Chief Happiness Officer: is it really the right name?

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In this blog Andrea Cardillo shares his reflections on the role of the Chief Happiness Officer.

The Role of the Chief Happiness Officer

Like many of you, I too have seen a growing interest in positive psychology in the workplace.

In the wake of these developments, a new role is spreading – in Italy and abroad – within organizations: the Chief Happiness Officer (CHO). Seppälä (The Happiness Track, 2016) briefly describes its tasks: “The CHO is responsible for managing and overseeing a range of programs, initiatives and policies designed to promote employee happiness, well-being and engagement.”

The introduction of the CHO is an important innovation, and testifies, among other things, to the direction in which the most innovative companies are trying to evolve to attract and retain talent, and to create contexts in which it is easier to work and perform.

Faced with the spread of this new role, my reflections were characterized by a certain ambivalence.

On the one hand, this cheered and intrigued me – I, myself, have worked for years promoting the principles of positive psychology – on the other hand, I strangely noticed in myself a hint of suspicion and dissatisfaction.  Why?

Upon reflection I believe that, ultimately, it is the very name of the role and its primary focus on the promotion of happiness that triggers a wake-up call in me.

Purpose of the Chief Happiness Officer

The noble purpose of the CHO, can easily be lost when offering wellbeing services to individuals, whilst disregarding interventions to address the systemic conditions that create stress and unhappiness in the first place. For example, offering mindfulness and yoga courses for stress reduction to under-staffed teams or those afflicted by toxic management cultures is not only a mild palliative, but proves, on balance, to be a form of support for maintaining the status quo in the company.

A good CHO knows that acting on the systemic causes of unhappiness, and not just offering palliatives, is an essential function of their role. It is often only possible to address the causes and focus energy to eliminate them, when the corporate culture is so psychologically secure that it accommodates, with equanimity, the full range of human emotions.

How can we change, without anger, in the face of injustice and dysfunction?

How can we know who or what inspires our teams if they were not also free to talk about who or what frustrates them?

How can we truly empathize with others when they feel they have to wear a smiling mask of invulnerability even when facing sadness or a fear of failure?

Creating Genuine Change

I doubt that there can be an authentic culture of well-being and genuine change without a fundamental acceptance of the full emotional spectrum.  For precisely this reason, I see the key task for CHOs is to help culture and people develop such wide windows of tolerance that they do not retreat even in the face of so-called negative emotions.

For many colleagues doing the work of the CHO, these reflections are nothing new. But then, doesn’t the name Chief Happiness Officer sound limiting and misleading in light of the transformative capacity of this role? What would change if, all functions being equal, we called the role something else? And, if not CHO, what other title would better capture the implicit integrating and liberating potential of its mandate?

If you would like to know more about how we can support organizations to create genuine change get in touch.

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