Organizational Happiness

HR Manager magazine invited me to share my vision about the organizational happiness. Whether you think it is possible to build it or not, here is how I see it and how I implement it.

The pursuit of happiness is one of the oldest human quests and one of the most actual ones touching each and everyone of us. This is a hot topic as scientific progresses brought to the light what the ancient wisdom is preaching for millennia. Research in psychology, leadership, management and neuroscience brings evidence that happiness is not only possible but it has an extremely beneficial effect on us, as individuals and as groups.

Despite all that, at the global level, half of the workforce, namely more than a billion of people are not happy at work (Great Place To Work 2019). Happiness at work is a subject that deserves the whole attention and all our efforts to understand it and to build it.

Myths of happiness.

There are a lot of myths within the collective imaginary that make this aspiration an impossible goal to reach or a derisory subject. This is why it is important to remind that happiness does not mean that people have everything they need, that they are forever cheerful, that their whole experience is pleasure and hedonism, without difficulties or negative emotions. Happiness is not seeing the world through rose glasses in the best possible worlds as Voltaire was saying.

What is happiness?

Sonya Lyubomirsky, professor at the University of California Riverside and one of the foremost world’s experts, defines happiness as “the experience of joy, contentment, or positive well-being, combined with a sense that one’s life is good, meaningful, and worthwhile”.

As Susan David, doctor in psychology and one of the world’s leading management thinkers, was saying “psychologists typically identify happiness by three distinct pathways: the pleasant life, which involves positive experiences, the engaged life – a person’s ability to deploy his personal genius, to use his unique strengths and talents in a way that engages and absorbs him, and the meaningful life, which relates to the desire to be part of something bigger than oneself. All three of these pathways — pleasure, engagement, and meaning — are important”.

What is happiness within the organization.

Following this definition, we can identify behaviors that constitute and build happiness within the organization. Cynthia D. Fisher, eminent researcher at the Bond University, considers that the three parallel broadband measures most likely to be useful in this framework would be: job satisfaction, including facets such as pay, co-workers, supervisor and work environment; engagement, representing affective and cognitive involvement and enjoyment of the work itself; affective organizational commitment, as feelings of attachment, belonging and value match to the larger organization.

What are the benefits of the organizational happiness?

Jennifer Aaker, professor at Stanford, explains in a very relevant way that “leaders, whether they are CEOs or budding entrepreneurs, focus on making their company successful by concentrating on operations, sales, marketing and growth-all the things that feed into the bottom line. But asked about bringing happiness to employees and customers, many leaders don’t know how much importance to place on it, if the concept is even on their radar screen. “

However, research shows-time and time again- that there are bottom line benefits that happiness provides to companies: from increased productivity (Oswald, 2015) and creativity (Amabile & Kramer, 2011) to lower levels of absenteeism directly impacting the turnover and profitability. Happiness also positively correlates with individual workplace success, including higher income, favorable evaluations by a superior, helping fellow workers, and social support from colleagues and supervisors (Lyubomirsky, King & Diener, 2005). In other word, happiness produces a virtuous spiral generating benefits at the individual, social and organizational level.

How to build organizational happiness?

With time, resources and authenticity. Every organization has a DNA and a context that need to be respected. The organizational happiness business case needs to be built on the basis of the analysis of internal and external information (turnover, costs, productivity, client satisfaction, surveys of actual and former employees etc.), and the results must be shared with those who are going to sponsor the project in order to define the reason why of this approach and the direction to go further. Then, a concrete and consistent action plan must be put in place in a sustainable way.

This kind of strategy can imply changes in the company’s policies and in the leadership style and it will certainly suppose initiatives at the whole organization level, including the development of social skills through a series of common activities and individual exercises.

A frame to build the organizational happiness.

