Kerrying On

Kerrying On: Finding Joy at Work

Kerry Patterson

Kerry Patterson is coauthor of four New York Times bestsellers, Crucial Conversations, Crucial Accountability, Influencer, and Change Anything.


Kerrying On

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The TV shows I watched as a boy frequently offered up scenes of a father, dressed in suit and tie, coming home from work, carrying an expensive briefcase, and whistling a happy tune. But that would be the end of any work references. Once the briefcase was stowed, no sitcom writer dared bring down the mood with sordid details about the nature of work itself. Consequently, the message of the 50s was as vague as it was odd. Work was a place that required actions of mysterious origins—ones that left employees whistling tunes at the end of the day.

My own father painted a very different picture of the workplace. We watched our TV far from the white-picketed environs of the sitcom folk. The people in our neighborhood wore thick aprons and gloves at work in an effort to keep the gunk, slime, and glue off their clothes. You didn’t see my dad or anyone else from 25th Street whistling as they came home from work. The woman next door who gutted fish at the local cannery most certainly didn’t skip her way into her doily-adorned living room each evening. After work she went straight to the kitchen where she tried her best to scrub the stench of fish from her hands.

Given the circumstances on our side of the tracks, adults complained endlessly about the backbreaking and mind-numbing nature of their jobs along with the stupidity and pettiness of their bosses. They hated their jobs. It’s what they talked about. It’s what they told jokes about. It’s what they wrote songs about.

With this in mind, imagine my surprise some twenty years later when one day I found myself whistling as I walked out the door—on the way to work, no less. I loved what I did. I wore neither suit nor tie, but somehow I had found a way to extract pleasure from my job. What a shock. I had never dreamed that one day I would like work.

At first, I thought my satisfaction stemmed from the fact that I had a career (i.e., it required neither protective clothing nor a lunch pail) as opposed to a job. I was wrong. I could easily find ways to be unhappy within my white-collar environment just as individuals in the blue-collar world find ways to love what they do. I discovered that it wasn’t the nature of the work itself that determined job satisfaction. It was something else—something far more elusive.

Two decades passed before I met Rich Sheridan, a renowned entrepreneur and organizational philosopher. A few years earlier, Rich started his own software development company with the strong belief that creating software (some of which involved actual cartoon figures and cool sound effects) would be a genuine hoot.

But then Rich learned that customers (no matter how cool the product) often changed their minds in the middle of the development cycle, leading to ugly meetings with lots of finger pointing and much gnashing of teeth. Plus, the code writers who worked with Rich soon became specialists, making it impossible for any of them to leave work early or, heaven forbid, take a vacation. If they did, they’d leave an intolerable vacuum. Employees were now chained to their desks.

For Rich and his team, what had started as a gentle romp down candy cane lane was now a tortuous grind through the valley of unfulfilled expectations. Where had he gone wrong? More specifically, how could he turn his company into a place that left him with a tune on his lips at the end of each day?

Rich discovered the answer. He made an extensive study of joy and then infused his company with it. Best of all, he’s soon to release a book titled Joy Inc. that teaches how to create an intentionally joyful culture. Now, I’m not about to scoop Rich’s book, but I will suggest the following. As I met with Rich and his team in his joyful facility in Ann Arbor, Michigan, I was immediately filled with his vision.

The sitcoms of the 50s had been right. You can love your work. You can whistle as you walk through the door each night. But you have to want it, believe it’s possible, and work for it.

I myself have experienced a bit of a work-related transformation as of late. For years I enjoyed a job that consisted of traveling the world, consulting, and designing training. It was exhausting, but I loved it. Then one day, I had my fill with travel. I was done. After more than twenty years of being a road warrior, I gave up my airline Gold Card to stay closer to home and devote my time to writing. Surely, this would bring me joy. After all, I love writing.

I was wrong. Writing can be lonely. Very lonely. You spend a lot of time staring at a screen that openly mocks you with its ghastly emptiness. Soon, I didn’t care all that much for my job. It involved far too much isolation, mumbling, pacing, and self-ridicule. Unlike my childhood neighbor, I wasn’t gutting fish all day long, but like her, I wasn’t happy at work. So I prepared myself for retirement. I was certainly old enough to retire.

