Kevin Gaskell

According to the Office of National Statistics, Londoners work 100 hours a year more than the rest of the country. This wouldn’t be a bad thing if we all liked our work. But when the psychologist Daniel Kahneman researched how happy we feel by asking hundreds of employees to capture their experience during each day, he found that many of us found our time at work especially unpleasant. The only thing many people hated more was the time they spent travelling to the office.

And, of course, Londoners have the longest commutes too.

Why does work often make us miserable, and how can we change it? Many surveys show that toxic bosses are one of the strongest sources of strong negative feelings, but the time we spend working alongside our colleagues tended to make us happy. Also, when researchers ask us to look back on projects after they are finished, we tend to be far more positive about the experience in hindsight than we were at the time.

The fact that research shows that teamwork, being close to our friends, and the feelings of achievement are the things we like about work probably isn’t a shock to you. But, for many of us, these positive emotions seem to occur in spite of our managers, rather than because of them.

We regularly hear about the negative impact of workplace stress, rewards for failure, bullying and sexism at work. On the other hand, some companies have tried to make work more pleasurable by installing slides between floors in their office (Google), encouraging employees to dress up as their favourite animal (Zappos), or creating chief happiness officers who schedule a regular hour of fun at 5pm on a Friday.

My experience of leading more than 20 companies of all sizes, across different countries and markets is that we don’t need to put on a costume to be happy at work. I believe that inspired leaders should (and do) reconnect us with the satisfaction of a job done well, working side-by-side with people we like and value. Flashy offices and compulsory fun give us a fleeting boost, but if we want long-term success, we need a shared sense of inspiration. And that flows from the team leader.

If you’re thinking: I’d like that, but we can’t all choose our bosses, that’s true. I’d argue that most of us can be inspired leaders in some small way, at some time. Even if you get to lead one project, or decide to change yourself, my experience is that it can make your life feel more successful and more fun. And, if you inspire those around you to do the same, we can build a better workplace from the ground up as well as from the top down.

Team members might say: have you seen the news about the economy? It’s hard to take pleasure in a job when we’re worried whether it will still exist next week, and it’s hard to be inspired when you’re under constant pressure to deliver. To that, I’d argue that this is the time when inspired leaders prove their worth. Some of the greatest team experiences in my life have involved working in companies that are on life support, when every decision and everyone’s contribution is vital. The testing times bring out the inspired leader inside us.

I divide inspired leadership into three categories, which I call Commit, Connect and Create. They capture what I have learned from my experience leading teams and being part of teams whose leaders at every level have been extraordinary. Time and again I have learned from experience that ordinary people can achieve extraordinary things, if only we trust them with the tools and give them the opportunity to do it.

Commit

When I speak at management conferences, one of the most frequent audience questions I get is: “what should I do to motivate people?” My response is not to focus on motivation but rather ask what you can do to inspire people? It sounds similar, but is entirely different.

External motivation, prizes, money or great speeches may work in the short term but, in my experience, long-term success begins when we commit to a common goal. Inspiration beats motivation, because inspiration comes from inside each of us. Every successful businessperson is inspired by a dream, and the first step to your team achieving extraordinary things is when you personally commit to making that dream a reality. You cannot be an inspired leader unless you commit absolutely — not just to do the job, but to realise a vision.

Inspiration can’t be faked. We’ve all made a vague, spontaneous commitment in a conversation, a meeting, or in a bar. Maybe we believed it for a moment, but by the time the words are out of our mouths we know, deep inside, that we don’t seriously intend to change anything.

The danger is that vision becomes cheapened in this way. It’s just another meaningless PowerPoint presentation, a slogan on a wall, or a fancy way to describe budget cuts. I am continually surprised by the number of companies where the “vision” is to grow by three percent. It is almost impossible to commit meaningfully to this, because growing by three percent changes little: whether you succeed or fail, afterwards you will probably be doing the same job, in the same way, with the same sort of target. So I challenge the teams I work with to imagine the changes that could create 30 percent, or 300 percent growth (I am currently working with two remarkable companies who have done even better than that). The first reaction you may hear, of course, if to say that this type of improvement is impossible. But when they say this, what they really mean that we can’t do it without changing things.

I tell them: so change things – commit to this change, accept that most limitations are self-imposed, and imagine a world where we take the limitations away. Forget the spreadsheets for moment, and let’s share an exciting journey to success. How good do you want to be?

To give an example from a company that wouldn’t seem a prime candidate for radical upheaval, when I became the managing director of BMW GB in 1996, it was selling 45,000 cars a year. I was handed a four year target to reach 54,000 cars a year. I thought that wasn’t very inspiring: doing very well had stopped people from thinking what extraordinary things we might achieve. Meanwhile, competition was eroding BMW’s traditional advantage in areas like engineering which was diminishing our brand perception, and so three percent thinking wouldn’t sustain us for ever. Together we committed to create world-class service for our customers, and ripped out old the hierarchies, siloes and attitudes that were holding us back. Four years later, sales were up 80 percent, and profitability up 500 percent. Most importantly, the team had discovered that they could think differently about the possibilities of their jobs when they committed to changing things that we all, deep down, knew we could do better.

Not everyone feels comfortable with change. We are scared of what might happen, and that’s natural. But shared inspiration like this confronts that fear, because it makes us think about what we can gain, not what we are losing. When was the last time that you felt truly inspired to go to work on Monday, because of what you might achieve?

This editorial will be published in full at a later date.