Why Can’t We All Be Happy at Work?

Although scientific support for the benefits of happiness is mounting, creating a happy and engaged culture requires a new kind of organizational learning.

Today we are at a crossroads in scientific management— advancing a strategic solution for leading organizational effectiveness and efficiency in a knowledge-driven economy. Recent management technologies, including Total Quality Management, Six Sigma, and Lean, have been successful in tangible settings, such as manufacturing. However, these technologies have been far less effective when applied to our intangible assets—primarily human motivation and behavior. We now face the critical challenge of effectively managing and enabling human beings; this is the path we must create for the next big pay-off in modern industry. Notably, current data suggest this is only possible if leaders and their organizations choose happiness.

In a recent study conducted in 142 countries, Gallup found that only 13 percent of employees worldwide are truly engaged in their jobs. These data couldn’t be more alarming and serve as a serious indictment of global workplace leadership; indeed, they call into question the most basic assumptions we tend to make about the practice of management. The report has more bad news: 63 percent of employees worldwide are not engaged in their jobs and an additional 24 percent are actively disengaged—these employees are miserable, and they come to work and spread their negativity toward others! Gallup estimates that active disengagement costs the U.S. alone more than $500 billion annually—hardly a figure to ignore. In 2008, I started talking in earnest to leaders around the world about the potential of positive psychology. Among other fascinating findings, this emerging science shows a clear connection between happiness and optimal performance for individual employees and their organizations.

A lot has happened in the field of positive psychology, and to me, since then. I have traveled to 50-plus countries and worked with more than a third of the Fortune 500, helping them connect the dots between happiness and success. Gallup’s 2013 State of the Global Workplace report revealed a stunning array of benefits for happy organizations, including higher customer ratings, profitability, and productivity, as well as lower turnover and absenteeism. Overall, organizations that put into practice what I’ve dubbed the Happiness Advantage are proof positive that a happy, engaged employee is the greatest competitive advantage in our modern economy.

Last year, I was invited to work alongside Training magazine to conduct research on the benefits of happiness in the workplace, using volunteers from the Training community, as well as employees being instructed in corporate classroom settings. We published the results last February, clearly showing that it is possible to raise happiness through training and positively affect business outcomes as a result.

However, despite rigorous science showing that happiness improves virtually every business outcome, a crucial question still remains:

Why is it so difficult for people to be happy at work? 

The reason happy cultures are difficult to build and sustain is twofold. First, organizations must change the prevailing social scripts that undermine positive environments and behaviors. Second, business priorities must demonstrate a real commitment to happiness as a strategy for success.

Unwritten Rules
Social scripts are unwritten rules that dictate how we behave when others are present. These are the cultural norms, good or bad, that determine the rules of engagement inside our organizations—they become institutionalized patterns of behavior. In some workplaces, the prevailing social scripts may influence employees to be “all business” during conversations at the water cooler and to focus on solving problems, thus, practically eliminating the role of emotions in the workplace. However, at some progressive organizations such as Zappos, CHG Healthcare, and Google, the social scripts are much different, encouraging employees to express positive emotions, be more socially invested in co-workers, and consequently more innovative in their job performance.

The typical social scripts of management sciences have made problem-solving the primary orientation inside many organizations (see Figure 1). In turn, employees learn to focus on problems: how to identify them, define them, research them, and solve them.

Although we must continue to find solutions to problems, our social scripts must balance this problem-focused approach with a simultaneous focus on creating positive workplace environments and emotions that foster optimal work performance (Figure 2).

Priority Check
Too often, managers are in no position to devote time and energy to developing a strategy based on positive psychology. They are overly busy, up against capacity limitations, facing aggressive deadlines, and have upper management breathing down their necks. Management at all levels must understand that the benefits of happiness in the workplace often take time. Indeed, when we focus on the long-term success of our organizations, we will find that a priority shift toward happiness is a firm foundation on which to build our future plans.

Here, we profile two organizations—Nationwide Brokerage Solutions (NBS) and T-Mobile—that are beginning to rewrite their social scripts and make happiness a top business priority. They have generously shared their journeys up to this point and how they plan to drive their happiness initiatives forward.

Happiness Journey: Nationwide Brokerage Solutions (NBS)
When Gary Baker became president of Nationwide Brokerage Solutions (NBS), he quickly began changing the course of the company culture to embrace the Happiness Advantage. We first featured Gary 12 months ago to learn about the NBS happiness journey. Now a year later, his team has seen a lot of change, including impressive growth, profitability, and staggering improvement in Gallup’s Q12 engagement scores. They also have seen the resolve required from senior management to keep the spirit of happiness alive. Recently, I spoke with Gary about some of the experiences and strategies at NBS as it effectively “doubles down” on its investment in happiness.

