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Many employers are finding happy workers to be more productive, amicable and invested in their work.
Maybe it started in 2006 when Tal Ben-Shahar’s course on positive
psychology became the most popular one at Harvard University. Or in
2007, when more than 200 colleges and graduate schools were offering
courses on happiness and booksellers became inundated with self-help
books on the topic. Whenever it started, employers are beginning to pay
Of interest to them: What makes employees happy?
What is happiness, anyway? It’s a question that philosophers have
debated for centuries, and one for which there is no simple answer.
Aristotle postulated that happiness (or human flourishing) is not a
state but an activity, chosen for its own sake and achieved by living up
to one’s potential as a rational being.
Ben-Shahar’s definition is similar. He sees happiness as “the overall
experience of pleasure and meaning” that occurs when a person finds his
or her life purposeful. People can experience emotional pain but still
be happy overall, he says.
Others view happiness as more of a fleeting state, and there are many
alternate definitions—which makes measuring happiness tricky.
Questionnaires have been developed to rate happiness (including the Oxford Happiness Questionnaire and the Subjective Happiness Scale), but the answers are subjective and based on how people feel at any given moment, instead of their overall temperament.
It’s also hard to parse how happiness relates to similar concepts such as satisfaction, engagement and joy.
Every year, studies from top workplace research groups track employee
satisfaction and engagement, and there have been numerous attempts to
link these two measures to employee happiness. However, the
relationships are complex, says Teresa Amabile, a professor and director
of research at Harvard Business School in Boston.
Satisfaction depends on whether employees are content with certain
aspects of their job, including pay, the physical environment, the
number of hours worked and the type of work assigned, says Amabile,
co-author of The Progress Principle: Using Small Wins to Ignite Joy, Engagement, and Creativity at Work (Harvard Business Review Press, 2011).
Engagement, however, relates to how people connect to their work—whether
the work is interesting to them and personally satisfying. And
engagement tends to be relatively stable for an individual in a given
These differences may explain why the results of employee engagement
and satisfaction surveys often don’t correlate. Gallup’s 2013 State of the Global Workplace report
found that just 30 percent of U.S. employees (and only 13 percent of
worldwide employees) are engaged at work. But in the Society for Human
Resource Management’s 2013 Employee Job Satisfaction and Engagement research report, 81 percent reported overall satisfaction with their current job.
To Julie Weber, vice president of people at Southwest Airlines—a
company that prides itself on its culture of happiness—engagement seems
to be more closely linked to happiness than satisfaction is. To say
someone is “satisfied” is not really a glowing recommendation. “It means
they are content enough that they’re not actively looking to leave,”
And joy? Richard Sheridan, CEO and chief storyteller at Menlo Innovations Inc.,
a software company in Ann Arbor, Mich., views it as the gladness people
feel when they are working toward a goal that is larger than themselves
and deeply meaningful to them. “Parenting is a joyful activity, but it
is not always happy. Joy comes from the vision of the goal,” says
Sheridan, author of Joy, Inc.: How We Built a Workplace People Love (Portfolio, 2013).
The Work Itself
So while employee satisfaction and engagement data can help identify
factors that contribute to employee happiness, they don’t tell the whole
To promote a more holistic sense of happiness, Bruce Tulgan, founder of RainmakerThinking Inc.,
a management research and consulting company in New Haven, Conn.,
suggests starting with Maslow’s hierarchy of needs—a theory put forth by
the American psychologist Abraham Maslow in 1943. The hierarchy is
often represented as a pyramid that places people’s most basic
physiological needs, such as food, shelter and safety, at the base and
more-abstract human desires, such as creativity, self-esteem and
respect, at the top. The human needs for love and belonging fall
somewhere in the middle. The needs at the base are the ones most
critical to survival, while those at the top are only realized by the
lucky few who achieve the “self-actualization” that may facilitate the
The needs in the hierarchy are common across all generations, Tulgan says.
Weber at Southwest Airlines finds that, after employees’ basic needs in a
job are met, what makes them happy is “when they feel they are
contributing to something that is important, and they love what they are
doing and who they are doing it with.”
The work itself is vital, agrees Marion Hodges Biglan, vice president of human assets business partners at Teach for America,
a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit committed to providing educational
opportunities for children living in poverty. “Employees can have the
best benefits in the world,” she says, “but if they don’t feel
successful in their jobs and care about what they are trying to
accomplish,” they won’t be happy. That’s true for Charlie Morgan, a
partner in the Atlanta office of Alston & Bird LLP. A labor and
employment litigator, Morgan says his firm provides its 1,750 employees
with many wonderful benefits, but what really makes him happy is when he
is working with a multidisciplinary team on “an important and urgent
matter with serious consequences.”
