The Corporate Shrink

If you really liked it, then it wouldn't be called work.

By Kerry J. Sulkowicz
Featured on FastCompany

As director of training and development, I see many people who seem dissatisfied with the ups and downs of organizational life. What should I tell those having trouble sustaining high performance and true happiness in the workplace? (issue 91, page 36)

True happiness? In the workplace? How about a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow?

I’m not saying that we shouldn’t try to enjoy work; Freud said that a sign of mental health was the capacity to find pleasure in love, work, and play. But frankly, I’d worry about anyone who says their true happiness is derived from work.

High performance is more realistic – but it’s still one of those idealized notions that are never possible to maintain all the time. The ups and downs of organizational life are inevitable. Expecting them, tolerating them, even coming to relish them as opportunities for learning and change, are further signs of emotional strength and maturity.

One reason I was so eager to answer your question is that it touches on an unspoken truth of corporate life: A lot of people in large organizations are unhappy, even miserable, at least every now and then. They feel lost, like small cogs in a much larger machine, or vulnerable and powerless. Real gratification from work, on the other hand, comes from relationships, from a sense of accomplishment and pride, and from the other intangible rewards.

So I’d tell your employees who can’t find true happiness that they’re looking in the wrong place for something that is elusive at best. Better to look within themselves for the causes of their malaise. And I’d suggest that if they can sort this out, their performance will likely improve as well.

I’m a graphic designer for a software manufacturer. The CEO’s wife “volunteered” me to design artwork for her on the side. By allowing me to do the extra work in the office, the CEO justifies not paying me as a freelancer. It also doesn’t help my reputation when colleagues see me working on this while their requests wait. I’m feeling used. How do I get off this slippery slope?

I guess you haven’t found true happiness in the workplace, huh? Although there’s nothing inherently wrong with your doing freelance work (even for the CEO’s wife), your dependency on him makes it hard to say no. When he then takes advantage of that, he’s being exploitative, and your reputation is in jeopardy. Better to stop it now.

The CEO may not have thought about the ramifications for you and for the work you should be doing. If you have a good relationship, I’d tell him that you’re glad to take on this project for his wife – but appeal to his business sense by saying you’re concerned about the effect it’s having on your primary workload and on employee morale.

If you don’t have a direct line to the CEO, consider speaking with your boss about the uncomfortable position you’ve been put in. Even if you’re on good terms with the CEO, winning your boss’s support is probably smart: You get someone who might act as a buffer, and you send a message to your peers explaining why their requests are languishing.

This should be a win-win. You might not find true happiness, but you should at least be able to protect yourself while keeping your colleagues and your boss’s wife happy at the same time.

Dr. Kerry J. Sulkowicz, a psychiatrist, psychoanalyst, and founder of The Boswell Group LLC, advises executives on leadership, management, and governance. Send him your questions about the psychology of business (