SA: Gary, how have you decided to capitalize on the Happiness Advantage for NBS?
GB: Last year, one of our biggest successes was our huddle boards. This is a daily work routine composed of several different activities such as sharing our goals for the day, reviewing the prior day’s activities, discussing new business items, and so on.

Into this routine we added a new practice of checking the team’s mood barometer and sharing our personal happiness levels right before starting the meeting. By adding this simple (and seemingly unnecessary) practice to this important business routine, everyone on the team began to see that happiness was a business priority for us. Also, they found a way to share positive emotions across the team and express care for each other, which has led to better teamwork, stronger social investment in others, and more positive social scripts inside NBS.

SA: What else have you done that has helped build momentum behind your happiness initiative?
GB: We created the Empowerment, Diversity, and Inclusion team to show organizational support for employees being happier and performing to their full potential. Creating a new team with this charter was a major shift for us; it was an actual change in our structure. This team came to symbolize to all of our associates that happiness was important to us as a business priority. Shifting the structure of the business went a long way toward showing people that how they behave and what they think really matters, as well as proving that this initiative is here to stay.

SA: You must have encountered some obstacles or frustrations along the way?
GB: Of course. When we conducted a first-year review, we found many opportunities where we could have done better: Many of the biggest wins for people never got reported; changes we made to support this effort weren’t recognized; natural pressures to revert to old social scripts weren’t confronted; and some people saw this as a faltering commitment. During this same period, we went through gut-wrenching changes to our business processes and were understaffed. Yet, we still had record financial results and the best improvement in engagement scores of any division, with significant improvement in 11 out of 12 categories. So we are going to push even harder this year to communicate and sustain the Happiness Advantage at NBS.

SA: So what’s in store this year?
GB: To start with, we have done extensive surveys to find out what practices worked well over the last year. We also asked our people to examine their work routines, which we analyzed to identify the ones that had the highest potential to improve happiness if we made them more positive, like we did with our huddle boards.

Also, we committed to systematically implementing our 2015 Happiness Playbook. We took into account more than 800 submissions of work routines and developed a host of “plays.” Each play is a team-developed combination of an existing work routine embedded with a “positive practice” designed to make work a more positive experience. We will run plays at regular intervals and then review the “game tapes” to evaluate each play’s effectiveness. This is quite a bit of work for us and a significant commitment of time, but we expect to learn a lot and reinforce our commitment to happiness as a business priority.

Happiness Journey: T-Mobile
In the fast-moving mobile marketplace, T-Mobile is a positive outlier. Last year, Jennifer Falkenberg and a few folks on her team from T-Mobile’s Customer Service Learning & Development group attended my keynote at the Training 2014 Conference. Among other things, I shared with the audience that we were continuing to advance the research on positive psychology in the workforce. Jennifer applied to be part of that research.

In her application, Jennifer suggested that happiness might be exactly what her organization needed as an enabler to deliver on T-Mobile’s Un-carrier promise to employees and customers. She saw happiness as the DNA in the “how” we achieve great results. T-Mobile’s mission is to revolutionize the wireless industry by providing its customers with simple, straightforward experiences—where others offer rules and restrictions. I recently spoke with Jennifer to find out how her happiness initiative was affecting progress at T-Mobile.

SA: What originally inspired you to want to be part of our research project?
JF: After listening to your talk at Training 2014 and reading your article in the January/February 2014 issue of Training, I saw a connection between two complementary initiatives at T-Mobile. As a bold company with a fresh attitude, we’re not like any other wireless company, and we’re proud of that. We’re changing the game in the wireless industry and how we play in it. The first connection was to Un-carrier—this is our CEO’s determination to upend our efforts in mobile and refocus on “what matters most to our customers” by changing wireless for the better. Simply put, we’re all about the customer. Tying the Happiness Advantage to Un-carrier fits nicely with the focus on the experience of the customer and the employee.

The second connection was that of a new mindset that unleashes our Un-carrier promise—“How We Play”—how we achieve results and do business. Like your message about happiness, both initiatives are based on simple principles that make sense, but nonetheless things get in the way. We felt if we could research how to deploy happiness to drive Un-carrier and fuel our How We Play culture, we could advance both missions simultaneously.

SA: In terms of the connection between happiness and your Un-carrier initiative, what has transpired to date?
JF: For starters, we needed to build the right support among our leadership team to ensure that the Happiness Advantage principles resonated with our culture and could gain traction through a clear connection to our business agenda. So far, we have run multiple sessions to test these new ideas with various leaders, and the feedback has been tremendous. Unfortunately, it feels like we are moving slower than I thought we would.

SA: To what do you attribute this slower progress?
JF: There are a few reasons. First, our Un-carrier moves in the marketplace take precedence over most anything we do, which causes us to constantly rethink and reprioritize our day-to-day business activities, so there is an issue balancing time, bandwidth, and resources. I also have my “real” job, which is running a Training organization that supports more than 10,000 employees. That, as you can imagine, requires a majority of my time and focus. So what little bandwidth I have left goes toward special initiatives such as spearheading our happiness initiative and championing the research. Needless to say, there’s not much left in my tank when I get to those things.