That may be why employee engagement surveys come closer than
satisfaction surveys to measuring employee happiness. But employers’
efforts to improve engagement often fall short, according to Towers
Watson’s 2012 Global Workforce Study,
which states that “engagement, as traditionally defined, is not
sufficient to give employers the sustained performance lift they need—or
keep employees doing their work effectively in today’s pressured and
fast-paced work environment.”
Towers Watson points to two elements:
Effectively enabling workers with internal support, resources and tools.
Creating an environment that’s energizing to work in because it promotes physical, emotional and social well-being.
That aligns closely with Amabile’s research. When it comes to what makes
people happy at work and provides them with positive feelings, she
says, the single most important factor by far is the sense that they are
making progress in meaningful work—what she calls “the progress
“I don’t want to diminish the interpersonal things that are
important—respect, recognition, encouragement, emotional support,
affiliation and camaraderie,” Amabile says. “Those are important, too,
but they did not show up as strongly as progress did.”
Using 12,000 diary entries from 238 employees at seven companies, as
well as performance measures from their supervisors and co-workers,
Amabile and co-author Steven Kramer found that employees felt more
positive when they were moving forward and making incremental progress
on a project. When the employees felt the most positive, they were more
creative, more productive and more committed to the project they were
To increase employees’ happiness, Amabile offers several tips:
Help facilitate progress. Try to eliminate the
day-to-day hassles—interruptions, additional work, micromanagement,
unclear goals—that impede people’s ability to make progress in their
most important work.
At Menlo, the staff of 20 employees and 30 consultants breaks their
projects down into eight-hour pieces and tracks progress with cards
pinned to the wall: yellow when starting a project, orange when it is
completed, and green when another team double-checks the work and says
it really is done.
Intermediate goals are important, too; scoring small wins can make a big difference.
Provide goals, meaning and autonomy. Offer employees
clear, meaningful goals and explain why what they are doing is important
and contributes to the organization and the world. Then give them
autonomy. People need to be able to use their skills, creativity and
perspective to reach those goals.
That has always been a part of Southwest Airlines’ culture. Southwest’s
leaders trust the company’s 46,000 employees to do the right thing for
customers. “We don’t have a rulebook for how to provide great customer
service,” Weber says.
Make the most of mistakes. Don’t ignore mistakes or
castigate the people responsible for them. Rather, analyze what happened
and what the company can learn from them. Only one organization in
Amabile’s study—a chemical company—provided such an environment. The
attitude permeated the company culture, and all leaders focused on the
work, not the person. They asked what could be learned from what went
wrong and whether some of the work effort could be salvaged.
Menlo employees have a saying when it comes to new ideas: “Run the
experiment.” It might not always work, but they try an idea before
rejecting it. Several years ago, someone suggested that moms be allowed
to bring their babies to work. “I could come up with eight reasons
against that idea,” Sheridan says, but at Menlo the attitude is “let’s
run the experiment, see what happens and then adjust to what actually
happens instead of what we imagine will happen.” It did take some
adjustments, but mothers now are able to bring their babies to work.
“It’s delightful,” Sheridan says.
Spread recognition. Recognize all employees when they
are successful. Recognizing front-line workers is often easy; it can be
harder to identify and acknowledge support staff.
“People want to know that what they do matters in some way and that it’s
meaningful,” says Cathy Benton, chief human resources officer at Alston
12% Increase in productivity that comes from happiness
12% Increase in productivity that comes from happiness
“Sometimes in a law firm environment, though, the staff may not
realize how important what they do is to the organization.” So when
attorneys finish a case, they thank everybody—secretaries, paralegals,
receptionists, even the people who set up the conference rooms for them.
Southwest’s Weber has some straightforward advice about happiness at
work. “First of all, you hire happy people,” she says. “We hire people
who will be happy serving others, people who really want to do the job
we are hiring them to do.”
The airline’s interview process helps identify those who will fit the
company’s culture. “Even with our entry-level positions, we expect
candidates to be able to articulate why they want that particular job
and why they want that job at Southwest Airlines,” Weber says. “That’s
very important to us.”
When the fit is good and workers are happy, it’s obvious even to those
outside the company. In fact, many job candidates at Southwest say they
want to work there because they had an amazing flight, experienced great
customer service or saw employees who seemed to enjoy their work.
Menlo’s reputation as an organization focused on joy in the workplace
helps it attract the right people as well. It has never had to place an
ad or hire a recruiter to fill a position. “We have a very specific
culture and are very intentional about it,” Sheridan says. “The people
who choose to come here are self-selecting workers. … They want to be
part of the culture.”
When people ask Sheridan about joy in the workplace, he tells them joy
is about being focused on a goal bigger than yourself and feeling like
you have accomplished something. That sounds a lot like Amabile’s
definition of happiness.
People want to work with joyful employees, Sheridan says. It doesn’t
take a study to explain why: Joyful people are more productive, easier
to work with, care more about the outcome and produce higher-quality
work—and that makes for a pretty happy workplace.
Nancy Hatch Woodward is a freelance writer based in Georgia.
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