Square of Happiness
How to create an engaged culture
In 2012 and 2013, Jim Collins, an American researcher famous for his books such as Good to Great, served as the Class of 1951 Chair for the Study of Leadership at the United States Military Academy. At the Global Leadership Summit in 2015, he reflected on his time at West Point:
I came away from my time at West Point thinking about engaged cultures. And I drew this triangle…of inspired motivations. If you could build this into your organization, these three points of this triangle. On one point at the top is the idea of service. And on the bottom right is the idea of success. And on the bottom left is the idea of growth, right? We’ve talked about all three of those: service, success, and growth. But if you could build a culture that has service to cause or purpose that you are willing to suffer for, that you are willing to sacrifice for; and that has challenge or growth in the form of BHAGs that push people and make them grow because they’re so hard; and has the idea of communal success built into the culture, the idea “What can we do to reinforce the idea that we only succeed by helping each other?”—that is how I think we build meaning. For it is impossible, in my view, to have a great life unless it is a meaningful life. And I believe it is very difficult to have a meaningful life without meaningful work. And how do we create meaning? Service, growth, communal success.
I know we all want to create and be part of an engaged culture. We all want meaningful work and of course a meaningful life. As you've heard me mention before the Scottish author, Alexander Chalmers’ recipe for happiness is: "Something to do, someone to love, and something to hope for." In the "do" part of that equation we want it to be meaningful. Collins' triangle of happiness outlines how to achieve that. Our work needs to be in service of a larger mission, something bigger than ourselves. We need the opportunity to grow. This can be in terms of skills, career, behavior, knowledge, experience, etc. just as long as we're growing in a way that we desire. As the saying goes, "if you want to go fast go alone, but if you want to go far go together." We all can go further, make bigger impacts, and achieve greater things if we do it as part of a team where we share in the communal success.
Woven through the rich tapestry of our professional journey is the quest for meaning, a notion elegantly captured in Jim Collins’ triangle of service, growth, and communal success. It's akin to setting sail on a vessel where service is the compass, growth is the wind in our sails, and communal success is the treasure we seek. As we delve deeper into this paradigm, it’s akin to unlocking a trinity of forces that propels not just individuals, but entire teams and organizations towards a realm of purposeful existence. Let's break each of these down and discuss how we can create these for our teams.
By the way, the three parts of Collins' triangle are very similar to Daniel Pink’s framework that he introduced in his book Drive for motivating factors, that being autonomy, mastery, and purpose. Starting with purpose, Collins calls it service, we want to be part of something that is making a difference to our communities, families, nation, or some group that we care about. When you are ultimately called to sacrifice, whether that's time away from your family or putting yourself into harm's way, this needs to be in the service of something even more important than our personal desires, comfort, or safety. One example of this that I've experienced is at Etsy our work was in the service of millions of Sellers. These are often solo-preneuers, or individual entrepreneurs who want to share their craft or skill with others. Doing so brings joy to over a hundred million buyers each year and also supplements or makes up the entirety of their household income. This work in service of something bigger than any of us individuals made tough times, long hours, or hard work worth it.
At the core of this trinity is the ethos of service, a noble pursuit that transcends the mundane and taps into something larger than ourselves. It's about being a small yet significant cog in a much larger machine, each rotation contributing to a grander mission. The narrative of Etsy, serving as a conduit for millions of sellers to share their craft, embodies this ethos. It's a narrative where every line of code, every feature engineered, resonates with the aspirations of myriad individuals striving to carve a niche for themselves. This service-centric ethos isn’t just a philosophical construct, but a pragmatic compass guiding actions, decisions, and endeavors, anchoring them to a cause that’s both profound and impactful.
