Don’t Squelch Happiness

Posted by Laura Otten, Ph.D., Director on January 13th, 2012 in Articles, Thoughts & Commentary

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There’s a happy face on the cover of the current issue of the Harvard Business Review.  Never, ever thought I’d see that!  It’s the come-on for the issue’s theme:  happiness.  Here is HBR, in many people’s minds one of the premiere business journals, doing a whole on happiness in the workplace:  what makes people happy on the job, how happy employees work better, how happiness can increase the odds of being successful, how happy employees make for more profits, and more.

The idea is such a no-brainer, you have to wonder why people haven’t embraced it sooner.  Perhaps they were waiting for the data, which is now here in bulk.  Daniel Gilbert, social psychologist on Harvard’s faculty and author of Stumbling on Happiness, is interviewed in this issue of HBR.  He says, “I know of no data showing that anxious, fearful employees are more creative or productive.  … people are happiest when they’re appropriately challenged—when they’re trying to achieve goals that are difficult but not out of reach.”

Again, and not to impugn any of the scientists working to prove these statements true, as I always prefer to have scientific knowledge to back up my behavior and thinking, this is a “Duh!” moment and not an “Ah ha!” one.  Gretchen Spreitzer and Christine Porath, from the University of Michigan and Georgetown University respectively, have an article in this issue entitled, “Creating Sustainable Performance.”  They write,”Happy employees produce more than unhappy ones over the long term.  They routinely show up at work, they’re less likely to quit, they go above and beyond the call of duty, and they attract people who are just as committed to the job.”

So, why are so many nonprofit employees unhappy?  Because they work in environments that, and for bosses and with colleagues, who squelch “happiness.”  I don’t need to list or describe what this looks like; you know it.  You know it because either you’ve been unlucky enough to either have worked in or are currently experiencing such a workplace environment or you have a friend or family member who has experienced this lack of luck.  It is a work environment where it simply is not possible to thrive.

Spreitzer and Porath point out that happy employees are, in fact, thriving:  they are satisfied, productive and “engaged in creating the future.”  What employee wouldn’t want to feel satisfied, productive (because then you must be valued) and responsible not just for what has already been but for what has yet to occur?  In their vision of vitality, there are two components working simultaneously:  vitality and learning.  They point out four things that an employer can do to create a thriving work environment—and not one costs a dime!

  1. Give employees the discretion to make decisions.  Too tight a rein and you dampen vitality.  Uncomfortable with this seemingly open-ended invitation? There are tools for that!
  2. Share information throughout your organization, rather than dispensing it as if were something that needed to be earned to know.
  3. Love this one:  “minimize incivility.”  Truly, did we need scholars to tell us that working in an uncivil workplace isn’t a recipe for happy workers?
  4. Provide performance feedback.  Not the stuff formal stuff that comes with paperwork and formal meetings and is all too frequently, and wrongly, tied to compensation, but the small stuff, the good stuff—and the bad.

The trouble, too often, is that the folks who foster the type of workplace where employees cannot thrive—and be happy—are the very same people who lack self-awareness and objectivity, those who cannot take a step back and ask of themselves, let alone others, “How am I doing?” And, far too often again, these are the very same leaders whose boards do not do performance evaluations—and I am talking about the formal kind here.  These are the boards that have no to little clue as to what is happening in the workplace, the status of morale, the rate of turnover, etc.  And yet, these are the very same board members who have been, for the last three years, making decisions about whether to freeze or cut salaries, reduce hours, put programs on the shelf, and more.

To be honest, I am not terribly hopeful about the number of unaware rulers of their roosts waking up, board members suddenly seizing their rightful responsibilities.  So, let me complete the cycle and pass on Spreitzer’s and Porath’s tips that any and all of us should do to take control of and improve the quality of our worklives.

  1. Take breaks for renewal.  Not talking long, but long enough to break out of the mire, breath and come back a bit refreshed.  So, take a stroll, meditate, read something relaxing, do a crossword.  Heck, tweetfor five minutes or so!
  2. Take it into your own hands to make your work more meaningful; don’t sit around waiting for something to fall into your lap.
  3. Look for and seize those learning, growth opportunities.  Even in flat, small nonprofits, there are opportunities to step out of your comfort zone and do something different.
  4. Stick with the satisfying, energizing relationships at work; ditch the ones that take you down

I’ve written before about the body of research showing that a simple thank you or a small acknowledgement of a job done well rewards so many of us more than money.  I’ve written about Daniel Pink’s work revealing all of the research that shows that other things that have nothing to do with money—flexibility, the ability to be creative, independence—make for happier, more productive employees.  And yet, things don’t seem to change.

We don’t need money to make our employees happy.  (It doesn’t hurt, but there is so much more we can and should be doing.)  Gilbert, in his interview, notes the work of psychologist Ed Diener that has demonstrated that frequency of positive experiences is a better predictor of happiness than the intensity of those experiences.  So, how about we all just start being nicer to one another? 

The opinions expressed in Nonprofit University Blog are those of writer and do not necessarily reflect the opinion of La Salle University or any other institution or individual.