Corporate Rebels: The Search for Happiness at Work


November 24th, 2016

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I attended a very interesting session at Roffey this week about how organisations might be reinvented in the 21st century. Organised by Tom Kenward and hosted by Steve Hearsum, about 20 people spent Wednesday morning with two Dutch millennials Pim & Joost who shared their perspectives about searching for a different way of working – they call it happiness, for want of a better term.

It was refreshing and very interesting. A challenge to some of us so-called OD professionals to be open to the optimistic and (to them) revelatory explorations of a couple of young guys who ditched working for the ‘old order’ after two long years (okay I’m being facetious, now) and set off on their own adventure.

They created a Bucket List of people and organisations they wanted to check out. Then they took off, travelling around interviewing and meeting people trying to find the magic ingredients. It was their clear intention, they readily admitted, to come back and write a best-seller. As they discovered, there are no magic ingredients: the three best things to do to engage employees, to make a workplace somewhere a millennial (or anyone) wants to work, don’t exist. Everything is nuanced. Sometimes the workers tell a different story to the leaders about their experience of work or the organisational culture.

They have so far distilled their learning into recurring patterns of about ten things from purpose & values, to servant leadership, through focusing on talents not job descriptions, and radical transparency. Some ideas that to us old hands in the room were perhaps not new. Some themes that made it into the list were less predictable (to me any way) – the desire for wholeness (bringing the whole person to work rather than artificially seeking work/life balance and separation of selves – a Laloux theme – see below) and a cultural willingness to experiment.

What I found inspiring and energising were Pim & Joost’s enthusiasm, their unabashed curiosity and their desire to share what they have learned from spending their own money and getting out into the world to discover where and with whom the things they care about in the world of work are actually working. It was a refreshing experience to have a pin pop the bubble of my prejudices about youth, busting a pale/stale perspective I may hold about expertise and what ‘millennials’ want and are about. It was fantastic to engage with and spend time learning from some actual millennials. It was a valuable reminder as I noticed my inner critic smiling wryly and completely arrogantly about my superior knowledge (I’ve done an MSc in this stuff, you know). It was such a good opportunity to thank the ‘inner nitwit’ in the echo chamber of my mind for sharing and to refocus on the potential for surprise, for learning new perspectives on previous knowledge, or to just hold my own opinions more lightly.

My initial attraction was the mention of #teal and Frederic Laloux’s book Reinventing Organisations. But as I quickly discovered, while Pim and Joost have encountered a bunch of ’21st century’ theories, frameworks and models from those best-selling books they were hoping to emulate, when they got in the room with the creators and users of those models, the complexity and nuances of real life were far more present than the dogma in the books. They realised that companies jump on these fads (we’re going to be #teal now) without a deeper appreciation of the spectrum of culture/s, and the nuances and complexities of human nature and organisational life that intersect with the charismatic leadership team’s desires to do Agile/Scrum or be #teal. They also shared one of their valuable lessons – this stuff isn’t straightforward, but there are better ways to help people of any age to pursue happiness in the world of work.

It was total breath of fresh air. I am really grateful to Tom and Steve for making it happen – so thank you again. More please: more millennials, more diverse takes on how to do work/organisations. Maybe we can hear from young women next time!

Chris Grieve is Executive Director at Meridian Prime and is an alumni of our MSc in People and Organisational Development