Happiness, Engagement, and Zombies: Newmind’s Dan Jefferies on attitude in IT

Would you consider yourself engaged at work? Or even happy? To start warming up for Build IT Together in June, we took some time to speak with Newmind Group’s Chief Happiness Officer Dan Jefferies to talk about how happiness plays into the IT space.

In case you couldn’t tell by his title, happiness is kind of his wheelhouse—in fact, he just spoke last week at TEDx Kalamazoo, regarding an emotion tracking app he’s been working on called HappyGraph.

As we tick off days leading up to this year’s Build IT Together event, we decided to reach out to IT professionals in the West Michigan area to discuss subjects related to the field. Being as Dan is close to home, we thought we’d begin with him, and discuss his fascination of the past couple years, which led him to don the mantle of “officer happy” here at Newmind.

 

To start as plainly as possible, can you talk about how happiness plays into the IT space?

I think happiness is absolutely critical to IT. So many people have had these really really negative experiences and connotations with IT in the past. Take, for example, the stereotypical IT worker who you’ve probably seen in the media, as this talented, yet mean and belittling person. They’re very skilled at their job, but they’re misunderstood on an interpersonal level and have a hard time getting a point across—they unintentionally make people feel awkward and uncomfortable.

Unfortunately this has been the rule (not the exception) in IT for a very long time. The more we’ve worked with these Build IT events and interacted with attendees, though, I feel like that paradigm is falling by the wayside. Maybe we’ll look back one day, and the cliche IT guy will really just be an 80s/90s thing. But the people in IT now are a lot more personable than they were when I first started working in IT, and that’s great! For everyone.

But yeah, I think the idea of happiness at work is even more important if you’re expecting an awkward, difficult, uncomfortable interaction with someone, and they end up being fully engaged and comfortable with themselves and have a healthy, positive headspace. The brain is meant to be in a positive state, and the research shows that people have a significant productivity and creative advantage when that is the case.

 

I also wanted to congratulate you on your recent talk at TEDx Kalamazoo regarding HappyGraph. Could you give us any highlights from that, which you think might also apply here?

The main idea that I worked around was based on Gallup research on people’s happiness and engagement in the workplace. Worldwide, it’s really dismal numbers—the study considers 87% of the world’s working population as “disengaged.” Really bad numbers!

Apart from that figure, I also tried to illustrate the different levels of happiness and engagement people occupy at work, so here I’ll give the example of 10 people who are all contemporary workers.

Of those 10, 1 of those people is a superhero—they’re engaged! They’re happy in their work and all their powers are active.

The next 7 people are zombies. They’re not being destructive, but they aren’t engaged at all and they’re really just thinking about other things while they’re at work.

The final 2 people are supervillains. These individuals are actively disengaged from their work. This means that they are so frustrated that they are actually acting out, spreading negativity and creating difficulties for others.

So again, you’ve got 10 people—1 hero, 2 villains, and 7 zombies. I really like thinking of it that way, because that’s the way being engaged makes you—so much more powerful.

 

Can you describe any types of opposition this type of thinking is confronted with?

You can easily get into impractical territory and touchy-feely when you’re working with these subjects, so there’s definitely a tension where you have this abstract psychological concept that you’re trying to work into very concrete ideas like productivity.

Gallup has studied the concrete effects of this psychology, and for every $10,000 that you’re spending on payroll, you’re losing $3,400 of that if the team member you are paying is disengaged, unhappy and frustrated. Multiply that by the number of disengaged people in the world and you’re easily talking about problem costing us trillions of dollars.

So on the one hand it feels really gray and vague and foggy, but on the other hand, there IS a quantifiable concrete problem which we should be using resources to solve!

 

Could you recommend any further reading on the subject?

I think the most succinct explanation or introduction to happiness at work is Shawn Achor’s “The Happiness Advantage.” It’s a book he wrote, and he also gave a TED talk called The Happy Secret to Better Work, which hit the high points and summarizing a lot of his book. Those two are a really good initiation, but there’s also so much more beyond them—As part of the research for the software we are building, I took a course through EDx that Berkeley offers (which is now available for free).

That course takes a really deep dive into the research, the researchers, their studies, their results, some of the nuances like “here are these results, which you’d think would mean X, but actually means Y, so here’s how we studied it.”

Another researcher that I’ve studied with to prepare for building our software is BJ Fogg of Stanford. I got certified last year in his Tiny Habits method, which I’ve shared within Newmind. I’ve also coached a number of people in this method via email. He has some great videos out there, too. Probably his best one is where he explains his Fogg behavior model, which asks broad questions like “how does behavior work?” and “what basic factors come together to form a behavior?”

 
If you’re interested in talking more about happiness in the workplace, HappyGraph, feel free to leave a comment below, or get in touch with us on Twitter at @NewmindGroup!

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About

Garrett Wenger is a storyteller and marketer at Newmind Group, and a native to Kalamazoo, MI. He received his BFA in English Literature from Western Michigan University, and has heritage in Southwest Michigan’s creative writing community. He published his first book of poetry in late 2013, and he has been featured in numerous literary journals.