Leading Happiness at Work — It Starts With You

Matt Smith, MBA ’98, Founder, Perfect Planet LLC

Traditionally, happiness and work are not words that go together. We work to earn money — it’s not supposed to be fun. An organization’s obligation is to pay their employees and provide decent, safe working conditions so employees want to come back tomorrow. In turn, employees must show up and do their jobs well enough that the organization wants them back.

Studies show that more than half of Americans are unhappy at work. But why can’t work and happiness exist together? And, what happens when it does?

The Corporate Leadership Council found that highly engaged employees are 87 percent less likely to leave their jobs. Meanwhile, companies with highly engaged employees report significantly higher earnings than other firms. With a strong culture and happy employees, teams perform better and customers are satisfied, increasing sales, profitability and growth — and it all starts with you, the leader.

Employees want to be happy

True happiness is not all about money or circumstances, though many of us may fall off the tracks by putting all of our efforts into pursuing that next promotion or purchase. And, don’t mistake fun for happiness; sure, fun is part of the equation, but here we are talking about deeper, long-term happiness, rooted in purpose, challenge, autonomy, mastery, impact and social connections.

While we all have our own definition of happiness, it usually involves a complicated balance of four main systems or needs: physical, mental, emotional and spiritual (energy). And, within those categories are other subgroups, including your health, wealth, experiences, relationships, work, home, exercise, nutrition, sleep, stress and balance.

During our lifetime, we will spend approximately 90,000 hours at work, more than anything else we do. If we’re not happy at work, it’s difficult to be happy in life. Therefore, it makes sense to start our happiness journey at work, so you, your team members and your organization as a whole can thrive.

Research shows happy people make better employees and teammates. They are more productive, creative and loyal, increasing new product development and creating a stable, sustainable organization. Happy people lead to happy customers who come back time and time again and tell their friends about your organization and increase your profits.

In addition, recent discoveries in neuroscience have found that about half of our overall happiness is genetic and the other half is learned and habitualized over time. We can build greater happiness the same way we improve our physical health: through motivation, planning, discipline and reflection.

How to lead happiness within your team

As the leader, you are responsible for your happiness and that of your team or workplace. Happiness starts with you and is sustained by you, so to improve workplace happiness, you must truly believe this concept. Do you want to be happier? Do you want your organization to be happier? Do you believe that personal and professional happiness can be improved?

If you answered yes, get started today:

  • Build your own personal happiness routine. Start slowly by collecting data. Ask yourself two questions: “How excited am I to start my day?” and “Was it a good day?” Record your answers daily to use as your baseline. Then, to focus your efforts, write down what really matters to you and what makes you happy and unhappy. Keep a gratitude journal, and start your day with intention and focus on the most important thing you need to accomplish that day.
  • Create clarity:Clearly define the vision, mission and goals of your organization, including workplace happiness as a component, and communicate them to your employees. Often, organizations will issue a company-wide email or host a town-hall meeting to share this information, assuming everyone will get it after one or two communications. A better way is to include the vision, mission and objectives in weekly manager-employee one-on-one conversations, which allows you to test for understanding and clear up misconceptions.
  • Create alignment: Improve understanding of individuals’ roles throughout your organization and how they relate to the overall mission. Again, a good way to do this is weekly manager-employee one-on-ones, so you can discuss how the employee’s projects help the organization achieve its goals.
  • Prioritize people: Show genuine care and concern for your employees and your customers. Lack of recognition is the No. 2 cause of employee dissatisfaction at work, so recognize your team for a job well done. There are a million ways to do this, but the trick is knowing your employees and what motivates them — and, conversely, what might embarrass them. For example, replace a weekly one-on-one with a walk-and-talk meeting, a more informal opportunity to let employees know how much you value them and ask specific questions about what they need from you.
  • Improve manager-employee relationships: All of us have had — or at least know people who have had — a terrible boss. In fact, the top reason for employee dissatisfaction is poor manager-employee relationships. Provide managers coaching and continuous leadership training, and teach them the importance of empathy and listening skills, including the value of having meaningful conversations with their direct reports. Flip the praise-to-criticism ratio, making sure to give three compliments for every critique, and consider implementing 360-degree reviews to reduce potential biases.
  • Challenge your team: Find out what people are best at and give them more of that kind of work. In other words, optimize the work for the people, not the people for the work.
  • Eliminate uncertainty: People need to know where they stand with their manager and within their organization. While it won’t be easy, implement radical honesty, or “tough love,” by giving — and receiving — honest feedback without judgement or comparison. In addition, increase transparency to make objectives, key results and company performance open to everyone. At the same time, reduce the fear of failure in yourself and others by embracing failure as the best opportunity to learn and grow.
  • Eliminate frustrations: Ditch unnecessary meetings, and address frequent customer complaints. By eliminating common frustrations, you’ll boost happiness in your employees and customers, thereby increasing productivity and sales.
  • Most importantly, walk the talk: Implement and live by “The Golden Rule.” In my experience, it’s easy for leaders to preach but difficult to put those words into action. Your people are perceptive. The best leaders win the respect and admiration of their team by consistently leading by example — living the organization’s values, getting out of their office and engaging with employees to get to know them and learn how they can set the team up for success. 

After 30 years in global manufacturing, University at Buffalo School of Management alumnus Matt Smith, MBA ’98, founded Perfect Planet LLC, which focuses on helping people and organizations seek and achieve better to get the things they want out of life, help them reach their full potential and do the most good in the world.

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