Happiness as a Service - blog 3: Problem of suffering and serving
At the beginning of this third blog, let’s recap where we are. In blog 1, we started with exploring the surprising connection between serving and happiness. As we state, serving can be a surprising yet solid route to happiness. The second blog explored the relationship between leading and serving. Here we wrote how hard yet influential servant leadership can be. With these two lessons under our belt, we can now return to the normal assumption from which we deviated by exploring the happy side of serving. Because, serving is not always nice. Especially related to work, serving can be more closely related to suffering than to happiness. The act of serving can thus lead to both happiness and harm. How to deal with these opposite outcomes of the same actions? Let’s start with a short overview of workplaces where serving plays a role.
Some types of work put people in a servile relationship to others. This happens in what literature calls ‘stigmatized occupations’ (Ashforth & Kreiner, 1999), like a shoe-shiner, customer complaints clerk, butler, or maid. The nature of the serving is so ingrained into the activity and the relationships one has during one’s work that the serving activity easily flows over into lower estimations of the people doing these jobs.
Then there are work arrangements where employment has become precarious, turning these workers into dependent workers. The precarity of such arrangements makes one dependent on the whims of those in power. Serving here means being at the mercy of others.
Thirdly, the visibility of jobs differs substantially for those who serve and the others. Everyone knows the artist, but who remembers the name of their roadies? With the service often out of the limelight, those who serve are rarely praised, simply overlooked, often ignored and easily laid-off.
At the opposite end of the spectrum are positive outcomes. There are people who are praised for their serving. In some cases, like the foot-washing ritual by clergy in churches, the act of service is an establishment of their leadership. Next, as Adam Grant wrote in his book ‘Give & Take’, there are ‘successful givers’ who truly benefit from their giving.
The main difference between the outcomes of the serving lies in the extent to which one is (still) seen as a human being. The core of the problem with serving is dehumanization, defined as the experience of an employee who feels objectified, denied personal subjectivity, and made to feel like an instrument for other’s ends (see Brison et al., 2022). When serving is done and received with dignity, happiness can ensue.
In different literatures, typically butlers are depicted as potentially proud or ignored. Be it Downton Abbey’s Carson, Wodehouse’s Jeeves, or Pennyworth in the Batman movies, here we see humans. Alternatively, there are rude examples where butlers are treated as animals or machines.
Serving can put one in a precarious position, but it can also create a context for human flourishing, both of the self and others. This is something to be realistic about, rather than romantic. The key question is: what does this serving do for one’s humanness?
The heroic invincible leader who is always right is a thing of the past, and leaders who are able to serve, lead and to be human at the same time are the ones who bridge the paradox we are talking about. Mind you, fulfilling these three roles at the same time is a big ask, and requires a seemingly contradictory combination of self-confidence, vulnerability, and self-awareness in order to be successful. When we look at the numbers we have for Confidence, this is where we see the highest correlation with happiness at work, so this could be a good place to start, finding how to be confident, vulnerable and self-aware, all at the same time. Having a strong sense of belief in oneself and one's job strongly correlates with how happy and productive one is.
HOW TO ORDER HAPPINESS AS A SERVICE :
- Reflect, on which is the negative experience from which you have grown the most, and why?
- Explore, where people have seen you grow professionally from the challenges you have faced
- Do, recognize yourself and others when you manage to straddle the uncomfortable gap between serving , leading and being human.