Designing Happy Organizations

An organization design practitioner from a UK City Council emailed me the other day with a question:

"If governments are starting to address the concept of GWB (General Wellbeing) and therefore happiness of the population, could this be a planned outcome of an organization design for public sector? "

His question had been sparked by an article in The Times which notes that:

Nicolas Sarkozy, the French President, has raised this fundamental question: what is the end of government? Precisely, is it a function of the State to promote the happiness of its citizens?

There has been a surge in the economics of happiness in the United States and Britain too ever since, in 1974, Richard Easterlin pointed out that people in advanced capitalist societies were getting richer but no happier. In Britain, Richard Layard and Andrew Oswald have written in a similar vein and the psychologist Oliver James has gone one step farther by claiming that getting rich is liable to make us ill.

The implication for policy is that, once basic needs are met, governments should abandon a narrow focus on economic growth or gross domestic product (GDP). They should, instead, define collective wellbeing and seek policies that promote happiness. The [UK] Department for Children, Schools and Families recently introduced wellbeing classes. David Cameron has expressed some interest in GWB (gross wellbeing).

The person who emailed me observed that: "I find this particularly interesting working in the public sector because the concept of 'doing more for less', as we are being required to do, does not seem to square with the possibility of creating happy citizens and maintaining a motivated workforce, but I suppose that's one of the contradictions of working in a political environment. However, it's interesting that the likes of David Cameron are talking about GWB and simultaneously talking about reducing public services."

So could happiness be an outcome of a well-designed organization? Perhaps, but it probably it probably isn't as clear cut as a 'yes/no' answer. Happiness is an individual experience that could not be guaranteed when designing at an organizational level. Indeed the Times article implies a warning on trying to design in 'happiness' observing that

"The economics of happiness invariably leads to the politics of paternalism. The happiness gurus would be better off starting with Aristotle's generous account of flourishing, an idea that implies people choosing their own life course."

Dan Baker, co author of What Happy Companies Know: How the New Science of Happiness Can Change Your Company for the Better defines happy companies as those which have, among other attributes, a culture that respects individuals, is free from intimidation, makes ethical business decisions, and follows the precepts of positive psychology. All of these are aspects that can be considered in designing a company. One of the other authors, Cathy L. Greenberg, leads a consulting practice h2c leadership coaches leaders in what this 'new science of happiness'. And Time Magazine published a number of articles on this topic in the issue of January 9 2005 and it's fascinating reading, outlining some of the background and theory behind the 'new science'.

Whether it is an approach that would take off in the public sector is hard to say, and one should have a certain amount of skepticism about embracing something that implies or promises a quick fix or instant turnaround – but the new science of happiness does provide another lens through which to think about how to redesign an organization.