This story originally appeared on Forbes.com on July 19, 2021.
Two-thirds of people are miserable half of their waking lives — the half that they spend at work. Go walk the shop floor in cognito at your company, and if you really listen, you yourself will likely find mostly unhappy people: disengaged, anxious and unhappy.
This is a human tragedy. All those individual lives lived, as Thoreau said, in “quiet desperation.” It’s also one significant reason that more than half of all change initiatives fail.
It doesn’t have to be this way.
Companies Are Made of People
Companies are people. Not systems and processes. Not P&L statements and IP. They’re people.
The very word comes from the Latin companio (literally “with bread”), meaning “the people who break bread together.” It has the same root as “companion,” yet the two couldn’t be further apart in modern usage.
A company is a group of people who come together — not in competition with one another in pursuit of individual advancement, but to do something together that they could not do alone. We collaborate in companies for the greater impact and abundance of all. Or at least that’s what a company was once supposed to be.
When companies neglect to serve the collective benefit of their people — when they serve only shareholder value, or measure employees’ worth through productivity and profit — the soul of a company deteriorates. And this sends people into terminal despair.
Miserable people working together make for a miserable company. They deliver miserable products and services. They transfer their misery to customers.
Imagine an airline investing millions in a consumer marketing campaign that positions them as “the kind airline” — the airline that cares about customers’ comfort and delight. Flashy ads with smiling models. New paint schemes in colors carefully tested to evoke a feeling of friendliness. A pre-flight safety video dripping with warmth and welcome.
Then passengers arrive at the airport and encounter a gate agent who was told at the latest town hall to be more friendly with customers. She’s struggling to accommodate seat change requests because her computer terminal keeps crashing. Her upcoming performance review will consider the percentage of her flights that left the gate on time. And due to persistent staffing shortages, she hasn’t taken a real vacation in months.
Passengers are getting frustrated. The gate agent is stressed and exasperated. This sets in motion a vicious cycle of disengagement and despair for all.
The lived experience of your employees becomes the customer experience of your passengers.
Actions shadow all your pretty words: your airline doesn’t really care.
Apathy Is Always the Starting Point
In my previous article, I explained the dangers of the assumption problem: assuming that people care about your change initiatives.
If leaders saw companies through a marketer’s perspective, there would be no assumption problem. Marketers start with an assumption of apathy. Then we figure out how to convince people to care.
Endemic corporate despair is why people don’t care.
Unhappy people receive your bold vision for transformation (as well-intended as it may be) from a place of persistent discontent. They attend your carefully scripted, professionally produced town hall, hear you tell them that they matter, but they do not walk away with belief.
Perhaps employees are momentarily inspired by your stirring vision — they may indeed walk out of the town hall with a momentary glow … and straight into a wall of daily distrust and lack of care.
Dejection reasserts itself in their lived experience. Apathy overwhelms your transformative ambitions. This is why change initiatives fail.
Move Your Company Toward Joy
Misery is the norm, but it doesn’t have to be. Leaders shouldn’t settle for miserable companies. Employees shouldn’t settle for being so persistently unhappy at work.
People around the world are increasingly rejecting the idea that this endless unhappiness at work is inevitable. In Japan, they call it ikigai, a sense of finding meaning and purpose in work. In Scandinavia, they call it arbejdsglæde, which organizational psychologist Dr. Marla Gottschalk describes as “the positive feeling that develops when you simply love what you do.”
The marketing perspective offers the necessary bridge from apathy and sadness to engagement and joy.
If you want to know what actually matters to your people, do what good marketers do: ask them, then shut up and listen to what they tell you.
After that, do something with what you learn. Create a story that unfolds over time, a journey that demonstrates empathy, creates caring and builds trust in your vision for change.
Show people that they matter — not just once but every day. Show them how much you value their satisfaction and success. How transformation will amplify their impact and bring greater abundance to their lives.
Do it all with craft and care. Invest in this journey, just as you would a consumer marketing campaign to build external trust in your brand.
The Abundance in Joy
Your investment will pay off. Companies with more engaged employees are 2.5 times more profitable than those whose employees are disengaged.
You’ll also save on recruiting costs, because good people will stay longer at companies where they’re happy and fulfilled.
And when you present your vision for change — a transformation that genuinely serves all the stakeholders in your company — you won’t have to force that change. Your chances of success will increase, because rather than being held back by the inertia of apathy, transformation will be powered forward by the energy and momentum of your people.
I submit that misery is a root cause — not only a symptom — of many ills in this world. Imagine a world where neither leaders nor employees settled for so much sadness. Imagine a world where people are happier at work. What impact would that have on their personal lives, social lives, on their communities and on the planet?
I propose we get to work, full of joy, and find out.