Happy Workplaces? Really?

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Happy WorkplaceIs it really possible to create workplace conditions that lead to employee happiness? Each person’s happiness is triggered based on unique conditioning, the person’s distinctive experiences and beliefs, so there’s rarely a single set of environmental factors that lead to happiness across a group. Positive emotions are vital for peak performance, but the best way to engender them is by influencing primal emotions and helping employees self-manage emotions.

Happiness is a high-level cognitive emotion that is shaped by each person’s unique experience and learning. Such cognitions are located within higher neocortical brain regions and are linked to the programming of each individual’s development. It’s not feasible to create an environment in which everyone is happy, because each person’s experiences and learning are different. For example, you can create an environment in which decision making is participative, and some people will be happy to have influence on decisions, but others will be frustrated with the time it takes.

Instead of happiness, we can target more primal emotions that represent the raw emotions that we all have in common. They arise from the very ancient lower regions of the brain and are inherited rather than created by lived experiences. We can help people quell their “fear” emotional system by teaching them to self-manage their emotions through stress reduction techniques that engender positivity. Also, we can stimulate positive emotional systems somatically, via the body, through rhythmic breathing, spontaneous play, and deep laughter. These techniques can easily be deployed in a team. Positive emotional systems can be also be stimulated by giving people the opportunity to seek happiness (or whatever they want to seek).

A recent Harvard Business Review article contends that we need to create workplaces that make employees happy so they will be more productive. I respect the concern for employee well-being, and I agree that positive emotion leads to higher performance, but I don’t believe you can make an organization happy. You can create “healthy” or “high performing” organizations that most people will like. But if you say you’re creating a “happy” workplace, people will expect to be happy and some won’t be, and it will lead to frustration.

As we learn more from science about the incredible power of group emotions, we see reasons to adopt techniques beyond the ordinary. For more on shaping team emotions to increase creativity and performance, get notified of the upcoming book Primal Teams: Harnessing the Incredible Power of Group Energy or sign up for a monthly summary of articles.


About the Author:

Jackie Barretta is a thought leader sharing ideas on how to create a more just and peaceful world. She is also a CIO, and in this role she has led large organizations with hundreds of employees through challenging times and major transformations.
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  1. Stephen Schele  April 21, 2013

    I agree with you, Jackie; I too used to attempt in vain to make everyone like their jobs; I realize now was my own tacit measure of my performance as a manager. And I learned several things already revealed by research. One is that people quickly integrate and accept as ordinary the positive things, yet they reject and remain disdainful of things they dislike. Generally speaking, ay explicit attempts to make people happy at work eventually have amplified reactions of dissatisfaction.

    “Happy” is subjective, relative and ambiguous. Instead, I have come to use the term “healthy” work environment; – it’s up to the employee to become happy within it. After all, if someone is not happy in a marriage, in friendships, in a living situation, in a career selection, etc. I cannot assume responsibility to assure he is happy at work. However, I know what practices, structures and resources constitute a healthy work environment and I hold myself accountable for assuring it. (Then I’m happy, at least.)

  2. Glen Fahs  April 22, 2013

    In the book Happiness is a Serious Problem, the three keys are: 1) Meaningful work (tied to one’s values),
    2) Healthy relationships at home and work, and 3) Seeing the glass as half full, not half empty.
    Leaders can influence those three . Having everyone be happy all of the time is a totally unrealistic goal and may lead to laxness since discipline, change and conflict (necessary) may be short-term barriers to happiness. While I agree with your analysis, Jackie, my recommendation is that we shoot for engagement rather than satisfaction. Substantially contributing to a vibrant organization with good values/ethics is a path that increases the chances of happiness but adds value to even unhappy people and those they serve.

  3. Joy Abdullah  May 6, 2013

    Happiness is an emotion. If that parameter is accepted, then as human beings, each one of us are individually responsible for our happiness. That, in itself, is an attitudinal issue.
    It’s an issue of how positive or negative we are in our mental make up when we approach daily life. If the outlook is one of cynicism and negativatiy then no amount of participation and engagement would make this kind of employee happy. If the outlook is one of positivity, looking at challenges and obstacles as a learning scenario, then satisfaction level of self-performance would be high and as a result there would be happiness.
    Within this set up, comes in an organisation’s engagement program for its staff. Echoing Jackie (and I agree with her) the organisation’s aim is to be a high performing one and the process sets a climate thats “healthy’ ie participative, engaging etc.
    But to be happy (either at workplace) or in one’s own personal life, is in our own abilities as individuals.

  4. Thomas Robertson  May 6, 2013

    Jackie, I like your term “coherence”. If I understand you correctly, coherence implies an alignment of our whole selves, the primal with the rest of us. I think we both agree that fighting the primal is just pitting yourself against Mother Nature in a losing battle!

    I see another opportunity for a “coherence” between ourselves and our work. When we line up who we are with what we do, powerful things can happen. Poet David Whyte calls this “wholeheartedness”. Each of us as individuals has a personal responsibility in making this happen; however, leaders can play a role in this, as well.

  5. Peter Hunter  May 6, 2013

    Happiness is a choice that people make for themselves.
    We cannot make them happy in the same way that we cannot make people fall in love.
    What we can do is create the environment in which they will choose to be happy, or choose to engage or choose to fall in love.

    Emotions are about the choices that we are allowed to make as individuals in reaction to the environment we perceive.

    As managers we have control over the working environment, each individual will make their own choice, in their own time about how they react to the environment we create.

    If we get it right the workforce might even choose to be happy, get it wrong and whoever is in control of the working environment is responsible for the fact that few choose to be happy.

