Joy Unbounded

The Gratitude Connection

By Donald Officer

“Your joy is your sorrow unmasked” – Kahlil Gibran, The Prophet

When I learned that Menlo Innovations CEO Richard Sheridan had published two books, the first called Joy Inc.: How We Built a Workplace People Love, and a new release, Chief Joy Officer, I wondered what kind of attitudinal shift had to happen to justify those titles. Joy Inc. was not Sheridan’s original title, as fellow author Kerry Patterson explains in the foreword, but Patterson could see in his friend’s manuscript that joy is the distinguishing quality of this remarkably successful experiment in organizational culture.  

Sheridan knew of course that he and his team had created something extraordinary, something that worked in a continuously satisfying way. Was it successful, profitable, energized, fun, fulfilling, productive, dominant, innovative or engaged? The book’s prefacing blurb hints that Menlo Innovations is all of those and more. For nine straight years, the company received the Alfred P. Sloan Award for Business Excellence in Workplace Flexibility. Flexibility is not a quality in great abundance in the workplaces I have known. Moreover, Menlo has brought home six revenue awards from Inc. magazine while securing speaking engagements for its CEO around the world at conferences and major corporations like Intel, Disney, Nike, and USAA.

Contributors to the Center for Grateful Leadership site have noticed, that when it comes to acknowledgment and leading with gratitude, managers and colleagues are often initially inhibited by an austere interpretation of what it means on the job. Joy: isn’t that something associated with time off, the early departure of a difficult manager or relief when an ambitious target is met? It’s out of the ordinary, for sure. Intrinsic to the culture? – that’d be a stretch.

Some events spark joy in most workplaces. Coming in under budget and on time for instance, or completing an assignment so engrossing that participants lose all sense of time watching possibilities and processes click magically into place. Psychology and Management Professor, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi called this experience “flow,” a highly focussed and joyful experience. Those interested in the quality of the working experience, not just valued outcomes, understand it best. Flow is situated on the wheel of challenge precisely between arousal and control.

Sheridan diagrams optimum work environments in a similar way, situating them in the sweet spot separating chaos and bureaucracy, pole position in a race you can win but not without effort or intention.

Studies have been published and inspiring examples found of a heartening phenomenon called “job crafting.” The Joy Inc. culture incorporates some vital parts of this model. Sheridan’s aim is to help the employee gain more meaning from the work and the employer more engagement in return. In the wider world, job crafting is often more spontaneous than planned. Take the hospital janitor, who works respectfully around the seriously ill but brightens the room while chatting with patients on the mend. None of those contributions appear in the job description, but their value is incalculable. Some job crafters call themselves positive deviants. At Menlo Innovations they would be proactively encouraged.

Consider this: Menlo knowledge workers routinely operate as two-person tandems within a larger, open concept work area. Each duo shares a single workstation keyboard along with a combined wealth of pooled experience and observations. Not only are the pairs building a powerful learning dynamic, but together assure better outcomes with immediate unbiased quality control. This system is a testament to Peter Senge’s ideas about learning organizations and the processes distinguished as part of the MIT dialogue project which systematically explored thinking together as a highly effective practice. Thinking together, doing together and of course, building true leadership are greatly enhanced by actually being together. As Richard Sheridan writes in Chief Joy Officer:

“Teamwork is a necessary component of authentic leadership. We cannot authentically lead others with whom we have no relationship and there is no better formula for building relationships than spending time together.”

“Real power is no power,” writes William Isaacs encapsulating his landmark book of the decade, Dialogue: The Art of Thinking Together. In that statement, he summarizes the obstacles which power differentials and implicit threats invoke in so many over controlled organizations. Menlo Innovations is not one of those. Flexibility is the rule there as witnessed by the company’s tolerance of the babies young parents bring to work, with the full endorsement of a welcoming management. Bonds grow as barriers dissolve through the simple presence of young children.

By association, joy is sometimes identified with surprise or awe. The power of overwhelm sweeps us up before we can succumb to skepticism. Studies and dynamic examples of meaning and positive emotions likewise testify to the importance of joy in building courage and resilience. The adaptive logic of joy and other positive emotional drivers like gratitude and compassion form the backbone of emotional success in life and work. These instances are settled science in Positive Psychology circles. But joy is not necessarily always spontaneous.

Another aspect of joy contributes to its power and amplifies its impact, if in a more subtle way. Spark Joy, Marie Kondo’s breakthrough work on decluttering speaks to the understated resonating pleasure of a clean, environment that emphasizes what really matters to the person, what sparks real joy. Likewise, mise-en-place the core organizing principle of the best kitchens in the world is recognized as the art of optimal placement and timing resonating with the quiet joy of deliberate mindfulness. Incidentally, this French standard now practiced worldwide has roots in Japanese practices. A similar respectful spirit seems to be reflected in the systems in action philosophy we suspect undergirds Richard Sheridan’s world.

In his keynote at the currently running IIL Leadership and Innovation online summit, Richard Sheridan listed six principles that drive his company’s culture: Purpose, leaders over bosses, systems not bureaucracies, caring for your team, learning together and telling meaningful stories. Knowingly or intuitively, Menlo Innovations fits the aspirational pattern Robert Kegan and Lisa Lahey discuss in An Everyone Culture: Becoming a Deliberately Developmental Organization, their 2016 book reviewed some months back in this column. Every example of the deliberately developmental organization or DDO which Kegan and Lahey characterize in their book is one of a kind. Nonetheless, all DDOs are committed to recognizing that the growth of the company is intimately tied to the personal maturation of its people.

Menlo Innovations looks a lot like a DDO. As Harvard professors and long-time consulting partners, Kegan and Lahey write enthusiastically about positive energetic cultures like Menlo Innovations. Between the lines of their writing about work culture transformation, you can sense that joy in all its dimensions lives in the DNA of the thriving DDO organization. In this respect, joyfulness parallels Positive Psychology’s well-researched prescription for flourishing in life. However, fully recognizing joy as a core quality, like gratitude is for our Center, is the special contribution of Richard Sheridan and Menlo Innovations.

For this leadership example, we should all be grateful. Joy may be hard to pin down, though it is always unmistakable and frequently transformative when you feel it. Being outside the universe of standard metrics, traditional corporate cultures routinely overlook the value of joy. The people at Menlo Innovations waste little time debating definitions or distinguishing the multiple faces and sources of joy. Instead, they embody the whole range of joyful feeling – vividly, authentically, successfully.

How can you beat that?


What role does gratitude play in your life? Gratitude Connection monthly and International Institute for Learning, Inc. Senior Vice President, Judith W. Umlas in her acclaimed books, Grateful Leadership, Using the Power of Acknowledgment to Engage All Your People and Achieve Superior Results and The Power of Acknowledgment will help you see the possibilities.