For The Want Of A Nail


For want of a nail the shoe was lost.
For want of a shoe the horse was lost.
For want of a horse the rider was lost.
For want of a rider the message was lost.
For want of a message the battle was lost.
For want of a battle the kingdom was lost.
And all for the want of a horseshoe nail.

I’m pretty sure we must all be aware of the old proverb that predates, yet neatly predicts, chaos theory. The loss of a horseshoe nail results in the loss of a kingdom, the outcome having a sensitive dependence on small differences in initial conditions. Anyone who has worked in modern business conditions will recognise this scenario all too well. Seemingly insignificant omissions lead inexorably to disaster. In 21st century organisations, stuck with out-moded 20th century thinking it’s the cumulative effect that’s dragging us to the precipice. A lack of clearly articulated values for everyone to get behind; a persistent reliance by people in managerial positions on presenteeism as a measure of productivity; pointless meetings perpetuated by people who think meetings are a good way to keep things moving; people huddled in silos, not communicating effectively across functions or actively working against each other; bullying behaviour left unchallenged; health and wellbeing treated as a “nice to have” rather than a pre-condition for positive business/life outcomes for all of our people.

Our health and wellbeing are vital for personal happiness, the pursuit of which in itself is so vital it made it into the United States Declaration Of Independence. It is of such global significance that the United Nations commissioned the World Happiness Report. Edited by John Helliwell, Richard Layard and Jeffrey Sachs, the report is offered as a contribution to the debate surrounding global sustainable development goals from 2015 to 2030. It presents a broad range of evidence showing that people who are emotionally happier, who have more satisfying lives, and who live in happier communities, are more likely both now and later to be healthy, productive, and socially connected. These benefits in turn flow more broadly to their families, workplaces, and communities, to the advantage of all.

It has been calculated that we spend 57% of our waking time at work during a working life of 46 years. That’s a huge proportion of our time on this beautiful blue marble. A massive slice of our lives away from our homes and families, given over to the profitability of a corporation, spent in an environment largely designed without our own input, where the reverse Superman effect takes hold as we go through the revolving door each morning. Where’s happiness in all that? Well, the psychologist Martin Seligman asserts humans seem happiest when they have: Pleasure – Engagement – Relationships – Meaning – Accomplishments
All of these things are in the gift of the people we work with and for. Unfortunately, the people who often decide our fate at work, when they aren’t misplacing nails, seem to be actively hiding them. Some of them are so neglectful of the importance of happiness, health and wellbeing at work that they’ve effectively leapfrogged the nail and gone straight on to flogging the horse till it’s dead then putting it on a final written warning for being unproductive and leaving a bad smell about the place.

Of course, horseshoes are also considered lucky by the superstitious. In Star Wars Episode IV – A New Hope (or simply “Star Wars” to normal humans) whiny farmboy Luke Skywalker is getting his first lighstaber lesson from wisebeard Ben (Obi-Wan) Kenobi. Heeding Ben’s advice to let go his conscious self and act on instinct, Luke dons a helmet that obscures his vision and deflects the laser blasts from his training remote. Cocky Corellian smuggler Han Solo remarks “I call it luck.” Ben responds that, in his experience, there’s no such thing as luck. Whether you believe in luck or not, we can all take responsibility for the conditions we accept at work (call it making your own luck if you will). Business leaders love popular psychology. They’ll have seen Seligman quoted all over the place. They’ll have lapped up Gladwell and lauded Pink. They bang on about productivity. As luck would have it, you’ve got the answers. Show them “Can Happiness Be Taught” by Seligman. Wave the UN happiness report under their noses. People might wonder aloud “I don’t know where you get your delusions, laser-brain”. Others may laugh. You can always respond with the immortal words of the great space pirate himself: “Laugh it up, fuzzball!”

Postscript: I am indebted to Vicky Ellam-Dyson (horseshoe), Phil Willcox (happiness) and Michael Carty (fuzzball) who provided the three random words that inspired this blogpost.

One comment

  1. Could agree more – doing some really exciting work on health & well being at the moment and have a few more conversations lined up. Feels so much more tangible and meaningful than the general engagement aim.

    I read another blog over the weekend about looming after humans being some,thing HR should be proud of. Working to enhance well being and health at work is part of this for me. As Johnny Cupcake says – do more of what makes you happy (he Also said make cupcakes not war so I was already a fan).

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