Set Criteria to Enhance Workplace Happiness

It doesn’t matter what area you apply criteria to, as long as it helps you identify what will lead to happiness and meaning.

For instance, some people have strict criteria about time management. What makes them happy is the smooth, uninterrupted flow of their carefully calibrated day. So they have rules to maintain that happy pace. They don’t let unscheduled phone calls run longer than five minutes. They won’t live more than a 30-minute commute from their job. They won’t read a book that’s more than 400 pages or a memo that can’t be distilled down to one page.

We’ve all met people like this. Perhaps they’re a little obsessive-compulsive about the clock, but they’re a step ahead of us because at least they have criteria.

A successful opera singer, whose career is essentially a never-ending schedule of rehearsing and performing for three or four weeks at a time with a different opera company in a different city around the world, once told me that when his two kids were growing up, his principal career criterion was to turn down engagements that took him away from home for more than two consecutive weeks unless he could bring his family with him. That was the longest time he could stand to be apart from them without feeling guilty — and without worrying that they’d forget him. It limited his fees and his international bookings, but it was a criterion that worked for him.

He could sacri?ce some prestigious appearances, but not his responsibility as a father. A brave choice, made easier for everyone around him because of his specific criterion.

What’s strange is that most of us in business apply criteria to people all the time. We do it when we hire people to work for us. We’ll insist on a resume and references. We’ll make them take tests. We’ll interview them face-to-face, often asking intrusive questions that would be rude in a normal social setting. We do all this because we’re looking for a candidate who most closely matches the criteria we have in our mind.

A bigger question is why don’t we apply the same rigor to people and happiness? Why don’t we have hiring criteria for the kind of boss we’re willing to work for, the clients we’ll take on or the colleagues we partner with on a project? The biggest question is why don’t we apply the same vigor to ourselves?

In my book, What Got You Here Won’t Get You There, I outlined the four commitments I requested from the co-workers who provided feedback about my clients. These co-workers were the people who not only told me what the executive was doing wrong, they would be the ones 12 to 18 months down the road who would determine if my coaching was a success — and if I got paid. Thus, I work hard at qualifying the people rating my work. Otherwise, the entire coaching process may be poisoned, and I’m wasting my time. I ask them to commit to:
1. Let go of the past: This helps my clients focus on a future they can change — not a past they cannot change.
2. Tell the truth: This lets my clients know the truth, not just what they want to hear.
3. Being supportive and helpful: This gives my clients encouragement, not cynicism or sarcasm.
4. Pick something to improve yourself: Everyone should have some skin in the game and be focused on improving rather than judging.

It took me a few years of trial and error to come up with the four commitments, but they provide a workable model for the kind of criteria I’m talking about. If you’re unhappy in your job, list a few qualities of a job that would make you happy. If you’re unhappy with your boss, list some qualities of your ideal boss. This is not a tough assignment. It’s life planning at its most basic.

Marshall Goldsmith is an authority in helping successful leaders achieve positive, lasting change in behavior. He is the author or co-editor of 31 books, including MOJO. He can be reached at