Luckily, I recalled my visit with Mr. Sheridan and his compelling case for joy at work and felt inspired to find ways to infuse my own job with joy. In my case, it involved restructuring my daily tasks and bringing on another writer with whom I could collaborate while occasionally reenacting Three Stooges bits. I now look forward to work. Every single day.

How one goes about finding pleasure in his or her job varies and I don’t want to underestimate how much effort (and risk) it might take to negotiate with your boss for more interesting work, restructure your job, gain a new perspective, or possibly even switch companies altogether. Nor will I go into the various sources of work satisfaction ranging from the thrill of creation to beating a goal to satisfying a customer to enjoying supportive relationships and so forth.

Mr. Sheridan can teach you about creating an entire company filled with joy. Daniel Gilbert, author of Stumbling on Happiness, can alert you to what it takes to be happy in general. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, a job satisfaction guru, can teach you the elements required to enjoy any specific task at work. There’s plenty of help out there—once you decide to seek it. My point is far more modest. It’s this. We should expect to find joy at work and we should go out and seek it.

Years of hearing about lousy jobs and reading statistics that suggest over half of all employees don’t like their work can lead one to expect to be unhappy at work. For many of us, it’s our go-in position. We may not think about it much or even talk about it—ever—but the idea that work equals dissatisfaction can be so deeply embedded into our psyches that it keeps us from hoping and asking for more.

But we should hope and ask for more. We spend more time at work than just about anywhere else so it ought to be enjoyable. This doesn’t necessarily mean that in the ideal job employees routinely chase each other around with silly string, but a hoot once in a while or an excited sharing of a story should be common. Laughter should be common. Our default position should be that work—organized correctly—is pleasurable, and if it isn’t we need to make changes. Once this expectation is firmly set in our minds, we’ll start taking steps to find joy rather than develop methods for tolerating our existing miserable conditions.

And from what I’ve personally experienced, joy is worth the search.

Influencer QA

How to Influence Accountability

David Maxfield

David Maxfield is coauthor of two New York Times bestsellers, Change Anything and Influencer.



Q Dear Crucial Skills,

I work as a nurse in the education department of a healthcare institution. I lead unit nurse educators whose role is to maintain the competence and educational skill level of the nursing staff on their units. They sometimes struggle with having a crucial conversation about safety or performance with a colleague who says, “It’s no big deal.”

How can I teach my nursing staff to hold their “friends” to a high standard without having the friend get defensive or tune them out?

Nurse Educator

A Dear Educator,

Thanks for a great question. The issue you raise is relevant far beyond healthcare. Every organization has groups that are tasked with tracking and supporting best practices. Think of quality and safety departments in manufacturing, or human resources or IT departments in nearly every organization.

Here is what happens. Everyone knows that your group owns the issue. In your case, your education department owns competency and skill building. A natural human reaction is to conclude that if you own it, then I don’t. In their minds, you become an enforcer and they act like drivers on the freeway who slow down when they see a cop but then speed again as soon as they’re out of radar range. They don’t take responsibility for their behavior. That’s why you hear them say things like, “It’s no big deal.” It has become your issue, not theirs.

There is no way that enforcement alone can drive good behavior. Not only does it fail to produce positive change, it makes the enforcers feel ineffective, unwanted, and unappreciated. But there are solutions. I’ll share a few ideas that come from our Influencer approach and have worked with many of our clients.

Create an influence plan. Begin by meeting with the unit educators. Describe the problem and get them on board. They can never really succeed as long as they are seen as enforcers. Your team needs to get employees in the units to own the problem. Then they can play a supportive role by coaching, building skills, and getting access to resources. Make sure your team knows how their roles will need to change.

Focus on measurable results. Determine a handful of measurable results that you and the units can track. For example, you might focus on infection control, falls, and patient and family experience. Pick the few that will have the greatest impact. If you include too many result areas, units will lose focus.

Determine vital behaviors. Vital behaviors are the two to three actions that will drive the results if they are consistently and reliably employed. Some of these behaviors will be unique to the result areas you target. For example, wash in wash out reduces hospital-acquired infections; quick screens reduce falls; and bedside reports improve patient and family experience.

