It’s happiness, Stupid!

By Mark Wakefield


As a postscript to Martin Vogel’s blogpost here last week about our shock at realising that we weren’t properly communicating to our clients the strength of our commitment to what we do, here’s a reflection on what led to this epiphany. I think this was a long time coming but, for me at least, our recent meeting with the very impressive but self-effacing Andy Street, CEO of John Lewis, had a lot to do with it. When preparing for the meeting I was puzzled to find that the John Lewis Partnership defines its chief purpose as “the happiness of all its members, through their worthwhile and satisfying employment in a successful business.”

Even with that all-important rider “in a successful business”, it still struck me as a bit odd apparently to put the happiness of the employees first. Suffice it to say that Mr Street was a little puzzled by my puzzlement. To him – and he has spent his adult life working for John Lewis – there is nothing remotely strange about this. As he explained, it is precisely in so honouring your staff that you lay the foundations for serving the customer to the best of your ability.

What is so unique and refreshing about this approach is that it is, in spirit, the very opposite of the cynicism that lies at the heart of the shareholder value model of capitalism. Rather than assume that we are all simply economic actors seeking to maximise financial returns to ourselves, the John Lewis approach assumes that men and women – whilst properly seeking a decent return on the investment of their labour – are motivated by other, higher purposes. There is simple joy in “satisfying employment” that uses your talents and abilities to the utmost, and still greater joy when you use them in the service of others in ways they value and reward with renewed business.

That I was so slow to understand this underlines the extent to which we are most of us still in thrall to the “economistic, managerial paradigm” to which Martin referred in his post. The language of “value” has, I fear, been so debased by the ravages of the shareholder value model that we find it difficult to think of other kinds of value, even as we survey the still smoking wreckage of the financial crash.

If we are to learn any lessons from the current crisis we need to start thinking in terms of what the ancient Greeks termed “the good life” and all that makes it possible for human beings to flourish. This automatically leads us to factor in other considerations than the purely economic. To think in such terms is to ask a set of moral questions because at the heart of such thinking is an understanding of the essential interdependency of human beings. The shareholder value model of capitalism is inherently unstable and unsustainable precisely because it promotes the economic value of shareholders above all other actors – employees, customers and the wider society.

What is encouraging about the John Lewis model is that, in making employee well-being its core purpose, it conceives of happiness as of inestimable value in and of itself, whilst at the same time understanding its importance as a means to an end – namely the building of a successful and sustainable business that generates value in all sorts of ways, not least financial.

The risk in our debased business culture is that we are so dazzled by the “bottom line” that we fail to see the true value of happiness. That is one mistake we at Vogel Wakefield are determined not to repeat.

Image courtesy Camdiluv.