    Peter A Hunter

  6. Luis Velasquez  May 6, 2013

    Jackie, I totally agree with you. I am a very happy person, and I truly believe that happiness comes from within and most importantly it can be synthesized. In other words, happiness is a state of mind and in my case it is governed simply by my mind.(for more check the research of Dan Gilbert from Harvard) Having said that, most organizations provide what they provide with the sole intent to make people more productive. I think that the word happiness is being confused with satisfaction/perks/ or whatever else you might want to call it. At the end of the day all of the perks, benefits, etc are aimed to have a more productive workforce. The most engaged employees are the most productive employees. Please notice that I didn’t say, the happiest employees or even the most satisfied employees. Satisfaction, happiness, benefits etc are drivers of engagement which is ultimately what companies are seeking, an employee that goes the extra mile (work) and is proud of working for the company (Affiliation),

  7. Kimberly Kniveton  May 6, 2013

    Agree that positive emotions in the workplace lead to higher performance and that happiness is subjective, however, a focus on a ‘happy’ or positive workplace as being ‘better’ in one way disregards the power of unpleasant emotions in the workplace – that are just as valid. Each emotion carries a message – that, when we are able to read the message – give us great wisdom. While joy (some may call happy??) is a signal that things are going the way we want them to and gives us energy to move forward, anger also gives us great wisdom…that something is in the way or my way is blocked. When we recognise the message of anger we can actually focus more, creating clearer priorities and creating positive energy for change.

  8. Tariq Masood  May 6, 2013

    Hi Jackie – I humbly agree, happiness lies at the core of being but certainly differs in degree from person to person.

    I do understand your views that, with regards to corporate culture, its not a state of mind that one could establish easily. In organizational hierarchy, personal egos and power plays cannot be ruled out. That perhaps is the main reason why people maintain defensive postures and a great deal of effort is involved in team-building endeavors.

    When it comes to issues which impact the bottom line of any company, I have no trouble pointing out to the boss (whether I am consulting or training staff) on the inner dynamics of his company and how employees are reacting to power play. In one instance my advice was duly noticed and the sales figures jumped from 10M to 12M.

    What I submitted was simply that a sense of fulfillment can be established, provided, if we are willing to see the benefits.

    If happiness is at the core as a primeval instinct, then it is not a destination that we could get to. Because we are already there 🙂

  9. Merooj Aghazarian  May 16, 2013

    On Harvard business school article:
    It is a childlike simplification of wisdom of the east (Bhutan’s GNH) ,-Kindness, equality, humanity, pursue of economic growth- which is outcome of whole life, to chopped up managerial style root cutting manual, by attempting to squeeze in happiness (whole) into work (part). It is like trying to figure out quantum physics with Newtonian.
    Work is part of life, and workplace is part of places we spend life.
    Happy work is one side of happiness coin, and other side is personal happiness.
    Regardless of efforts to make work and workplace pleasurable, engaging, and meaningful, if equal or more attention and resources are not paid to personal lives of employees, same results in productivity and efficiency will occur (or worse), and company will grow rigid and venerable to break.
    Stress management, gender positivity, breathing technique, deep laughter, spontaneous play are excellent ideas. but unleash the genius of employees, is a deeper personal/intimate matter.
    But how can a company deal with all employee personal lives/problems?
    By taking big worry/anxiety/stress weight off their shoulders.
    By seminars/workshops in life education/problems, hard to find answers to, in company manual.
    By providing abundance of opportunities for self expression of employees, related to company or not.
    or how can a company provide room for personal genius to blossom?-
    By providing one hour a week one to one/private consultation (not from company) for each employee

  10. Marc Bridgham  June 23, 2013

    There have been times in my OD career when I’ve seen the practice or practitioners veer awfully close to something, under the guise of engagement, involvement, etc.you might call “happy sweatshops”. I also wonder if the “cool” tech firms that have people working long hours with all kinds of environmental enhancements aren’t also sometime a veer toward a happy sweatshop. The happy sweatshop meter is a kind of barometer for me on what I’m doing and why in an intervention.

  11. Jackie Barretta  June 23, 2013

    Marc, that wasn’t my point with the article, but I think your point is valid. I hear you saying it’s a broader issue with “engaged” workplaces in general. Interesting!

  12. Marc Bridgham  June 23, 2013

    Thanks, Jackie, and I really didn’t mean to imply that that was your point – I should have said so in my post. I strongly agree with the idea in general that “happiness” or “happy” employees is not the best pursuit for the reasons you describe. In the work I do we gravitate toward “commitment” meaning the voluntary use of discretionary energy. While it has some of the same issues as happiness, i.e. based on individual perception. There is research which demonstrates there are environmental factors which increase the PROBABILITY that a person will volunteer that discretionary energy – and they are not related to happiness. And therefore there are conscious design, process and policy decisions that can be made that consciously build an environment that taps into those factors.

    I have had a client who although they agreed with me about happiness as a desirable end state, really felt it was an understandable and short-hand word/way to get leaders and people thinking about engagement and engagement approaches. They framed the “happiness” discussion, not in terms of transitory individual feelings of happiness, but rather “we want you to be happy about coming here to work”.

  13. Abigail G.  July 19, 2013

    Nice article Jackie! I agree with your surmise that everyone cannot be ‘made happy’ at the workplace. The reasons you gave to support your point of view were also effective.

    We’re all unique and what triggers our respective happiness quotient, can vary drastically. That having been said, I personally commend employers who is state publicly that they’re attempting to make workers happy. It tells me that they at least care to try.


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