Before I begin, a disclaimer: 1. Chris Reimer is a friend of mine, and if that did influence this review, it was only in that I can be more straightforward. 2. I have not a great deal of affection for business parable books – prone to whimsical characters and poor dialog. I usually find them boring. 3. I easily have met 1,000 CEOs, and all of them would benefit – themselves, their families, their employees and their employees’ families – from reading this short business story.
Inside the minds of far too many humans – from CEOs to entry level employees – is a common delusion that has almost singlehandedly undermined any hopes at business feeling successful and fulfilling. It lives unspoken in countless meetings and subliminally in almost every email. It is this: Happiness in business is a frivolous endeavor. Work is called work for a reason. It’s work.
Reimer’s Happywork seeks to dismantle this thought. And the author’s chosen tool is a brief business parable (I read most of the book on a 90-minute plane ride).
The story is told through the lens of Sam Maslow (no doubt a call-out to the psychologist made famous with his hierarchy of needs). Maslow is a highly recommended business turnaround consultant. He has a special reverence for profit-first thinking. He receives a nightmare assignment in Vunorri, Inc, a company so overrun with financial, cultural and operations issues that Maslow is overwhelmed. The culture of the organization is poison. Though a cynic to the importance of happiness at work, Maslow is eventually convinced of its priority and its tie to business profitability through a series of painful situations and characters. The story has a fun (almost crime-drama-like) arc and culminates well with a mystery solved and a new happy reality for Vunorri achieved.
A hero’s tale
Reimer’s business parable follows the arc of the classic hero trope – contemporary examples include Lord of the Rings or Star Wars (see the last blog). There is Maslow, our hero, who receives a commission to venture into an unknown and untamed land, Vunorri. He encounters wise people, friends and monsters along the way who challenge him to realize his strengths. Then, after slaying the worst of the enemies, he returns to his normal life. Finding that he does not quite fit in, he returns to Vunorri and lives a new reality.
By using this arc, Reimer builds tension and gives the storyline a familiar tone. Heroes are also said to uncover and reveal ancient wisdom. And that is perhaps one of the more sage pieces of perspective that this little story has to offer – placing value on humans for the sake of their humanity is not a new idea. It is really the way business ought to be, and increasing happiness can be the role of business.
Candidly, I am a reader who already is inebriated on the Happywork Kool-Aid. I understand that the success of any business or endeavor is tied to its ability to make sure the humans involved feel lovable, contributing, connected and effective – that leads to happiness at work. Happiness is not a luxury but a real intention that business seeks to carry and fulfill.
However, even though I already believe in happiness as a business priority, I still learned a great deal from Reimer’s story:
- The profit-first thinking never worked. Profit is the way in which business is weighed and measured. And making money is important. However, through the character of Charlie and his timeless wisdom, Reimer seems to assert that people-first is not a new approach. It is just in need of a refreshing – a new lexicon for understanding what matters. The conclusion he is making via the sage character is that effective leaders have always known this.
- The success or failure of a company is everyone’s responsibility. The culture of a company and its values may start at the top, but they don’t end there. Reimer removes the management versus workforce debate from the book. Everyone, Reimer asserts, ought to be accountable for a company’s happiness and success.
- You can write your own book. The way happiness will look in your company or within your job is uniquely yours for the defining. Reimer makes this clear in his chapter with a sample agreement. The one drafted for Vunorri appears to be more of a lesson in how one is structured than a prescribed formula. With happiness as an intention, more harmony and productivity is sure to follow.
- Happiness is not completely a choice. This is something that I have said and believed for years. However, there is no denying the viral nature of negative or discouraged behavior.
The antidote to work as usual I infer from Reimer is dauntingly simple: Know your purpose and treat others with kindness. While those are simple items, they are difficult for most in business to know. Any business serious about making a culture shift would benefit from giving this quick story a read.