The second is clarifying the connection between the Happiness Advantage and our business initiatives. People seem to intuitively “get it” in our workshops. I mean, it’s happiness— what’s not to get? Our challenge, which I’m sure is not unique to T-Mobile, is how do you easily articulate the direct connection of happiness to business initiatives? We can articulate why happiness is important abstractly, but getting people to clearly see the connection as they decide business priorities day-to-day on the firing line is not ingrained.

SA: Have you found solutions or strategies that you are using?
JF: Leading from the front! As an organizational leader and L&D professional, my tendency is to focus on what I can do to lead change in my organization. One of the “ahas” I walked away from the workshop with was that I need to lead by example first, and my organization will change later as a result. At T-Mobile, we decided we needed to keep the pressure on, so we chartered a team that will lead by example to organize and sustain the rollout. For example, we’ve created a new social script around taking time to eat lunch. I know, it’s basic, but how many folks really take lunch? Sitting at your desk combing through hundreds of e-mails while shoveling food into your mouth doesn’t count. Our team is taking steps to usher in this new social script, and we are all visibly taking lunch breaks. Most importantly, it’s not about telling people they need to take lunch so they’ll be happier, it’s about getting caught taking a lunch break and not feeling guilty about it. And if I can demonstrate to those around me that it’s OK to take a lunch break, then eventually, they’ll start doing it, too.

We are beginning to realize that even simple solutions can take time to implement. We must be patient. Our CEO once said, “We’ll know we are doing something right when others start to copy us.” This Happiness Advantage is a movement, and a movement needs some time to gain momentum to be successful. Like Un-carrier, this isn’t about defining a finish line, it’s about becoming part of our DNA—it’s about infusing Happiness Advantage as part of our business leadership. We are starting to see some of this happen internally on our happiness journey as employees observe and hear about the benefits of our first test groups; they want to know what those groups did so they can do the same.

If Happiness Is a Business Strategy, Treat It Like One

  • Visible action taken to address damaging social scripts. This involves writing new ones that advocate and promote the link between happiness and success at work, as well as visibly removing social scripts that do not.
  • Patience for happiness to take root and support for organic, employee-driven growth within the organization.
  • Embedding individual and organizational work routines with positive practices to create positive emotional experiences at work.
  • A willingness to create space and structure for happiness to live, especially for new teams and necessary time commitments.
  • Senior management visibly supporting and learning about the benefits of the Happiness Advantage. They must walk the talk!
  • Widespread, visible communications to convey that change is happening. Painting the walls is a simple and direct way to broadcast this message (see the Nationwide Insurance sidebar on p. 112 for more detail).
  • Systems in place to spread the learning. In addition to formal training systems, consider implementing coaching, mentoring, or organized volunteer programs.

Ongoing Research Directions for Happiness at Work
There are many exciting possibilities on the horizon to assist organizations in creating a new, happy culture for their employees. I believe the most promising approach is to focus on how we do business each day. By targeting our most important work routines and embedding more positivity into them, we move beyond talking about happiness and into making it a generative, powerful force at work.

Recall the example Nationwide’s Gary Baker gave us. His employees had an existing, daily work routine: the huddle board. Broken down into individual parts, this work routine is composed of several different practices. Gary and his team decided to introduce a specific “positive practice” to the routine, which made this part of the workday a more positive experience.

Through our research efforts, we intend to determine whether different types of work routines are better than others for creating positive emotional experiences, depending on which types of positive practices are combined with them. For example, sharing a humorous story as part of a “team routine” in which everybody is well acquainted with one another may be much more appropriate and effective than sharing that same story as part of a “client routine” in which a more formal tone of discourse is expected.

To this end, in collaboration with Training, we recently asked volunteers from the Training community to categorize their work routines according to which people are involved in them. Survey participants did this by choosing one or more of the following categories for each of their work routines: one team, multiple teams, employees ranked above or below one another (cross-level), other organizations, customers/clients, or just one person doing the routine alone.

Our survey also gave participants an opportunity to choose which practices they thought would make the biggest positive impact on their work routines. Some of the most popular practices among our survey respondents were taking a short walk, sharing media (e.g., TED talks, songs, quotes of day), and giving/receiving recognition for a job well done.

In future research, we will test whether certain positive practices are more effective than others based upon work routine frequency. For example, giving a small gift may work perfectly well in a quarterly routine, but would be burdensome in a daily routine.

