Do Leaders Need to Make Employees Happy?

For the second year in a row, 84 percent of American workers intend to actively look for a new job, according to new research by Right Management. Workplace incivility is also on the rise.  According to research presented at the 2011 American Psychological Association annual meeting, up to 80 percent of workers have experienced incivility.   Workers are struggling and have been for some time.  In 2009, The Conference Board published a report with the subtitle “America’s Unhappy Workers.”   The report concluded that employee satisfaction was at its lowest point since The Conference Board began surveying it more that 20 years ago.

The good news is that it doesn’t have to be this way. Leaders can develop workplace cultures that engage people. Engaging people makes them happy because they benefit from the positive emotions that come from being productive, learning and growing and working together with others to accomplish something of value.  This is what the Greek’s described as eudaimonia, the joy that we experience when we do good work.  The other type of happiness is hedonia.  It comes from pleasurable experiences such as when we see a beautiful sunset or enjoying a great meal. Leaders need to create work cultures where people experience eudiamonia. That’s the type of happiness that affects employee engagement, productivity and innovation.

Here’s another way to think it it.  There are three types of workplace cultures: Dog-Eat-Dog Cultures, Indifferent Cultures (cultures that are indifferent to people and treat them as human doings), and “Connection Cultures” where people experience eudiamonia because they feel connected to their organization’s identity (i.e. mission, values and reputation), they feel connected to their colleagues and supervisor, and they feel connected to their role in the organization (because it fits their strengths and provides the right degree of challenge).

Connection is the force that transforms a dog-eat-dog culture into a sled dog team that pulls together. Without going too far into the psychology of connection, let me just summarize by saying simply that we are humans, not machines. We have emotions. We have hopes and dreams. We have a conscience. We have deeply felt human needs to be respected, to be recognized for our talents, to belong, to have autonomy or control over our work, to experience personal growth, and to do work that we feel is worthwhile in a way that we feel is ethical. When we work in an environment that recognizes these realities of our human nature, we thrive. We feel more energetic, more optimistic, and more fully alive. When we work in an environment that fails to recognize this, it is damaging to our mental and physical health.

And when you think about it, that makes sense. Let’s consider how this plays out in the workplace. When we first meet people, we expect them to respect us. If they look down on us, if they are uncivil or condescending, we get upset. In time, as our colleagues get to know us, we expect them to appreciate or recognize us for our talents and contributions. That really makes us feel good. Later on, we begin to expect that we will be treated and thought of as an integral part of the community. Our connection to the group is further strengthened when we feel we have control over our work. Connection is diminished when we feel we are being micro-managed or over-controlled by others. If we are over-controlled, it sends the message that we are being treated like children or incompetents, and it’s a sign that we are not trusted or respected. Connection is also enhanced when we experience personal growth. In other words: when our role, our work in the group, is a good fit with our skills, providing enough challenge to make us feel good when we rise to meet that challenge (but not so much challenge that we become totally stressed out). Finally, it motivates us to know our work is worthwhile in some way and to be around other people who share our belief that our work is important. To the extent that these human needs of respect, recognition, belonging, autonomy, personal growth and meaning are met, we feel connected to the group. When they are not met, we feel less connected, or even disconnected.

The bottom line is that connection plays a critical part in improving individual performance. People who are more connected with others fare better in life than those who are less connected. Connection, because it meets our human needs, makes people more trusting, more cooperative, more empathetic, more enthusiastic, more optimistic, more energetic, more creative and better problem solvers. It creates the type of environment in which people want to help their colleagues.They are more open to share information that helps decision makers become better-informed. The openness that emerges in a trusting and cooperative environment creates a robust marketplace of ideas that stimulates innovation. Connection among people improves performance in an organization and creates a new source of competitive advantage.

To learn more about connection cultures and employee engagement, listen to this podcast interview Jason Pankau and I did before we spoke at the M.D. Anderson Cancer Center. You can hear the interview at this link.

Update: In May, I’ll be speaking on the topic “Do Leaders Need to make Employee Happy?” in Denver at the annual conference of the American Society for Training and Development (ASTD). In addition, I’ve contributed a chapter to the soon to be published ASTD Handbook on Management edited by Lisa Haneberg who writes the Management Craft blog.

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