An Interview with Nic Marks

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Bridge: Can you tell us more about your background and what drew you into this field?

Nic: I have had an eclectic background but my core discipline is applied statistics. I went to study Maths at Cambridge but found it all too theoretical so I switched into applied statistics and systems thinking. Throughout my 20’s and 30’s I explored lots of fields including training to be a psychotherapist, doing a masters in organisational change and working in sustainable development & ethical investment organisations. This somehow all came together when I joined the London-based think tank, New Economics Foundation, in 2001 and founded a strand of work on government policy and wellbeing. This led to the creation of the award-winning Centre for Wellbeing and outputs such as the Happy Planet Index, National Accounts of Wellbeing and Five Ways to Wellbeing.  Whilst at the NEF, I came up with the idea of taking these ideas into the business world and in 2012 we spun the idea off and created Happiness Works, where we are creating responsive people analytics that help create happier, more productive workplaces.

Bridge: You do so much to promote happiness in both life and the workplace for others. Can you tell us what makes you happy?

Nic: Perfectly normal things like my kids, my relationships and my work. Taking our own research seriously then, the biggest stretch for me has been to get myself to be more physically active! I think I am finally cracking it as I have given up taking the tube in London and walk everywhere (well obviously not everywhere, but if walking is less than an hour, I will walk!) The five ways are: Connect, Be Active, Take Noticem Keep Learning and Give. A life full of these positive activities will surely be happier – whether with our intimate partners, our families, our friends, our neighbourhoods, our work and indeed with ourselves.

Bridge: You have worked with businesses and governments to make people realise how important happiness and wellbeing is to the cultures in which we live. Can you tell us how that conversation usually starts?

Nic: Often with a healthy dose of cynicism and doubt! Business and the business of government are supposed to be serious activities – surely happiness is a light fluffy issue and at best a nice to have. This is why I have consistently over the last 15 years based a strategy on getting measurement systems in place. Numbers, rightly or wrongly, are the language of business (and policy), so getting the numbers right is a vital first step. The research evidence really helps… but there are still many caveats and push backs like that ‘our circumstance are different,’ etc. So building measurement systems for governments and businesses helps them learn for themselves (which is absolutely appropriate as every case is different!)

Bridge: What usually causes businesses to fall short in this area?

Nic: Thinking it is a ‘nice to have’. Our challenge is to show them how urgent it is – how having employees that are unhappy costs them every month. Indeed, it is not only unhappy employees… the ones that are only “ok” are also not fully there. Strangely, many in business are frightened of emotions (and ironically fear is of course an emotion!). Rationality is king – yet the reality is that humans use emotions in our decision making process exceptionally efficiently and effectively – including decisions such as, ‘Shall I quit this company?’

Bridge: How would you define the role of leaders in bringing happiness and wellbeing to their businesses?

Nic: The intervention style for happiness and wellbeing is facilitative. You can’t tell people to be happy – that is surely going to fail! Leaders can help by cultivating cultures, not forcing them. Analogies that are more organic than mechanical are also more appropriate. A leader should be seen as as nurturing gardener rather than a strong military leader. This does not mean anything goes, but the focus is more on HOW people work and interact, rather than simply on what they achieve.

Bridge: What advice would you give to leaders who are struggling to meet their targets and maintain a happy workforce?

Nic: This is a difficult question, though clearly we all have business challenges. At Happiness Works, as a start up striving for that magical target of making a surplus, we are no different. Involving everyone in sharing responsibility for meeting the targets is key – but of course requires people to ‘buy into’ the targets themselves. If those targets feel arbitrary and imposed upon from above, that can be a struggle. What is certain is that no one will be happy if they are all out of work! I tend to think of everyone in a business as part of a system, where they are both an actor and a sensor, thus becoming both agents of chance and holding vital information as to how the system works. Understanding how these key components feel will help create a better course of action, as it involves their sense of what is going on as well. Everyone is happier when they are on the right path and no one likes wasting their time and effort on strategies that they don’t think are going to work. So, ultimately, I would suggest that happiness and performance are not opposites at all! There is also a lot of evidence that happiness predicts performance as employees are more engaged, more creative and more focused. (It is the unhappy who are distracted and disaffected at work.) This does not mean that work isn’t hard at times, but achievement is fundamentally rewarding – so the win win is there. Happiness is in fact, a serious business and businesses that take happiness seriously will be better placed to meet (and exceed) their targets.

  • Ask Nic your own questions during his Meet the Presenter Discussion
  • 29 January, 2pm GMTThe BridgeTalks Leaders Forum, LinkedIn
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