How to Be Happy at Work and Get Promoted: 5 Simple Steps

The central conceit that drives me these days is that I want everyone who works in the Federal Government to be happy with their jobs. If they’re not, I want to change that. That’s one reason I enjoy working with interns and internship programs, because I get to work towards just that.

In his book Outliers: The Story of Success, Malcolm Gladwell wrote that for work to be satisfying it must have three qualities: “autonomy, complexity, and a connection between effort and reward.” That’s the formula. If someone’s work does not possess those three qualities, I make it my objective to change that.

In many instances, injecting these qualities into an employee’s work is as simple (or as complex) as changing their perceptions. I find a natural tendency for many people to follow orders literally, and to do the minimum required, if for no other reason than to get you what you want as soon as possible and to move on to the next assignment. This is not necessarily a bad thing, but too much of it can reduce their sense of autonomy and the complexity of the assignment, which ultimately reduces their happiness — the true inspiration for productivity. So what do you say to those employees to set them on the right course?

Here are five steps that I recommend your employees and coworkers do on any day they aren’t feeling “it”:

1. Imagine making something cool. Like, really cool. A big speech, video, website, presentation, or program. Doesn’t matter, just imagine it.

2. Finish your non-cool tasks for the day. Quickly, but do them well — it is your job, after all. Do them as efficiently as possible so that you have plenty of time left in the day to…

3. Mentally sketch out your plan to build your really cool thing. As you begin developing your really cool idea, which can (and maybe should) include iterations of research, sketches, models, and samples, constantly ask yourself this question: “How can I make this help my boss?”1 Tweak your original idea over and over again until you’ve reached the point where you have no doubt that you have a really cool idea that will definitely help your boss. Feel free to bounce the idea off of other employees and mentors to further refine it. This could take more than one day, but that’s ok.

4. Present the idea to your boss. This can be as simple as a 30-second elevator pitch, or as complex as a formal 30-minute presentation. It’s a skill that you may need more practice with. If so, stop reading this blog and go practice! Then, if all goes well, go to step 5.2

5. Awwww yeah.

1. The easiest way to do this is to connect it to a strategic goal that they are tasked with achieving, and also to design it in a way that meets the needs of many relevant stakeholders (as many as you can without losing the original goal and quality of the idea).

2. Remember, most ideas fail, and, in my research at least, nearly every successful idea in history originated from a failed one. If it doesn’t work, come up with another one and repeat steps 1-4. As long as you are learning and getting better, you will start to see your ideas become successes.

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Terrence (Terry) Hill

Great advice! This happens all too infrequently in the government. Most ideas die on the vine, but every once in a while the stars are aligned to make your idea plausible, feasible, and achievable. That is true happiness!

I’d like to hear about some real-life examples of ideas that were successful, if for no other reason than to give us all hope that innovation and creativity are compatible with government service.

John L. Waid

This is great advice, but like plain-English initiatives, it is rarely followed. Administrators are still largely ruled by fear of the people above them — fear of making a mistake that might get their supervisors or people above them in trouble. While officially we decry micro-managing, micro-managers are the ones who tend to get promoted. In order to give employees automony, the culture of fear has to change. Managers and supervisors have to trust their subordinates to do the job to the best of their ability, which is inimical to bureaucracy’s need to control its employees. They also have to be willing to take the heat if someone above them is unhappy with the result. Nothing demoralizes employees faster than a leader who will not stand up for them. Also, has anyone noticed that the major incentives offered to employees (good retirement, time off, etc.) do not address working conditions but rather how nice it will be when the employee is no longer working for the government?