Important to your case, a few vital behaviors span nearly every result area. One of these is 200 percent accountability, which means, “I’m 100 percent accountable for my own best practices and I’m also 100 percent accountable for your best practices.” Instead of your education team members being the only ones to hold others accountable, everyone on the unit/team will hold everyone else accountable. This is the vital behavior that will fix the problem you describe in your question.

But this is a tough behavior to implement. Making it work will require all Six Sources of Influence™. I’ll suggest one idea for each of the Six Sources.

Personal Motivation—Create a value frame. Currently, employees in the units/teams are giving you and your nurse educators their compliance, not their commitment. They are focused on the enforcement of the rule, instead of the reasons for the rule. You could even say they are in a moral slumber. They aren’t attending to the very real personal impacts of their actions. For example, let’s say they are taking shortcuts instead of fully gowning up. When one of your staff reminds them, I bet they respond with “no big deal.” Your staff needs to make it personal by focusing on the patient, not the rule. For example, “Imagine your daughter was on this unit and you were doing everything possible to keep her safe. Wouldn’t you want people here to gown up to protect her from infections?”

Your goal is for employees in the units/teams to see holding each other accountable as watching out for each other. None of them wants to put their patients at risk and yet, we humans are all fallible. Despite our best intentions, we all make slips and errors. Team members need to give permission to (or request) their peers to watch out for them and to speak up when they see them slip.

Personal Ability—Use deliberate practice. Team members need to decide how to remind each other. For example, “How would you like to be reminded if I see you forget to wash your hands?” They should compose the phrases they’d like to use to hold each other accountable. For example, “I’ll position the patient while you wash up,” or “The dispenser is by the door.”

Then teams need to practice using these phrases. Talking about holding each other accountable isn’t as powerful as practicing holding each other accountable. A fifteen-minute practice is all it takes to turn good intentions into actual action.

Social Motivation—Involve formal and informal leaders. You, as the manager of the education department, will want to meet with the unit managers to get their buy in. They need to understand that making their teams accountable for their own best practices is the best, most efficient way to improve performance.

There will be times when someone will object to being held accountable. Maybe it’s a more experienced employee or a high-status professional who doesn’t want to be reminded by a newbie. In these cases, you want to provide easy and immediate support for the newbie.

Having the formal leaders (the unit managers) on board is essential, but usually not enough. You’ll also want to reach out to informal leaders (the opinion leaders). Ask the manager, a physician, and a few other opinion leaders to play the champion role. They can explain why the issue (infection control, falls, etc.) is personally important to them. They can also provide that easy and immediate support when it’s needed.

Structural Motivation—Reward small gains. This is where it gets fun. Instead of being enforcers, your team members become cheerleaders. Equip them with lots of ways to celebrate the improvements they see as units adopt 200 percent accountability and make progress on their results. You might give them gift certificates to use as recognition or provide funding for a few pizza parties.

Structural Ability—Be the bridge to resources. This is another fun part of your new role. Your team members help units identify and bust through obstacles in their environment. For example, a team might complain that they don’t have enough hand-hygiene dispensers or that they aren’t always full and working. Your team takes on these kinds of challenges and gets to bring resources to the units.

You are starting in a strong position because you already have nurse educators embedded in the units. The challenge now is to move the enforcement part of their jobs from the nurse educators to the staff members in the unit. Once staff members take responsibility for holding each other accountable, you’ll see rapid improvements in quality of care, safety, patient and family experience, and even staff satisfaction and engagement.


Influencer QA

Seeking a Job after Age Sixty

Dear Crucial Skills,

I lost my job due to a reduction in force and haven’t been able to find another job due to my age. Everyone seems eager to hire me until I show up for the interview and they discover that I am sixty-one years old.

How can I prove to potential employers that I have a lot to offer, despite my age?


Dear Overlooked,

I have a dear friend who has been going through the same ordeal. It’s not a great time for anyone to be looking for a job. And I know that the repeated feeling of disappointment that comes when one after another hope falls through can lead to awful self-doubt at a time when you need motivation to continue to represent yourself boldly.

Before I offer some unconventional advice, let me suggest that you need to know your rights. If you have been overtly discriminated against because you are over forty, there are legal avenues you can pursue. I will not comment on those but suggest you find out what is available to you.

