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Happiness at Work - an interview with Srikumar S. Rao


Interview by: Giles Metcalfe

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Srikumar S. RaoSrikumar S. Rao has done pioneering work in motivation, and helps senior executives become more engaged in work and discover deep meaning in it. He also works with teams and groups and has been extraordinarily successful in using group dynamics to foster lasting personal change. Many who have been through his programme experience quantum leaps in professional and personal effectiveness.

Dr. Rao is the author of Are You Ready to Succeed: Unconventional Strategies for Achieving Personal Mastery in Business and Life, The Personal Mastery Program, and his latest book Happiness at Work: Be Resilient, Motivated and Successful – No Matter What.

GM: Your book is entitled Happiness at Work, but it seems to me that your teaching is applicable to everyone in all spheres of their lives, not just the sphere of work. Why the focus on happiness in the workplace, at least in the title of the book?

Srikumar S. Rao:

You are correct that what I speak about is applicable to everyone in all spheres of their life. There are two major reasons why the title emphasizes happiness at work. First, for most of us, work hours are getting longer and the stress of work is increasing. So there is a high level of dissatisfaction with how we feel in our work environment and taking about this immediately gets attention. Second, the publisher conceived this as aimed at a business audience and it seemed appropriate to title it so this was reflected.

GM: What led you to come up with the initial idea?

Srikumar S. Rao:

I was not particularly happy at work myself! So I started thinking of a course that would help people use the teachings of great masters to bring joy into their lives. At that time I persisted because the very thought of doing something like this brought joy into my life. As the course grew and changed it was instrumental in profoundly transforming the lives of thousands of others. So it is now a vehicle for continued growth for many, including myself.

GM: Surely, as author of this book, you must be the happiest person in the world. What’s your secret?

Srikumar S. Rao:

I don't know if I am the "happiest" person around. Somehow I doubt it. It really does not matter because I have long ago stopped comparing myself to others. No matter what metric you use there will always be some who are ahead and others who are behind. And if you are at the absolute forefront right now, there will be someone who will supplant you sooner or later. So just see who you are today and compare to whom you were yesterday and last week. If you are moving in the direction you want to, then you are OK.

GM: You focus on self-help techniques that anyone and everyone can put into practice with a little effort and dedication. Despite the emphasis on self-improvement, do you feel that external agencies have a role to play in personal happiness?

Srikumar S. Rao:

I would like to object to the use of "self-help" to refer to what I do. This is entirely because there are so many peddlers of nostrums out there that the term has become pejorative. That said, I do emphasize that we are not a "victim" of circumstances but the co-creator of the life we actually experience. External agencies do have a role and can make the task of creating a joyful life for everyone easy or hard. Sometimes extraordinarily hard. But the onus in on you to take the reins of your life and steer it to where you want to go.

GM: You eschew case studies in favour of parables to illustrate your point in each chapter. Why parables as opposed to business-related case studies?

Srikumar S. Rao:

I have actually come up with something that cuts across the categories you mention. I do use parables and I do use business case studies but I also have many parables set in a business setting and similar to cases. This is because parables have a powerful way of embedding ideas deep in your psyche. Do you know what being a Good Samaritan means? I rest my case.

GM: Could you expand on your definition of the theory of Creativity and Personal Mastery (CPM) and its application to business practices?

Srikumar S. Rao:

That's easy. My vision is that you, me and everyone lives a life in which there are large dollops of joy, that we find a deep sense of meaning in what we do and enjoy each day as it comes and goes. For this to happen we do have to develop higher and higher levels of personal mastery. As we do this, we become more creative and our business effectiveness increases exponentially. That is the marvelous paradox - you work to improve your personal experience of life and, inevitably, you become better, much better, at your professional endeavours. Talk about eating your cake and having it too!!

"The environment in many of our large organizations is pretty toxic. My vision is transform the culture so people actually look forward to coming to work on Monday morning."

GM: Has there been anything in your CPM research that has shocked or surprised you?

Srikumar S. Rao:

Shocked is perhaps too strong a word, but I was initially very surprised indeed at how many outwardly "successful" individuals were actually insecure and emotional basket cases. I now realize that external indicators of achievement - position, power, wealth, etc. - have no bearing on a person's inner well-being. You can have all of them and be miserable and you can have none of them and be deeply fulfilled.

GM: Is your Zen-Buddhist-based approach to work and happiness a result of your Asian heritage, or has it been borne out of your personal experiences irrespective of your background?

Srikumar S. Rao:

That is an excellent question and I am not sure I can answer it. I was certainly exposed to many of the principles I expound by the cultural milieu in which I grew up. But I also rejected them till life experience brought home to me how relevant they were. Lets say it is a combination of heritage and experience seasoned by a lifetime of reading and thinking about these topics.

GM: You state that to be happy, one should “invest in the process rather than in the outcome”. How does this apply to business and management in particular?

Srikumar S. Rao:

This is HUGELY applicable to business and management. We tend to live in a goal-oriented frame of mind where we "succeed" if we achieve our goal and life is great or we "fail" if we don't reach it and life is terrible. A goal is an outcome and reaching it is beyond our control. Some of the time we reach our goals, much of the time we don't and some of the time we get an outcome that is diametrically opposed to what we wanted. So if we are obsessed by the outcome we are setting ourselves for disappointment and a crummy experience of life.

What I recommend is that we think about the outcome only to the extent that it gives us direction and when this is established, forget about the goal and focus exclusively on the process, on what you have to do to achieve the goal. If you succeed, wonderful. If you don't, still wonderful. If you do this, then you enjoy the process itself. When you are goal obsessed you miss the journey and the journey is really all there is.

Paradoxically, the less you obsess about the goal, the more likely you are to actually achieve it. Let me illustrate with a business example. Take beginning salespeople. If they pour all their emotional energy into getting that "big" client they are more likely to burn out and eventually fail. But if they focus on doing what they have to each day, then they will get a steady stream of clients and eventually many of the "big" ones as well. Investing in the "process" rather than the "outcome" is actually a sure-fire road to success for them.

GM: You say that “You see the world as you are, not as it is”. Do you think that individuals can transcend this, divesting themselves of years of ingrained dogma around best practice in business and also their own personal experiences?

Srikumar S. Rao:

Another excellent question. The short answer is "Yes, it is possible" but it is by no means easy. The conditioning you mention is so deep that it is extremely difficult to overcome. The good news is that even a modest step in that direction has a tremendous benefit on your life.

GM: I find your lesson that “It’s your job to be of service – this is a corollary to avoiding a me-centred existence. Help others for the sake of doing so, not to plant an obligation or bask in thanks” interesting. Can this be put into practice successfully in the business sphere?

Srikumar S. Rao:

Indeed it can, but this is far from the norm today. We are seeing some signs of this with respect to customers and how to treat them. The same feeling should be extended to employees, vendors, shareholders and society at large. Don't think of these competing interests as a "conflict". Instead, see it as a necessary balancing act and constantly try for a more optimal solution.

GM: What other topics/issues interest you?

Srikumar S. Rao:

The environment in many of our large organizations is pretty toxic. My vision is transform the culture so people actually look forward to coming to work on Monday morning. In my book leaders are dedicated to ensuring that all persons within the organization reach their highest potential. And as they strive for this, they themselves lead fulfilling professional lives. The role of business is not to amass profit. That is a by-product of contributing to the well being of society and actively engaging with the problems we see all around us.

I also play chess, read P. G. Wodehouse and try to improve my tennis game. And I hang out with the great masters who lived on this earth and generously poured forth great wisdom.

Find out more about Srikumar Rao and Happiness at Work.