How To Make Your Employees Happier

Happiness increases productivity, stimulates creativity, and makes employees more willing to take risks. Here's are how some executives approach the touchy-feel business of happiness.

A positive emotional tenor in real-life workplaces can, it seems, have real, quantifiable consequences. Sigal Barsade, a Wharton School of Business expert on workplace emotions, says her research has found that on an individual level, positive moods prompt “more flexible decision-making and wider search behavior and greater analytic precision,” and suggests that on an organizational level, positive work cultures are “more willing to engage in risky ventures, more accepting of minority opinions and more willing to use decentralized control.”

Authentically upbeat moods can stimulate creativity, and creativity effectively harnessed can in turn sustain those good moods. And some places are simply better than others when it comes to setting the stage for happiness at work.

Because happiness, like laughter, has a distinctly viral aspect, it stands to reason that it can be cultivated by organizations. In 2008, Nicholas Christakis, a physician and sociologist at Harvard, and James Fowler, a political scientist at the University of California San Diego, published a fascinating study in the British Medical Journal showing that “social networks have clusters of happy and unhappy people within them that reach out to three degrees of separation...A person’s happiness is related to the happiness of their friends, and their friends’ friends, and their friends’ friends’ friends--that is, to people well beyond their social horizon.” In other words, as Christakis and Fowler put it, “happiness is not merely a function of personal experience, but also is a property of groups.” And thus “good behaviors,” as a New York Times Magazine article about the study put it, “like quitting smoking or staying slender or being happy, pass from friend to friend almost as if they were a contagious virus...and the same is true of bad behaviors--clusters of friends appeared to ‘infect’ each other with obesity, unhappiness and smoking.”

Barsade also has data suggesting that an emotional affinity among members of management teams is highly important--regardless of gender and regardless of how emotionally “intelligent” or “unintelligent” a company’s managers happen to be. In a study she conducted in 2000 of 239 top managers at sixty-two U.S. companies, she discovered that “financial performance is greater if the management team has similar personalities.” Workplaces are confined social-network petri dishes. Presumably attitudes and behaviors--for better as well as worse--can be contagiously modeled at least as powerfully at work as through Facebook, MySpace, and Twitter. And if, like the 46 percent of our Emotional Incidents in the Workplace respondents who had not experienced any moments of happiness at work during the past year, you find that you are in the market for a little bit more joy in your life, you might think about seeking out those colleagues at work who seem to have more fun or radiate more contentment.

So how does one manage all this touchy-feely stuff? One doesn’t budget for happiness, or set quotas for flow experiences and comic moments. Here are a few approaches to consider.

Managing Creativity
Management of the creative process, according to Tom Harbeck--senior vice president for strategy and marketing at OTX, a consumer research firm--“is not about laying down absolute laws. It’s not a science, but more about how you get there. What you learn and discover during the process is incredibly important to coming up with the solution. The whole be-here-now mindfulness approach is central to nurturing creativity. But that’s hard to quantify and justify to others who are waiting for the new look or the great tagline or whatever the brief promised.” It turns out that taking time along the journey to let the work unfold is essential to making sure you not only arrive at the destination but also arrive at the destination with quality work.

“It’s a lot easier to react to something than to create it,” says Tom. And this is where a lot of emotional tension--where the perception of work is so subjective and almost impossible to quantify--arises in the workplace. “Almost without fail there’s any number of people who will say, ‘I could have done that,’ or say, as if annoyed, ‘Why’d you make it green?’ And they’ve totally dismissed the process that went into creating a marketing campaign, an ad, or a logo.” Tom has three rules that facilitate discussion of creative work, and they calm what is often a tense process.

Rule #1: “Anybody can say anything about the work at any time. From the newest assistant to the visitor in the lobby, feel free to comment.”

Rule #2: “While you can say anything, you must be sensitive. It’s simply stupid to say that you think something sucks after it’s been shipped and you watched it go out the door. Or to roll your eyes and say ‘Why in the world would you put the logo there?’ ”

Rule #3: “You have to give reasons. You cannot just say ‘I don’t like it, it’s no good.’ It can be ‘Because women don’t like bald eagles,’ but there has to be a reason, so that the creative people are prepared to listen, more open to whatever they hear, and better able to take in what they can use.”

Anne Sweeney, the president of Disney/ABC TV, has a somewhat different approach to managing creative people. “I think emotion is critical to the creation of content. I love people who unabashedly tap into their inner lives, because the people who dig deepest into their personal stories come up with the best things.” And since emotion is critical to creativity, how to manage the inevitable emotional fireworks? Anne has found that “if you put any conflict back into the context of the story--if you keep going back to the story and keep asking how it fits into the story--you can usually resolve what’s going on beneath the surface. There will always be challenging personalities to deal with. I’ve found [that] the most effective way to manage is to be completely honest and communicate constantly. If you can identify and isolate the hot spot, you can contain and resolve it, so everyone can keep moving forward.”

Nurturing Creativity




There are many paths to take to tap into your creative self, but artist and author Maira Kalman once shared with me one of the easiest and most helpful. Her premise is that if you never take the time to open yourself to the world and fill your creative well, you will eventually run out of ideas. Kalman spends a lot of time simply wandering around when she visits other cities, observing, talking to strangers, walking into odd stores, taking pictures, thinking, inhaling the rich diversity of unfamiliar life. To many people it would appear that Kalman was meandering unproductively, wasting time, and avoiding actual work. But for her, spending a few hours immersed in a new community, processing all the sensory stimuli, is crucial fuel for her creative process. Without it, she would have none of her museum exhibitions, bestselling books, or iconic wristwatches.

A narrow range of input results in the same narrow range of output. I’ve often said about executives who spend their whole working lives hermetically sealed--getting into chauffeur-driven town cars, going into meetings in office buildings, and returning to those town cars and their own office buildings--that there is no way they can evaluate the originality of a new project or properly understand their customers if they exist only in that kind of bubble. In most fields, innovation needs to be informed and sometimes provoked by the unpredictable hurly-burly of messy, surprising real life.

Find more ways to increase your happiness and boost your creativity in the Fast Company newsletter.

From the Book, IT’S ALWAYS PERSONAL by Anne Kreamer. Copyright © 2012 by Anne Kreamer. Reprinted by arrangement with Random House, an imprint of The Random House Publishing Group, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved.

--Anne Kreamer is the author of Going Gray: What I Learned About Beauty, Sex, Work, Motherhood, Authenticity, and Everything Else That Really Matters, and is a former executive vice president and worldwide creative director at Nickelodeon. Kreamer has previously written for The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, Fast Company, Martha Stewart Living, and Real Simple and currently blogs for HarvardBusinessReview.org and NextAvenue.org. Kreamer graduated from Harvard College and lives in Brooklyn with her husband, the writer Kurt Andersen, and their two daughters.

[Image: Flickr user Luis Argerich]

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2 Comments

  • Zeina Issa

    Employers of choice are not only good at retaining talent and achieving a lower turnover rate, but also attracting the best people in the job market. Here is a three-step plan to help you show your employees that you truly care: http://goo.gl/TnQmip

  • Ara ohanian

    Anne, thanks for pointing out that happiness is both important for productivity and that is a group characteristic. Keeping a workforce happy is not about pandering to their whims rather, as you say, it is about developing a culture in which people can flourish where open, responsible comment is welcome. I discovered this some time ago and as the leader of an international technology company have focused on providing my employees with a great place to work. The result is increased performance, a better atmosphere, and a new title for me – Chief Happiness Officer and CEO.