The secret to happiness in business

Chris Barez-Brown is possibly one of the happiest people on the planet. His company, Upping Your Elvis, deliver creative leadership and change management projects to some of the leading businesses in the world. His techniques are unique and insightful, and where emotions and brain loops matter more than legislation and regulation, he is a force for change. We look back on our interview with him…

Your books and seminars focus on personal change through work - why this connection?

A third of the days we spend on this planet are work days and therefore if work isn’t serving us and helping us grow – helping us have a good time, helping to expand our identity, helping us to have a proper impact then it is a terrible waste of life! Quite simply I think for us to be really on this planet shining as brightly as we can and making the most of our time – work has to be brilliant for us and extraordinary.

So if you are happy at work then you are generally happy in the rest of your life – is that the direction?

I believe so - there are some people who use the adage of “work to live and live to work” but I think that is a terrible fallacy. Work just cannot ‘work’ that way. It is a huge part of who we are – most of us have to do it because we need to be able to pay for things and therefore as we use so much of our time through our work it ought to be something meaningful that stretches us, grows us and helps us to live life in a more interesting way.

Read: How mobile technology is constantly changing how we interact with the world

Is your work aimed at the employee or the employer – is it down to the individual or the company?

I engage in companywide programmes so I am aiming to do my work through the whole company; however I’m interested in the individual. I believe fundamentally everybody is perfect which is an unusual view in work but I think we’ve got everything we need to be amazing but what tends to happen is that we forget that and we tend to socialise the norms and emulate the ‘leaders’ so the next thing you know after months or years we become somebody that we are not really. We forget that perfection and uniqueness and we start to become normalised which has a similar effect on the business. If I can help people to connect to their true self and jumping out of bed loving what they do every day – self express themselves then the overall company wins. Yes we can improve the overall company and have that larger picture agenda but we do it through the individual.

Are you engaging in mindfulness in business?

I don’t think I deliver mindfulness but I do elements of it as well as elements that are slightly broader. I am fascinated by mindfulness though because I am interested by the human condition and mindfulness is an approach to helping us improve that human condition.

How is it applied?

Well there has to be a change applied and often that introduces an element of pain because it means committing to something other than the norm which feels a bit uncomfortable. My worst clients are the ones who think they are doing really well – my best ones are the clients who feel as if they have no choice but to change. 

The pain of the present needs to be significant and the potential pleasure from changing also needs to be equally great. The hardest part is getting people to commit – I make sure that when I am in the room with the leaders of a business I get them to squarely look each other in the eyes and commit to change so they begin to feel the heat under their feet otherwise when things get tough they will revert back to the norm.

You talk about feelings and work – 'pain', 'pleasure', 'happiness' and 'love'. Do you need an emotional connection to work in order to be successful and happy?

Absolutely – for sure. If you don’t have an emotional connection to your work then you will give average energy and average levels of commitment.

So how does that work if I am a toilet cleaner in a company rather than the boss?

This is a classic example; in my last agency we must have done at least 20 projects on toilet cleaners! Some jobs are going to be more challenging than others to make the format fit but you have to find some kind of emotional hook – it might not be that cleaning the toilets is the thing that makes the difference. It might be that you connect with the people that it serves or bring a smile to people’s faces using those facilities. You have to re-articulate the meaning so that it has a tangible emotional resonance.

Are the bosses the right people to talk to about emotion?

I tend to find that if the bigwigs aren’t emotionally connected to it or excited about the possibility and committed to the change there isn’t much point in diving in. Naturally we ’copy the boss’ and if we look at what they are doing so it is more efficient to get the bosses on board otherwise you either get bosses reacting to the change taking place which takes longer  or bosses block the change because they are unconnected to it.

In essence you are creating ‘leaders’?

Well actually we specialise in creative leadership – so any programme we do is about helping leaders get better at it by doing things in a more creative and energetic way.

Do your business meetings start with a handshake or a hug?

It’s a hug!

Is there much aversion to that?

A big part of my world is emotional intelligence and not everyone is immediately comfortable with emotions but it is changing and getting better. Twenty years ago emotions in business was a weakness – as it if showing emotion was unprofessional. Whereas emotions is what makes life interesting and if we use them well we get much better work done. A lot of my work is teaching people to harness them and use them well because in fact any emotion can be useful. Not everyone is comfortable with that and part of my role is to get people to understand it is just part of the human condition. Emotions aren’t weakness – emotions are power.

Is it possible to apply a positive emotional slant to a job that fixes you into a nine to five existence with a horrible commute at either end of the day?

Yes – you can use these approaches anywhere but you just have to think about the context differently. If your current work space isn’t that conducive to be brilliant in then you actually need a new approach even more. I get more success in traditional companies who are locked down with regulations, legislation and administration with ‘old school management behaviours’ going on than more funky organisations – it is easier to make a quicker impact.

How is your success measured?

Albert Einstein had a sign in his office: "not everything that can be counted counts and not everything that counts can be counted". I’ve tried measuring absolutely everything and... I’ve stopped. It really doesn’t help but what I do is collect stories – stories that record any change due to my work. Some are directly related to ROI and we can usually show a positive result to the companies who invest with us within four weeks and blow it out of the water. Once we can show that the board will start to relax we can focus on the other soft stuff – relationships, empowerment, creativity which is emotionally lead.

Do the more traditional businesses think that your approach is just a trend?

Some do but I’ve accumulated so many success stories that I can show that it works and you don’t have a business called ‘Upping Your Elvis’ without inviting the cynic to the room. I actually welcome that initial cynicism because our approach can be provocative and polarising and we can flush out any negativity very early on. 

How did you wake up to the approaches you now teach?

I worked successfully running beer brands and found that I could pretty much hit my targets in the first quarter of every year and that the rest of the year felt like a waste or boring and unfulfilling – it should’ve been the most fun job in the world but it just wasn’t. So I threw everything in and went travelling, reading everything I could about innovation, personal development and creativity because I wanted to understand what made me tick. I wanted to come up with an inspiring possibility for my life and that is where I fell in love with the work that I do now because I realised that there is a load of stuff that we’re not taught such as how we get more energy, how we tap into our talents, how each day can be an extraordinary one – I wanted to bring that to the world because originally I wasn’t bringing it to myself.

By focusing on yourself you were able to help others

There’s a balance – for me it is very simple. If you don’t get yourself working well then how can you help others? I think we are terrible at self-care and self-investment, you are the one common denominator in your life so treat yourself well.

Read: Five reasons to practise mindfulness in an accelerated world

Is this why people get stuck in accelerated cultures because they by-pass the individual?

These days we know more about how the brain works and habit loops – about how we get stuck. Is charging about with mobile devices and coffee on the go that good for you or does it keep you trapped? You need to step out of that situation and re-evaluate it.

Is it about disengaging?

I went off travelling because I was desperate and didn’t know how to affect the change but you don’t need to disappear off to Machu Pichu! I run seminars where we take people on the streets of London and instead of getting sucked into the maelstrom we change the pace and observe and listen properly to the stimulus which often leads to breakthroughs in engagement. The challenge isn’t to disengage but to change whilst engaging in it so that it isn’t controlling but liberating.

What are your top tips to being mindful?

Don’t allow your brain to be working on auto-pilot all the time so actually slow things down and breathe better. Do a digital detox every once in a while and back away from all those devices that you use. Deliberately change habit loops by bringing in freshness – decide to spend the first ten minutes of your day outside for a week for example, or sleep on the other side of the bed. Even taking a different route to the shops will help wake up your brain.

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