Tuesday, January 14, 2014

Happy vs. Content

Some time ago, my manager at the time was having 1-on-1 calls with each of his staff to do a routine temperature check.  During my call with him, he asked me a common question:  are you happy?  This is not an uncommon question, to be sure, but I wanted to use this blog entry to highlight the difference between being happy and being content in one's employment situation.

You may accuse me of splitting hairs, but the answer I gave to my manager highlights the difference between the two states.  I said to him, "I am definitely happy in my job.  You are a great manager; you have earned my respect as a business professional; and you allow me some latitude to do things that are outside of the scope of my responsibilities, which keeps my job interesting."  And then I continued, "but am I content with my role?  No."

Three parts to this recipe
How is it possible for someone to be happy but not content?  You can look up the definition of the two words if you wish, and argue the philosophical aspects of this question over a cup of camomile tea, but a more practical definition is needed if it's to help you actually get to a state of contentedness.

So what is required for someone to be content?  I came up with three components:

Responsibility.  People like to know that they are valued.  And there is no greater indicator of this than to have responsibilities beyond the mundane.  There will always been the mindless activities to do, whether you are entering time in Salesforce, mopping the floor at your after school job, etc.  But to have something beyond the mundane shows a level of trust in your capabilities for which there is no substitute.

Impact.  However, responsibility alone is not sufficient.  For if the task given to you has no real impact on your group, division, business unit, or company then it's easy to come to the conclusion that the sincerity behind the assignment of the task is superficial.  In other words, it's easy to imagine the following conversation:

Manager 1:  who do you think we can convince to paint the roof?
Manager 2:  ah, let Larry do it.  If he messes it up, no one will notice.  After all, who looks at the roof?
Manager 1:  Larry!  Come here!  Boy do I have a great job for you!...

Compensation.  This final component is probably the least surprising.  Nothing will get someone riled up more quickly then finding out that their peers who have similar sets of responsibilities are being paid more than they.  I cannot count how many conversations I have had with coworkers where they have complained that they were the least paid of anyone in their role.  (Whether they were in reality is another point entirely.)  I, myself, have also had pains of jealousy when I felt I was underpaid.

There are myriad articles on the Internet about discussing compensation with one's manager, but I would argue the same principles apply to the other two components described above.  And while these discussions are not always easy to have, the possible reward of true, long term contentedness are worth overcoming the resistance you may have to sitting down, talking about your desires, and setting mid- to long-term goals for the future that allow you to reach this state of nirvana.

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