Starting with the definition of happiness at work, Emiliana Simon-Thomas, scientific director of Greater Good Science Center (UC Berkeley), proposes a user friendly framework for any organization that wishes to reinforce employees happiness, a model that she inspirationally named PERK: Purpose-Engagement-Resilience-Kindness.

Purpose. As Morten Hansen, professor at UC Berkeley, was saying, “you have a sense of purpose when you make valuable contributions to others (individuals and organizations) or to society that you find personally meaningful.” It is true that a company doesn’t necessarily have a social mission.

Nevertheless, any company has a series of values that can generate the sense of purpose if implemented, visible and in harmony with employee’s values.

Danone, for instance, is committed to contribute to people health through the food they are providing, while L’Oréal contributes to every person’s wellbeing through beauty as a possibility of expressing one’s personality by respecting the difference.

On the other hand, people find meaning in different things. It is not everybody that wants to change the world and to have a global impact.  There are people wanting to grow and Procter and Gamble, for example, is renowned as the best marketing school, or General Electrics is renowned for preparing general managers. There are people wanting to work for the biggest companies in the world or looking for belonging to a community. For this last case, Southwest Airlines became a classical example as they implemented a culture of the heart and of people bound. Every company has though a wide range of possibilities to inject the sense of purpose and of belonging among their employees.

Engagement. An engaged person dedicates his/her time, attention and energy to his/her work as a genuine expression of thoughts, feelings and behaviors. There are several ways to stimulate the implication and engagement. First, we have to build an environment where people feel good, have opportunities to enjoy, to be excited and curious. Positive emotions are extremely important as it activates the dopamine system which opens to novelty, exploration and innovation. Celebrating small wins (Amabile&Kramer, 2011) or job crafting from responsibilities, relationships or own thoughts perspective (Wrzesniewski, 2010), as well as a lot of other methods are easy to implement and have excellent results.

Secondly, people need to feel autonomous, master of their time and projects. In order to be able to be absorbed in what they are doing, employees also need moments of quite, of peace with no internal or external interruptions. If 47% of the time we are thinking of something different than what we are doing (Killingsworth and Gilbert, 2010), creating flow conditions (Csikszentmihalyi, 2008) can enormously contribute to implication and happiness at work. There are a lot of companies that are starting to switch from the ultra-busy, multitasking, fully connected, always in a meeting style to a work organization that allows concentration and stress reduction.

Resilience is the capacity of managing and adapting constructively to difficulties, setbacks and disappointments. It implies the flexibility of trying different strategies of solving a problem. Resilience at work is also linked to authenticity, mental habits, capacity and possibility of having time off.

Tina Opie from Babson College explains that being true to ourselves at work eliminates the stress of surface acting or pretending to feel emotions you don’t feel. Learning and practicing optimism (Seligman, 1990) has shown many times its benefits as solution in front of complexity and setbacks that we are all facing. Implementing and practicing mindfulness is another way to stimulate resilience. Mindfulness can be a starting point for revising our learned habits of self-criticizing or blaming others, or getting preoccupied about past or future upsets, that makes it hard to manage difficult moments at work. Adobe, for example, implemented this kind of program named Breathe and more and more companies are doing the same.

Because, once again, happiness is not only about positive emotions, just like a company is not only about purpose and engagement. A happy organization knows how to manage setbacks, overcome it and bounce back.

Kindness. A happy organization knows how to encourage prosocial attitudes. The respect, the appreciation, the will to work together and to collaborate really make the difference.

Georgetown professor Christine Porath says that kindness at work begins with civility and being civil means building trust. David DeSteno, professor at Northeastern, shows that not only do compassion and gratitude increase kindness, they also help people succeed at their goals at work. Today, we still face surprisingly high levels of boredom, disengagement, chronic stress, turnover, and even cynicism […] Millennials agree that happiness at work, like happiness in life, is a basic human aspiration and, thus, the most attractive perk a workplace can offer. And research shows that happiness at work is essential to organizational success, entirely possible to foster, and well worth the investment and effort.” Emiliana Simon-Thomas.