The challenge in your situation is not just helping employers know what you have to offer, it’s ensuring you retain a firm view of the value you have to offer as well. If you start doubting yourself, you’ll be more reluctant to stay in the search as well as telegraph your lack of confidence in interviews.

First, let’s reframe the problem of a job search. The employer’s central question when searching for a new hire is, “Can I trust you to solve important problems for me?” That’s it. It’s all about trust. Since the only way an employer can truly know if they can trust you to solve their problems is to give you the job, they have to rely on proxies for trust in the hiring process.

Giving you and 1,000 candidates the actual job would be too inefficient, so they use proxies—like education, previous job titles, salary levels, and letters of recommendation. They’ll even look for gaps in employment as a way of discerning if you have some hidden issues that made others want to avoid you. As we all know, these are incredibly imperfect proxies. Resumes offer facts and figures that hiring managers hope will reveal truth—but they obscure as much as they reveal. In addition, they aren’t particularly persuasive. Reading that someone worked at Acme, Inc. as a superintendent from 1978-1987 tells me nothing about the kinds of problems I can trust you to solve.

So, if you can’t give the employer a direct experience with your ability to solve problems (i.e., by taking the job for a couple of weeks), and the facts and figures approach to building trust is ineffective and fraught with weakness, what can you do? Also, is there anything you can do to retain trust in your own ability to solve important problems so you’ll stay motivated and project confidence during the search?

Yes. In fact, I have one suggestion that I believe can help with both. It’s the advice I offered my friend and it seems to be helping—no job yet, but the market is responding much differently.

The principle is to stop giving facts and start telling stories. Give potential employers a vicarious experience with you. Throw away the resume or keep it in reserve for when the box-checkers demand that you check their boxes for them. But ensure the experience potential employers have with you engages them in interesting stories about the problems you are uniquely suited to solve.

Think about it. If you want to sell a hamburger, you don’t list its ingredients. You show a picture of it. It’s juicy. It’s got a crispy piece of lettuce on it and a dollop of the exact mustard you love. Then you show someone taking a bite of it with eyes drooping in ecstasy. Why do you do this? Because it helps people trust that this hamburger might help them feel the way they want to feel. It’s a vicarious experience—and we trust stories more than we trust facts and figures. We like direct experiences best, but stories are a strong second.

My friend (I’ll call him Greg) threw away his resume. He started over by answering the question, “What am I world class at?” He thought about his personal brand. What problems do I want people to feel I can solve for them? He is a world-class HR strategist. He has a way of elevating every conversation he is part of. He brings humor and happiness to a team. And he’s a brilliant teacher and communicator.

After clarifying the three or four problems he solves better than most anyone in the world, he designed a document that read like a “movie trailer” rather than a “resume.” He created a document that included stories told by others about him that made these points. It includes graphics of logos of companies he solved problems for—sure, as an employee—but the point is not that he worked there—it’s that he solved problems there. He added his own commentary to let them know what he liked about the experiences others told. When you finish this 1,500-word document, you desperately want to meet Greg.

Oh, and I didn’t mention, but Greg is sixty-one years old and legally blind. He worries that he gets shrugged off for one or both of these reasons. As he reframed his life story in terms of problems he is brilliant at solving, he found that his age and his disability were natural parts of the unique strengths he ended up describing. He was able to frame his visual impairment, for example, in a story about a complex negotiation and he was able to describe how listening to nuances that led to a breakthrough was a direct result of limited visual distraction.

You’ll find that when you prepare your pitch as a story (movie trailer) rather than a eulogy, you’ll rediscover your own special value. You’ll bolster your confidence that you’re representing a product that deserves good representation. You’ll stop letting yourself be a prisoner to HR boxes that make you worry your age is a deficit and make it clear to both yourself and others that this is part of the reason they can trust you to contribute.

Good luck telling your story. I hope you find the perfect place to serve and contribute.


More from Joseph Grenny on Forbes: Read Joseph’s latest article, “There’s Nothing Like a Financial Crisis to Bring Out The Best In People,” to learn about the importance of vulnerability, sacrifice, and integrity during a financial crisis.