The Science of Happiness: How Challenge Makes a Successful Employee Experience

In part four of my series on The Science of Happiness, I’m exploring The Five Ways to Happiness at Work with my co-creator Dr. Jody Aked. Challenge is the fourth of The Five Ways and is a key component of an enriching and happy work experience. In this interview with Friday Pulse, Jody and I talk about how leaders can both challenge and support their people. Check it out!

November 19, 2021 5 mins read

Friday Pulse: 

Why is challenge a key part of happiness at work?

Nic:

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. 

Jody:

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. 

Nic:

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 new learning.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. 


Friday Pulse: 

You mention people look to their work to provide challenge. Why is that? 

Jody:

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? 

Nic:

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 satisfying.

Jody:

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? 


Friday Pulse: 

If you’re an employer, is there a better way to challenge your people rather than going through goal setting and yearly performance reviews?

Nic:

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 differently.

Jody:

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.


Friday Pulse: 

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? 

Jody:

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 come. 

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. 

Nic:

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. 

Jody:

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.


Friday Pulse: 

How can employers create a safe space for employees to develop, push themselves and also make mistakes? o bask in that glow? 

Nic:

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 opportunity.

Jody:

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.


Friday Pulse: 

How does an employer create that kind of space for experimentation? 

Nic:

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. 

Jody:

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 process. 


Friday Pulse: 

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. 

Jody:

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. Literally. 

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.