Happy employees will help your business thrive

Thought-provoking research discussed in the current issue of the Harvard Business Review suggests a link between employee contentment and their ability to produce great work.
Written by Heather Clancy, Contributor

Back when I managed a staff of close to 40 people, I used to get criticized by my higher ups for worrying about the general happiness quotient of those employees. Not that I was interested in coddling them. I just believed that if the only reason someone was sticking around the company was money, sooner or later someone would come up with a bigger wad of cash to woo him or her away. For me, productivity has always come down to the health of the organization's culture and the ability to a person to grow within that culture.

Turns out that my interest in happiness wasn't such a stupid thing, even though I was made to feel sometimes that it was. There is a fascinating, must-read article in the January/February issue of the Harvard Business Review that explores this exact issue: "Creating Sustainable Performance." The overall thesis of the authors is pretty simple: "Happy employees produce more than unhappy ones over the long term." They base this statement on research conducted in conjunction with the Ross School of Business Center for Positive Organizational Scholarship. (The authors are both professors in business management: Gretchen Spreitzer is with the University of Michigan's Ross School of Business and Christine Porath is with Georgetown University's McDonough School of Business.)

What does being happy on the job mean?

The Harvard Business Review authors equate it with the idea that someone can "thrive" in their position. That there are opportunities for advancement, that they have the chance to learn new skills, and that they have a sense of mission. Generally speaking, the research showed that thriving employees:

  • Were 16 percent more productive than their peers
  • Were much less likely to burn out on the job
  • Were 32 percent more committed to the organization (distinct from feeling complacent about it)
  • Were 46 percent more satisfied with their jobs

To a large degree, a person's ability to thrive happily in his or her job will come down to the environment in which he or she works. There are four key contributors, the authors write:

  • Decision-making discretion. An example cited by the article focuses on Alaska Airlines, which gives agents the ability to make their own decisions to help customers who have missed flights for one reason or another. Southwest and Facebook are also cited as examples.
  • Transparency. How much does it annoy you when one part of a company's operation, say the e-commerce site, doesn't share data with the customer support department? Now, imagine being an employee who has to listen to frustration about that all the time. But that's just part of it. This is about disclosure of information by managers to the people on the front line so that they serve customers better. An example comes from food service company ZIngerman's, which fixed guest services issues simply by letting its employees know how certain guest greeting techniques might positively affect operations.
  • An environment that minimizes incivility. Are you the sort of manager that habitually humiliates your team in front of their peers? Are there people within your organization who routinely sabotage other people's work? Companies that tolerate that sort of behavior are asking for trouble. That is not the sort of culture in which employees are likely to want to thrive, unless someone appreciates abusive behavior.
  • Performance feedback. In my role as a commentator and writer for a number of Web sites, I receive information about which of my stories are most-read, which ones are considered the longest, and other metrics that help guide some of my coverage decisions. Some of my decisions are strictly based on gut, like my decision to write about this particular article. In the future, I'm going to receive more information not just about my stories, but about the stories that are doing well across the site. I happen to be a data junkie, but it turns out that most of us like hearing about how the organization is faring and, specifically how their contributions matters.

How well does your organization do at encouraging its employees to thrive? As market conditions continue to shift seemingly overnight, that's a really important question to ask and keep asking.

(Stock illustration of smiley face in post thumbnail by Jay Lopez, courtesy of Stock.xchng)

This post was originally published on Smartplanet.com

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