On Creating Joy at Work

When was the last time you were overjoyed by an inspired act or outcome at work? For too many managers the very thought of joy at work is laughable. For employees? It’s not only laughable, but a notion left for dreamers – certainly no place for it in cubicle nation.

If there is, however, a lesson folded into these ambiguous times, it’s that conventional management and leadership wisdom is on a wobbly foundation. What got us here will not be enough to get us to the next level.

The next level? What does that mean? The answer is different for each company; it’s dependent on where the company is today. It’s safe to say, though, that the next level is one where employees are not a means to a profitable end. The next level includes positioning employees as the rightful brain trust that defines the means to a profitable end.

For some companies this is a radical notion. I can hear executives bristle with agitation, dismissing such a shift as idealistic, clinging to protect the familiar hierarchy of the 20th century. Certainly such a shift will dare 21st century leaders to adapt and weather the mockery and eschewals of those stuck in a fading tradition of “management knows best.”

But for those who want to be speechless and inspired by work, then something must be done today. The place to start is charting a course to create joy at work.

Why joy? Joy is an outcome of doing something that makes you happy. Joy is contagious. It has a force of energy that moves people forward with optimism.

A more practical answer is that too many workplaces suck.

They suck passion out of people. And for a company to compete, it needs the brain trust, it’s employees, to be poised to do great things that create value for customers. Thus, creating joy at work is mission critical.

The road to speechless, if you will, is marked by what I’ll call the Meaningful Triad.

Increase Freedom

Freedom defined is “the power or right to act, speak, or think as one wants without hindrance or restraint.” Employees know what customers want more than those at the top of the pyramid. Investigate where and how bureaucracy and centralized decision making shackle employees. Involve your employees in finding solutions to increase freedom in the workplace. Need a good source? Check out World Blu.

Create Purpose

For joy to emerge at work, the team must revisit why it exists and reclaim a shared purpose. It’s a purpose that calls you forward to accomplish something bigger than any one person. It has to be compelling enough for people to step off the dizzying hamster wheel and play with the future.

Creating purpose likely defies what you see in your rearview mirror. It’s best done looking where you are now and pulling the future a little closer, inspecting what you can do to make it compelling, turning inside out what has “always been” for what’s needed now.

Align Strengths and Work

Perhaps the most tangible of the Meaningful Triad is learning what each person’s strengths are and shifting work around. The shift is to pull tight strengths with the work to be done. Don’t read this to be “we only do what we like and want.” That’s hardly the message. If you need convincing think of this: in sports, each team member plays in his or her best position. It’s how the team wins. Figure out employees’ strengths and work it out – together. Need a source. Check out Strength Scope.


None of the three items above can be thought about alone. They must escape your brain and be shared with your team. To create joy requires a community of committed people: committed to each other, their own growth, and a common calling that dares them to be bold in their work.

Joy at work is possible, but you’ll need to shed conventional beliefs about how work is done and the relationship between managers and employees. The very exploration of both can generate joy at work. But you must take the first step and recognize that how things are today is simply not working.


This post was recently featured on SmartBrief’s SmartBlog.

Graphic by Shawn Murphy

Change Leader | Speaker | Writer Co-founder and CEO of Switch and Shift. Passionately explores the space where business & humanity intersect. Promoter of workplace optimism. Believes work can be a source of joy. Top ranked leadership blogger by Huffington Post. The Optimistic Workplace (AMACOM) out 2015

  • It’s not at all surprising that your three bullet points align beautiful with the science of motivation explained in Daniel Pink’s legendary TED talk – http://www.ted.com/talks/dan_pink_on_motivation.html

    Autonomy/Freedom, Mastery/Strengths and Purpose… transform your workplace to one that gives your people this triad, and you’ll see engagement and the subsequent productivity explosion!

  • Wow-” joy is a force of energy that moves people forward w/optimism”. I think it’s closely linked to hope. Some may wonder how staff can work at a Children’s Hospital, being around sick children. But I think we have such an upbeat culture- that force of energy moving us forward w/optimism. This positive culture attracts other positive people and really lifts us all up. Thanks so much for a renewed appreciation of the special environment that I work in!

  • Shawn,

    Words can’t capture how grateful I am for your awesome posts on leadership that inspires others to truly become meaningful participants in any organization – small and large. “Change comes from the questions we ask” (Banach). You pose powerful questions that individuals in leadership positions should take seriously — questions that help one shift from old to new ways of leading.

    I recently retired from a PreK-12 school district as the academic director. I had a wonderful career pathway experience because of the individuals I met. I believed in their talents and gifts. They were the individuals that collectively made a difference for kids and their learning!

    I continue to be connected with schools and kids. I refuse to take on any consultant jobs that disregard the importance of establishing meaningful relationships that invite employees/staff to collaborate and problem-solve using their talents/gifts.

    Thanks again for sharing your thoughtful insights on leadership. You get it! You have made a difference. Alicia

  • Thanks for this article. I am just so thrilled that the idea of having joy at work is gaining so much traction. In my work as a facilitator and coach, I also point to the importance of the individual taking responsibility for his/her own joy. A leader can’t lead a joyous workplace if he/she is not joyous. So it starts with the inside job. This requires the leader to think deeply about what joy is, and if it really is possible (in his/her opinion) to have joy and do the serious work of the organization. Then the leader has to think about his/her own view of joy and approach to life.

    I believe it’s also important for each team member to come to work in a joyful frame of mind, or at least open and ready for joyful work. The responsibility for joy in the workplace is not just the leaders’.

    Thanks again for the great article! Blessings in abundance!

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