3 steps to happiness (at work)

July 15, 2016   ·  

I arrived at a company head office recently for a meeting and as I walked into reception I was aware of a sticker on the floor in front of me... It said SMILE... my next step, another sticker, SMILE...

My next SMILE.... Every step I took was SMILE, SMILE, SMILE, SMILE... All the way to reception, when I looked up there was a big banner… as the banner informed me, it was Wellbeing Day.

Here was a company trying to demonstrate its commitment to wellbeing on a particular day - as it transpired, what it meant was that every member of staff got an hour off to do something fun!

Now it sounds like a great idea, and I’m sure that everyone appreciated the effort but it isn’t necessarily the demonstration of commitment to happiness and wellbeing that firms should be showing if they want to have the kind of culture and returns from it that we all talk so much about.

How to get the very best from your people is a question that almost all firms ask themselves constantly - what they do about it though is a very mixed bag and like everything in life, if you’re serious about it it’s worth doing properly.

Happiness has become a bit of cause for us because we can see and it’s been proven that pretty much everything good that we want to happen in our companies comes from happier employees. Let me just remind you of what happens when we focus on happiness:

It’s a set of benefits worth pursuing.

What’s more interesting to us, is that what we can say based upon the data that supports those benefits… is that happiness can be considered a proxy for performance.

I often write about why we should focus on happiness but this time I’m going to talk about how to start developing happiness in your company.

Now there are three steps to happiness…

(if you’re of a certain age, you might be imagining a certain Eddie Cochran song here… me too)

  1. Start measuring it
  2. Create the conditions for it
  3. Encourage positivity

Start Measuring It

They say that what gets measured gets done.

Most companies still have very limited insights into mood, happiness, engagement and their relationship to performance - annual surveys are always going to be unreflective of whats happening in your business and normally so far out of date that taking action based upon the results is difficult - we rationalise results... "we’ve already done something here, let's wait 'til next year to evaluate the impact".

I posed this question in a meeting last week with the CEO of a large US-based technology firm. I asked him how much he spent on understanding happiness or mood of the employees in his company. He smiled, shrugged and said...

“I spend $1.9bn on wages each year… the only thing I get on that is one annual engagement report that is 6 months out of date by the time I get it"

If we’re serious about unlocking the human potential inside companies then we have to understand what drives mood, what drives happiness and how what we do affects the performance of our people on a daily basis.

To that end, we’ve built some simple tracking technology that helps companies do just that. A real-time analysis tool, enabling us to see what happens to happiness at different times of the day, around key events or routines in our work-lives and in different teams. We believe that this insight will help companies to unlock the latent performance potential in their people.

But measuring it is only part of it…

We need to create conditions for happiness…so let’s explore that for a moment

What drives happiness in people is a mixture of things - some of it is your DNA or genes, some is the environment you've come from and some about the choices that you make along the way. There is both short-term happiness (pleasure oriented) and long-term (satisfied with life) happiness. We're really playing across both trying to understand what drives us to perform at our best and deliver the best outcomes when at work (in your company).

We describe 5 conditions being critical for happiness at work.

That what we do is about much more than making money - what value do we offer to society, what good do we do for our customers, what impact do we have on our community (however we define it).

That the values of our company align to my own. And that I understand how what I do contributes to what this business is doing in the wider sense.

That I believe that the people running this business care about the long-term as well as the short term performance of this company. That they act like stewards for the future. That they think about us as employees as much as or even more than themselves.

We also need to believe that we can act inside our business without fear. Back to what makes us happy, if every time we raise our heads to raise a problem/or a solution we get hit in the head - that will create the kind of association in our minds (a chemical one) that will eventually override our desire to do so.

One example of this - trust in a group comes from those shared values, beliefs and worldview if you like that we can function safely with each other - like a tribe. How do we recruit? Mostly still from a skills perspective… so the conversation goes broadly like this “here are our values, we’d expect you to live these… now tell me what you can do?"

Disney, with a clear purpose of “Creating Happiness”, recruit for people with higher happiness indicators. Their belief is that if they recruit happy people, then it’s a lot easier to train them to do stuff rather than raise their happiness and training them.

We create most organisational structures with control in mind - how do I manage other people to do the work? What if we change the way we think about this so that it becomes an inverted pyramid? Rather than managing people to do my work, we support them to do their work.

When we work in supportive environments - where our managers coach us rather than tell us what to do, we’re less likely to fear them and more likely to take responsibility for our own performance.

When we’re appreciated, recognised for our efforts and our achievements those same chemicals than drive anxiety when we’re fearful, diminish and are replaced by the positive, happy chemicals that make us feel good about ourselves and our environment.

We need to design workspaces that feel better to be in, but that also support the work we do.

And we need to recognise that we aren’t machines - we need both time to connect socially and slack time - therefore the work environment includes a degree of flexibility and becomes more outcomes oriented. The notion that we can all turn up to work for 8 hours and sit and do work for the entirety of it is nonsense - we all work in cycles that ebb and flow through the day.

And… how many companies still promote people based upon them being best at the job? The answer is loads. What makes you good technically doesn’t make you a good manager. Good managers score much higher for things like empathy - naturally caring about others. Wouldn’t it make more sense to keep people who are really good at their job doing the job (and rewarding them accordingly with things other than people reporting to them), and get the people who care about others doing the job of leading teams?

Every adult human being wants to have some control over themselves.

We trust people to turn up to work everyday without instruction, you managed to get in your own car not someone else’s, and drive it and park it without needing to be told how to. Yet when we get to work, we’re still told how to do every single aspect of it.