In addition, we are interested in the long-term relationship between work routines and social scripts. If we successfully instill positivity into a few of our work routines now, will it change our social scripts over time? Furthermore, will these changed social scripts facilitate integration of bolder positive practices that would not have been previously acceptable? Perhaps organizations can use the concept of Zorro Circles (gaining momentum through fast, small wins) to get an early competitive lead in harnessing the science of happiness in their culture change efforts. Building off of this early lead, these organizations will be more capable of accelerating positive change in the future.

Ultimately, our research aims to make happiness a deeply embedded component of daily life at work. This approach ensures that organizational commitments to happiness are sustainable and demonstrate real change to employees. We’ll continue to publish our latest research results in future issues of Training magazine.

We stand on the verge of what may well be the biggest opportunity in the history of modern industry. By capitalizing on the science of happiness, employees at all levels can help their organizations become more successful than ever and enjoy the well-being that accompanies high engagement and job satisfaction. Senior leaders who choose happiness, and make the required commitment, stand to create organizations that learn how to optimize the benefits of positive emotions and have this learning spread throughout their organizations and outward to their customers. This marks an opportunity not just to make companies more profitable, but to make the world a happier place.

Profile: Nationwide Insurance
After starting as a sales offering at the Nationwide Sales Academy, the Happiness Advantage Orange Frog training is now in demand at other areas of the company, as well. Senior consultant Julie Hoover has shifted from the Sales Training organization to the Sales Talent Development area of the Nationwide Academy to meet this demand and provide broader strategic focus to the happiness effort. Before this, Hoover described the unorthodox manner in which she was able to get the happiness initiative started: She carried an orange frog up and down in the building elevator and encouraged others to ask questions about her new training initiative. This strategy resulted in enough employee interest for executive leadership to fund the effort.

Since then, Hoover has taken note of the obstacles she needed to overcome to sustain the new happiness strategy. “It just takes time for people to believe that the happiness advantage is something more than a fad,” she says. “Our early adopters helped create a groundswell that changed how people perceived this initiative. This led to a tipping point within various units in our organization and within our organization as a whole. For example, Gary Baker’s team provided a model that inspired many leaders to ‘buy-in.’” Once other leaders saw the results of a sustained commitment to happiness, it became easier for them to make a commitment, as well.

“One group led by an AVP formed its own team and created its own Happiness Mission, its own Yammer site, and was even able to get the company to agree to repaint the walls on three floors of its corporate office to reflect that team’s brand of happiness on those floors.

“Employees also needed to see the link between the training workshops and our overall business strategy,” Hoover adds. “We continued to articulate that connection until it finally started to catch on.”

And catch on it did! Hoover now helps oversee the rollout of a happiness training that is in high demand. “Over the last 60 days, I have had more than 700 requests for the Orange Frog training,” she notes. “Keep in mind, this is genuine interest—not people being pushed into a class. Now we are answering the phone every day and planning for potentially another 1,000 associates wanting to go through the training in 2015. We are developing our Orange Frog Facilitation team and adding resources to support this delivery as we look forward to spreading more Orange across the Nationwide business.”

Profile: T-Mobile
For Jennifer Falkenberg, each day is a balance between handling the business pressures of leading a Training department and focusing on initiatives such as building a happiness advantage inside of T-Mobile.

“There are numerous trade-offs you must make daily,” she admits. To assist with this challenge, Falkenberg recently brought a new training team on board. “I am hoping this will give us the capacity we need to focus on deploying happiness through training,” she says. “We also have chartered a team to guide the implementation of our happiness initiative.”

An important strategy for carrying the Happiness Advantage forward in any organization is clarifying the connection between happiness and business priorities. For Falkenberg’s team, extra measures were taken to drive this point home. “We drafted an operational charter to explain the connection between the Happiness Advantage and T-Mobile’s business initiatives,” she explains. “To ensure consistency, all members of the team have it memorized. It reads: We are driving Un-carrier from the inside out by embedding happiness into our DNA—to create a T-Mobile where customers rejoice, employees thrive, and we change the industry forever. I love how the charter points to happiness as the way T-Mobile will make a game-changing impact on the world.”

In the midst of implementing a happiness initiative, many organizations collect data and track their progress to uncover the impact happiness makes on engagement and performance. “We’re tracking metrics and collecting evidence that will give us an empirical basis to support this charge,” Falkenberg says. “Over time, I think the numbers will speak for themselves. Right now, everyone involved in this new initiative agrees that happiness really does make a difference in our lives—at home and at work, too.”

Shawn Achor spent 12 year at Harvard University, winning more than a dozen distinguished teaching awards, before traveling to 50-plus countries bringing his positive psychology research to more than one-third of the Fortune 100. He is the author of The New York Times best-selling books “The Happiness Advantage” and “Before Happiness,” as well as his popular business parable, “The Orange Frog.” His research on happiness has made the cover of Harvard Business Review, and his TED talk is one of the most popular of all time with more than 8 million views.

To participate in future research on workplace happiness, write to research@ithoughtleader.com.

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