The second vertex of Collins' triangle is growth. Pink calls it mastery. Either way we all want to grow. This can be different for each of us and this is why great managers know what type of growth motivates us and sometimes redirects us to what we need at that time. For example, sometimes it's okay to be focused on "growing your career" through promotions but often we need to be focused on growing our skills and experiences. This is when a great manager can help focus our growth to what we need most at that time. Other times, we need to be focused on growing our career and that type of growth might be focused on how to properly represent our work and abilities to upper management or promotion boards. This is akin to embarking on a quest, a perpetual journey towards betterment. It’s not a destination but a voyage where each milestone crossed, every challenge surmounted, adds a layer to our professional persona. This growth isn’t monolithic; it’s multifaceted encompassing skills, experiences, and even the trajectory of our careers. It’s about nurturing a culture where the quest for mastery is encouraged, where the environment is conducive to exploration, learning, and self-improvement. The role of adept managers in channeling this quest, in aligning it with both individual and organizational objectives is paramount. They are the mentors guiding us through the maze of our professional journey, ensuring the quest for growth remains aligned, relevant, and meaningful.
As we traverse to the third vertex, communal success, we stumble upon a facet of professional life that’s often overshadowed by the glare of individual accomplishments. It’s about fostering a culture where success isn’t a solo endeavor but a collective achievement. It's a narrative where the tapestry of success is woven with threads of collaboration, mutual respect, and shared objectives. The juxtaposition of communal success and autonomy isn’t a contradiction but a harmonious blend where teams are empowered, where they have the leeway to make decisions, test hypotheses, and yet, are bound by a shared vision and common goals. It’s about orchestrating a symphony where each individual, each team, is a note, and the melody is one of shared success. This differs from Pinks' third item in his framework, autonomy. I suspect both are important and at first it might seem they are almost opposites but I think they can co-exist and in the best environments they do. Collins talks about communal success in terms of "we only succeed by helping each other." I think about this in terms of whether we all succeed or fail together. This is why I don't think we should consider the achievement of goals in individual performance or promotion evaluations. For these discussions, I like to focus on the individual's behavior, skills, and competencies. These of course have a huge impact on whether or not we achieve our goals but we all work on projects as teams. If we start trying to split who on the team gets most credit for accomplishing a goal, we are starting to drive wedges between team members. Now, while we need to strive for communal success, we are empowered when we have the autonomy of how to accomplish this. This autonomy might not be at an individual level but at the team level. When our teams have autonomy they are empowered and allowed to make decisions about what to work on, what hypotheses to test, etc. Without this autonomy at the team level, we turn our teams into order takers. We don't need teams that aren't thinking for themselves.
Incorporating a fourth dimension of autonomy into this framework enriches it further. Autonomy is the catalyst that sparks innovation, fosters a sense of ownership, and engenders a culture where individuals and teams don’t just follow instructions, but take the helm, navigate through challenges, and steer towards success. It’s about creating an environment where teams are not mere order takers but thinkers, innovators, and drivers of success. This autonomy, be it at an individual or team level, is the cornerstone of a culture that’s dynamic, adaptive, and conducive to growth.
So, in my meaningful work framework there are four parts. First, we have work that is in service of a mission larger than any of us as individuals. Second, we have work that allows each of us to grow and progress towards mastery whether or not we can ever really achieve that level. Third, we have shared goals where we are either successful as a team or not. We don't have individual success when my teammates fail. Fourth, we have autonomy either as individual leaders or at a team level to make many of our own decisions, place our own bets, and test our own hypotheses.
In a nutshell, crafting a culture that embodies service, fosters growth, celebrates communal success, and encourages autonomy, is akin to laying the foundation of not just a thriving organization but a fulfilling professional journey. It’s a narrative that transcends the transactional nature of work and ventures into a realm where work is not just a means to an end, but a meaningful endeavor, a journey that’s as enriching as the destination it leads to. Through this prism, the essence of meaningful work is not just about what we do, but how we do it, who we do it with, and the larger purpose it serves. It’s about crafting a narrative of work that’s enriching, impactful, and resoundingly meaningful.