This is one of the biggest problems for the next generation coming to work, they experience levels of autonomy and freedom towards the end of their education before arriving at work and realising that it isn’t how it’s going to be from here on. They’re asking almost immediately - "is this it?"

But let me tell you a story about the power of happier people that operate with autonomy.

Here’s an interesting fact… the entirety of Disneyland in California can fit in the carpark of Disney World in Orlando. For those that have been there, you’ll no doubt recall that you park in a zone with a different character… Mickey - 60 for example. The shuttle comes and picks you up and the staff tell you repeatedly that they picked you up from Mickey - 60 through 65… ladies and gentlemen, remember you are parked in Mickey 60-65.

And what happens at the end of the day? Of course, people come out of the parks and can’t remember where they parked. They sometimes can’t remember what they’re driving - it’s a hire car… so staff at Disney found themselves driving their guests around the carpark trying to stimulate a memory or recognition until they could find the car.

So the staff took it upon themselves to fix it - they recognised that "it isn’t our fault (remember we told you 15 times), but it is our problem”. So they came up with a great idea. They drew a map on a piece of paper and they noted what time people were parking in different zones. When guests were leaving the park and couldn’t remember where they’d parked, the staff asked them, “what time did you and your family arrive this morning?”… “well you know, we left the hotel at 9am, so we probably got here 9.30-9.45”. “OK great, you’re probably parked somewhere between Mickey 60 and 70 - let’s take you out there and see if we can help you find it"

I understand that Disney have now developed technology that helps them log just this data - marginally more advanced than the piece of paper the staff were using but it was a problem that was recognised and dealt with by the people that work there.

Ask yourself how close you are to having this kind of culture - and whether it’s your own need for control (for whatever reason) that prevents you from creating the conditions for this kind of autonomy.

We all want to feel as though we’re developing as a human being. That we’re picking up new skills, new experiences, that we’re becoming an expert in something.

But our workplaces don’t mirror our normal lives in this regard any more. We’ve become accustomed to sending people on training courses once or twice a year and considering that a box ticked.

How do you learn new things in normal life - if you cook something new, you follow a recipe… you read about it, maybe watch a video about it and then you try it. You may always use that recipe that becomes a little more familiar every time, until you don’t need it anymore - you don’t go on a course for a day and be expected to remember it forever.

Developing us at work needs to become much more like this - self-directed learning, combining media (videos, books, notes, watching others, practicing) but little and often towards our own version of mastery.

Building our expertise like this fulfils our need for recognition, for leadership (even if that isn’t in any formal hierarchical way) - that we can be the expert on something and that makes us feel good. It might be that we need to encourage people to do the things that they really want to outside work - learning a musical instrument, or a new language. The development process is great for us and helps us to fulfil a fundamental need.

So the last of my three things - we need to encourage positivity.

You can all probably spot the connection with positivity and some of the conditions I’ve already talked about… but this goes a bit further than the organisation doing stuff to make people feel happier.

One of the problems I’ve observed in engagement programmes is they seem to major on what the company needs to do to make me engaged… "it’s your objective, here’s how you can achieve it… make me engaged".

When we talk about happiness, it’s also about me. Whilst the company I work for need to create the conditions for my happiness (they can easily undermine my own efforts), happiness is something that I can make a personal choice about.

When we practice positivity, trying to see the good in things. Being grateful for what we have. Appreciating other people. Taking responsibility for our own mood, our actions and their effect on others… and actively try to be happier, then we can be.

So, how can we do this?

There are lots of ways. You can start by noticing what affects your mood and choosing your reaction to it. You could journal - if you spend 2-3 minutes each day writing about your day with a positive slant - for example - I write everyday three good things that happened today. Or 3 things that I’m grateful for. there are literally dozens of techniques… (and our happiness tracker includes a journalling platform for this very reason…) but when we do it regularly we can establish new habits and start to rewire our brains to see life more positively.

You might also start by simply smiling a little more often…

It's hard to do this alone, but imagine how powerful it could be if the companies we work for placed importance on collective positivity - not brainwashing, but really encouraging our employees to understand what makes them happy, how they can influence it and providing the tools and environment in which to practice being more positive.

And it needn't be just about businesses. At Bradon Forest School, a secondary in Wiltshire, assistant headteacher Julie Hunter introduced a happiness programme a year ago after noticing how many of her pupils lacked self-esteem and confidence.

“No matter what they did, it wasn’t good enough,” she says. Hunter completed the University of California’s Science of Happiness course and wrote a programme for teachers and pupils based on “making them happier as human beings”.

The school has since adopted one key idea each term – grit, growth mindset or resilience, for instance – and explored it through assemblies, tutor groups and one-on-one sessions. Pupils might be taught to notice their feelings, or teachers might play calming music in class. Change has been noticeable, says Hunter.

“Whereas in the past the students would say, 'I’m really stressed,’ now they’re able to say, 'I need to talk about this,’ or, 'I need to stop and breathe.’ ” The summer exam period has been much calmer than usual, she reports.

So, to sum up...

If you want to unlock the benefits of happier people at work… or indeed simply want to be happier at work yourself, then there are three broad areas that you need to address:

  1. start measuring it - take note of what drives happiness and monitor the effect that life and work have on it
  2. create the conditions for it - the environment we’re in, the way we interact and behave with each other all impact how we and others feel
  3. encourage positivity - in yourself and others. Take responsibility for your own happiness and develop the habits to sustain it.


"I, not events, have the power to make me happy or unhappy today. I can choose which it shall be. Yesterday is dead, tomorrow hasn't arrived yet. I have just one day, today, and I'm going to be happy in it."

Groucho Marx

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David Bellamy
David Bellamy

Founder and CEO, Connect with David on LinkedIn

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