Two examples of happy organizations

CISCO won the first place in the global study done by Great Place to Work in 2019. And the results are impressive. Leader in social responsibility, the company puts a major accent on the development of a healthy culture. 9 out 10 Cisco employees say that they look forward to coming to work, 98% say Cisco is a physically safe place to work. 97% say they are treated fairly regardless of their sexual orientation, and 96% say they are treated fairly regardless of their race. 95% reported that they were proud to tell others they work for Cisco. Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, 87% of employees call Cisco a psychologically safe place to work. This feeling of safety and inclusion is crucial for enabling innovation and encouraging all employees to come to the table with ideas. This isn’t just feel-good—it drives earnings. We find in these results most of the dimensions mentioned in the organizational happiness.

Zappos became a classical example in the happiness related literature. Tony Hsieh, co-founder of the company, is a Harvard graduate that understood that an organizational culture focused on happiness generates results. The principles he built the organization on (Deliver WOW Through Service, Embrace and Drive Change, Create Fun and A Little Weirdness, Be Adventurous, Creative, and Open-Minded, Pursue Growth and Learning, Build Open and Honest Relationships With Communication, Build a Positive Team and Family Spirit, Do More With Less, Be Passionate and Determined, Be Humble) were defined together with the employees. And when employees have something to say, then alignment is done and the company benefits from their acceptance and engagement. “Happiness implies four things: the perceived control, perceived progresses, connections (number and depth) and vision/purpose (be part of something greater than yourself). Tony Hsieh, 2010

Individual happiness within the organization.

This overview of the organizational happiness wouldn’t be complete without a last but essential focus on individual happiness.

The company can create a perfect external environment, opportunities for people to have everything they need in order to build happiness. But if people do not know what happiness is and how they can enjoy what they are offered, then all the initiatives will be in vain.

Happiness is not available to all. At the contrary. Throughout millions of years of evolution, people have developed what is called the negativity bias meaning that, when of equal intensity, things of a more negative nature have a greater effect on one’s psychological state and processes than neutral or positive things. Moreover, people are programmed to adapt to any situation or thing so, no matter how much they desired to obtain something, the satisfaction will fade away. Besides, the brain does not judge in terms of absolutes, it always takes reference points to evaluate a thing or a situation. Last but not least, people are not aware of those mechanism that constantly influence their choices. And these choices are often wrong, giving unsatisfactory results.

How do these filters translate into the organizational happiness context? The simple version would be that people will tend to see what does not work in the company instead of what works, what they don’t have instead of what they do have, they will always tend to compare themselves to others from the same company or from other companies and any benefit will lose its glimpse creating never-ending new expectations. Believing that material things bring happiness make people neglect the true sources of happiness and the energy wrongly invested drives to stress, anxiety and burn out which impacts all the actors involved.

The good news is that happiness can be learned and built and teaching people how to be happy is the best perk a company can offer to the employees. This is what will allow them to see the true value of things that they have in their lives and to create a positive spiral at individual and group level.

Take away for hard times.

As Shaw Achor („The Happiness Advantage”) was showing, in 2008, in the middle of the biggest recession of modern history, at a moment when all companies were taking dramatic measures to survive (layoffs, costs and budgets cut, travel cancelled etc.), big companies as Morgan Stanley, KPMG, Crédit Suisse and others realised that it takes more than that to face the crises. These companies invested in training that allows people to understand what happiness really is and how well-being can help us face more easily the challenges.

The change of today paradigm can be leaved as a major difficulty or can be faced with wisdom and the consciousness of the opportunity in front of us.  We have the possibility to rethink what we are doing well and what we have forgotten, to rediscover values that we all share and together, people and companies, to reinvent a better life for everyone.

Because, don’t forget, happiness is a good in itself and a driver of performance. And, in most of the cases, happiness precedes success. Let’s build happiness together!

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