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Can You Be Happy at Work When You’re Not in Charge?

Most people want to feel at least a little bit in control, to have some say over how they spend their time and what they have to do — except for those folks who prefer to have absolutely no responsibility, who don’t like to have to think for themselves, who say, “Just tell me how you want it.”

Employment can be an inherently dicey proposition, then, because it means having to follow someone else’s say-so about where to sit, when to eat, how to behave. In fact, compliance can feel awful even when you’re the Executive Vice President if the President likes to behave in bullying or dictatorial ways.

You’re a Real Person, Even at Work

So how can you have the best chance for a decent or — dare we think it? — a happy time at work when others hold authority over your schedule and requirements? Here are some basics that would be absolutely obvious except for the effort they take:

  • Know who you are: You are not your job or your role; your work is something you do.
  • Evaluate your options to tee up the best combo of good work, good boss, and good organization — even if it means a lateral move, or a possible move elsewhere.
  • Manage your mood: Smile, greet, thank people, help others whenever you can, and look for opportunities for improvements both large and small.
  • Structure your physical environment to be as pleasant, comfortable, and reflective of your true self as you’re allowed.

If Self-Help Is Your Only Help

When you’re working from these angles, you’re really confronting three kinds of possibilities, and looking for the best of each:

  • Can you create a greater sense of meaning and value for yourself and your work? Options include doing more to help colleagues or customers, or improving product quality or service delivery.
  • Can you help yourself get greater enjoyment out of the particular circumstances in which you happen to be? Look for opportunities to learn new skills, create a sense of progress and accomplishment around project milestones, or personalize your workspace so it always feels good when you come back to it.
  • Can you improve your actual situation beyond its current parameters, making it something that will feel better to you? For example, try to find ways to help your boss be more successful and happier at work, which may make your relationship more pleasant and mutually supportive; or invest a little effort (volunteerism, exercise, meditation, getting more sleep) to improve your sense of balance on and off the job.

The list of examples is incomplete, because there are so many options. These themes can work for everyone, but of course, the specifics will vary based on your job, personality, and level of dissatisfaction. If you want more detail on implementation, or if you’d like to suggest a new theme, please leave a comment or send me an email — even if you’re already lucky enough to be happy at work!

Onward and upward,


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