you're an employer, is there a better way to challenge your
people rather than going through goal setting and yearly performance
I think the best way is to challenge with care — understanding your
colleagues, your employees and setting goals with them. And to mark the
achievement of these goals. You can't just continually challenge. All
too often, employers keep pushing and extracting out of their people.
So, there's no time for renewal or recovery, to connect on purpose, to
feel re-inspired and to step back and think about how to do things
If goals are set for you, you're going to have less motivation to reach
them. One of the things we recommend to organizations is asking
individuals to reflect on the areas they want to progress. The focus on
individuals identifying their own goals is a different spin on the
typical performance review. It’s not so much about jumping through the
company’s hoops as it is about charting your own journey.
By doing this you're promoting autonomy — and the psychological
experience that any successes I have are mine because I decided that I
wanted to achieve in this area. I'll go out and seek feedback from
people close to me because it’s important to me. This lets people hear
the feedback with more openness and energy to use it.
We’re talking about marking achievement and celebrating it, but for
some high achievers it’s off to the next thing to do. How do you help
someone take more time to bask in that glow?
At Friday Pulse, we encourage people to celebrate by coming together and
taking stock of everything that's been achieved. In workplaces, we’re
good at looking to the future to discuss how far we’ve got to go. We ask
people to complement this conversation with one about how far they’ve
Shout-outs are great, but there is something even more energizing about
doing it as a team rather than just your line manager saying something
to you. Emotions are contagious, so we feel the positivity of each
other’s achievements if we discuss them as a group.
There are some organizations whose culture is so busy they're running
from one thing to the next. Our Friday Pulse platform helps them to slow
down and pay attention to what’s working – for example by sharing
peer-to-peer thank-yous in weekly team meetings. This practice lets them
dwell in their achievements a little more and garner energy from the
successes of others.
It’s great to catch micro successes, not just wait for the huge ones.
It's not a sprint. Work is a marathon. You're building things slowly.
Sometimes when corporates go through a bad patch, I see them respond by
layering on the challenge. The KPIs become more ambitious and the things
that haven’t been achieved are communicated about harder. That’s
understandable but when they're already stressed, it just sends people
into a panic … and eventually apathy. I know that's hard for leaders
when they're concerned about their business and things aren't going
well, but it actually doesn't serve them to set more stringent targets
and squeeze people harder. Because at these times it’s unleashing human
energy and human potential that will get them through.
How can employers create a safe space for employees to develop, push
themselves and also make mistakes?
People often say there is no such thing as mistakes — there are only
learnings. But that's a bit of a faux mantra as sometimes people make
mistakes and yet don't take responsibility for them. That’s not
learning. But if we make an honest mistake when we're trying to do
something well and it doesn't work out, this is a great learning
The world of work is not good at recognizing failure as a learning
opportunity. And yet there are no wrong moves when you're being
creative, even realizing you've reached a dead end. Yes, it's a time
drain, but that’s part of the creative process, because you can’t move
forward without going there.
In work, the social contract governs how we behave. But without that
social contract, when people are put to work on a task or challenge,
they're more creative because they're freer. They don't have their
reputation on the line in the same way. That lack of pressure is
important. So, how you gift people time in their working week to try
things out that might lead to a dead end, but might really improve
things, is quite important.
How does an employer create that kind of space for
What I call “guardrails” help. If we're going to make mistakes, let's
try and keep them as little as possible. If we head in the wrong
direction, let's try not to go down there for three months. The biggest
mistake that can happen is if you let a project team go off too far on
their own. You need to be clear about what the North Star goal is, and
how you’re trying to get there.
The North Star's good, isn't it? Is this taking us closer to or
further away from our goal? And if you've got that North Star, you've
got that project goal and that builds accountability into the creative
How can employers and employees get on the same side of the table
when it comes to meeting business and professional development goals?
Sometimes they feel a little at odds with each other.
My answer to this is kind of tongue in cheek, but it actually holds an
important practical truth. They can sit on the same side of the table.
Sometimes when you're doing performance reviews, there's a table
between the line manager and employee and it's like you're playing
ping pong. One's on the attack and one's on the defence. You can
actually just sit next to each other or go for a walk together. And
suddenly it's the two of you facing the world, rather than the world
sat in contention between the two of you.
And if you're in coaching mode, that's what you do. You are there
together and the challenges that are there are both of yours to explore
and work through.