Mo Gawdat: “Covid-19 is leading us into a pandemic of productivity and happiness issues”

24 Sep 2020 By Elizabeth Howlett

The happiness evangelist and former Google X chief business officer on why feeling good at work is business critical

Sitting in a cafe in Montreal as he talks to People Management, Mo Gawdat asks: “I hope you don’t mind the background noise? I am trying to project as much happiness in my life as I can, and if that means sitting in a cafe and drinking good coffee then I won’t say no.” 

It’s hard to believe that Gawdat, former chief business officer at Google X – and happiness evangelist – has ever been unhappy. But he is no stranger to incredibly sad circumstances. His son, Ali, died tragically and unexpectedly during a routine appendectomy in 2012. But just 17 days later Gawdat channeled his heartbreak in the most unlikely of ways – creating an algorithm for happiness. This now famous formula (happiness is equal to or greater than the events of your life minus your expectations of how life should be) was later published in his book, Solve for Happy. But serial entrepreneur Gawdat didn’t stop there. He wanted to spread happiness around the world – an ambition he ironically likens to a “small-scale pandemic”. And thus in 2017 the company One Billion Happy was born. It’s sole purpose: making one billion people happy through talks and events.

So those taking part in this year’s virtual CIPD Annual Conference and Exhibition (ACE) in November can expect Gawdat’s keynote to bring a smile to their faces. But what else can they expect? People Management caught up with Gawdat over Zoom to find out more about his work, and his views on leadership and employee happiness during a global crisis. 

You have led some incredible projects over the years – what does good leadership in a crisis look like? 

In the situation we are in, a good leader can really shine. The best leaders are those who lead by example and communicate passionately. Leaders by definition are people who over-communicate and that is sorely needed at the moment. I believe a leader should reach out to their people more often, be vulnerable and open to the challenges the pandemic presents, and be able to listen to their people even on a Zoom call. What we need most is a leader who is actively pursuing their passion and pulling from the frontline, not pushing from behind. I don’t think you can say ‘behave this way and you’ll be a leader’. Some people will lead with charisma and some with trust. They are very different styles but both are effective. 

What would the impact be on a business if its goal was to make every employee happy? 

I have lived in an environment that was like that. The early Google I was a part of believed the ingenuity and passion of individuals would outstage the guidance of the leadership. I believe happiness is mixed up in the modern world and the true definition is a calm and peacefulness that gives you the feeling that you are OK with your current environment and life as it is. There are studies that say happy people are 12 per cent more productive than those who are not, and they are more engaged. If you think about it that way, employee happiness can have either a 12 per cent upside or downside on your revenue. And happy environments lead to innovation and higher performance. 

I had a simple view of management and leadership when I was at Google, which was that it was no longer my job to do the job, it was my job to trust in my team to do the job. I spent my time focused on creating an environment where they felt amazing and wanted to work hard. It meant I got the best people and I became a shining performer. But not because I did anything – I just made sure my job was my people. 

Did you use your algorithm for happiness to achieve this, and can it be applied in the workplace? 

Complex systems appear complex when we overcomplicate them. That sounds stupid but it’s true. We come at happiness from so many angles we overcomplicate it. It isn’t the events themselves; happiness happens when the event you are experiencing matches your expectation of what life should be. It can absolutely be applied in the workplace. Happiness is defined by whether you are OK with your life in the current moment and it can be measured by the frequency of feeling OK. The frequency of ‘OK-ness’ can be measured in the workplace quite extensively, because what we measure is employee satisfaction. The question is: ‘Taking everything into consideration, are you OK to work here another year?’ If the answer is yes, then the events – though they may not be perfect – meet expectations.

What does the current crisis mean for employee happiness? 

For years the workplace was all about the predictability that you would go to the same environment every day and do the same tasks. Even in the physical pre-Covid environment, when change happened, it was something that usually required a change management programme and a big plan. Here we are in the middle of a massive pandemic that has locked us all down and stopped us living and performing in the way we always have, and that can have incredible implications for us and our ability to work. 

For most people there is a productivity challenge as they are used to seeing people face to face, and some may struggle to initiate their own objectives for the day. Covid-19 leads us to a pandemic of productivity and happiness issues in the workplace. My intention at [ACE] is to try and explain the reality of what is happening, but also find the silver linings and things we can gain from an environment like this. I want to turn it into an opportunity rather than a challenge and enable us to come out of the pandemic better. 

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