Short Takes

It turns out touchy feely does matter


In today’s NYTimes, David Brooks wrote an OpEd piece in which he asks the question, “Would you exchange a tremendous professional triumph for a severe personal blow?”

He then goes on to describe recent research into happiness that shows that although the US is much richer than it was 50 years ago, overall happiness has not increased accordingly. Likewise, even though income inequality has increased dramatically in that same time period, happiness has remained unchanged.

The reason? It turns out social ties are what mediate personal happiness, not wealth. And apparently we have a strong communitarian bent in the US that enables us to maintain social ties with neighbors and institutions despite television and Twitter.

Brooks finishes up saying:

Most governments release a ton of data on economic trends but not enough on trust and other social conditions. In short, modern societies have developed vast institutions oriented around the things that are easy to count, not around the things that matter most.

It struck me that that is more than a little similar to what I see behind many decisions that take place in companies as they wrestle with nebulous concepts like knowledge management and employee engagement. In their efforts to stimulate more collaboration that could lead to increased innovation and productivity, companies time and again default to focusing on things that are measurable. This results in overlooking or giving short shrift to the things that would actually make a difference.

It’s much easier to build a database and ask people to go in and add their lessons learned or best practices, than it is to figure out how to redesign the workplace and the work that is done there in a way that would foster relationship building, leading to more collaboration. I can measure how many entries are in a database, and I can allocate budget for its construction and maintenance.

Changing the workplace, or thinking about how work is organized is difficult. And it’s not obvious how to measure it. And it could cost a lot of money and downtime. Too touchy feely.

And then there’s culture – the management hierarchy, deference to authority, fear of retribution in speaking up, lack of trust among colleagues who are in competition with one another for the next promotion. All serve to undermine the basic stuff of happiness, which it turns out would be of great benefit to companies, not to mention society as a whole.

So get busy rolling out that Sharepoint. Make sure you keep track of how much you’re spending on the software licenses and servers, and bring it in under budget.

Just don’t be surprised if you don’t see any change in your employee engagement scores on next year’s survey. Or any noticable uptick on your P&L.

The stuff that’s most important – increasing social capital and fostering collaboration – isn’t easy to bring about or measure. But it sure can make a real difference.