Happiness and Wellbeing at Work

Putting research into practice

Happiness for Leaders

As a leader, is it my job to worry about happiness?

There is nothing ‘fluffy’ about happiness! 

The happiness of your people is one of the most important factors in your success and the success of your organisation. We know that employees who are happier/more engaged exert 57% more effort. Similarly, companies with high levels of engagement enjoy 3 times more profit and 22% higher shareholder returns, when compared with average organisations.

You’ll notice that we’re using different words to describe happiness, or types of happiness. Indeed, there is a lot of confusion about what happiness is, why it matters to leaders and how to maximise it for competitive advantage. (‘Happiness’ and ‘competitive advantage’ in the same sentence – I said it wasn’t fluffy!). Based on many years of research and practice, this short article will reveal all (well nearly all! – for detail, get the book Transforming Engagement, Happiness and Wellbeing and see our toolkit at www.PACEtools.org). Our aim is to help you to maximise the happiness (and therefore business success) of your people.

What is happiness?

So what is happiness? Is it a zen-like state of contentment, or the buzz a world-class athlete gets from winning the Olympics? Is it a stress-free life or the challenge of a difficult project? Is it mindfulness, flow, engagement or what?

Many people, organisations, countries and international bodies are striving to measure (and sometimes improve) people’s happiness. But we find that without a clear idea of what happiness is, these efforts may succeed in measuring and maximising entirely the wrong thing! As you know, what gets measured gets done, so measuring the wrong thing is not just pointless but positively damaging. Sure enough, despite great efforts to improve happiness, well-being and engagement over many years, less than 25% of people worldwide feel engaged and less than 17% report high levels of well-being.

If we draw a simple box with active and passive on one side and low/high happiness on the other, we find that there are at least four types of happiness ranging from passive/low (depressed), through passive/high (contented), active/low (angry) through to active/high (enthusiastic or engaged). If we also add a third dimension of time, then we can also have short- or long-term sustained versions of all these types of happiness. For example, it is clear that a person can feel happy one minute and not so happy the next, whilst underneath their general long-term satisfaction with their lives may be reasonably high. Similarly, a person may be enthusiastic and engaged during a specific time or event, but not particularly engaged in the long -term. You could be proud to work for the best company in the world, but then get unfairly told off by your boss just before the weekend. So time and situations are important factors in happiness.

Scott-Jackson Figure

The recent surge of interest in happiness (by academics, consultants and policy makers – actually the rest of us have always been interested in happiness!) has arisen from work on positive psychology and an original idea from Bhutan that governments should aim to maximise the happiness of their people, not just their economic success. From positive psychology, ideas such as mindfulness have developed to help people cope better with the stresses of life. And Bhutan, of course, is a highly spiritual Buddhist society, so it is not surprising that the focus has been on achieving a fairly passive variant of happiness or contentment.

On the other hand, organisations have been trying for even longer to make their people more engaged in order to increase productivity and so on – proving that organisations are not just looking for passive contentment. And indeed, for most people in developed economies, it is arguably just as important to be actively enthusiastic about work, life, family or whatever, rather than just being able to cope with life. For these reasons, all our research focuses on helping people to maximise their long-term active committed enthusiasm (ACE).

What will make them happy?

So what causes ACE? There have been thousands of studies linking thousands of factors to happiness and engagement (we’ve included many of them in the book) and, sure enough, nearly everything can have an effect (especially in the short term). In a work setting, things like the balance between your job’s demands and your capabilities or the degree to which you can make your own decisions have an impact. However, there is one major factor which is often overlooked, particularly in the context of engagement, and that is one’s own propensity for enthusiasm. We all know someone who, whatever is happening, seems to be more positive and enthusiastic than everyone else, and we also know people who display a ‘glass half empty’ disposition. Why should this be? Well it turns out that our happiness and enthusiasm is not directly caused by any external factors but rather events are filtered through our perception. So, a letter offering a free holiday, for example, could be seen as very positive by a trusting, optimistic (maybe naïve!) person, whereas a more cautious individual might see it as suspicious. So, what’s the difference between these people and who is right?

First of all, no one is right and no one is wrong! In most situations, we don’t know the full story, and we certainly don’t know what’s going to happen next. But humans must act and learn from situations, even if we don’t have factual data. Over the years, we all develop a ‘style’ (formally known as ‘attribution style’) which we use to fill in the gaps when data isn’t available. For example, if I fail an interview, I probably won’t know the precise reason. However, I’ll explain the reason as ‘I had a cold’, or ‘the interviewer wasn’t very good’, or ‘I didn’t really want the job’, or ‘I am useless at interviews’ or ‘I am stupid’. Research found that a person’s attribution style is persistent, is applied to all sorts of situations and significantly affects how they act in the future. For example, a person who thinks they are stupid will approach another interview differently to someone who thinks they just had a cold last time. Because the style affects behaviour, it turns out that a (slightly) unrealistically positive style is more useful than a negative or realistic style. So, are we stuck with one attribution style? Luckily, this style is mostly learned – it is not a deep personality trait that you were born with. Since it is learned, it can be modified by training, experiences and understanding.

Why should I interfere?

As a leader, whether in a company, government or NGO, you want your team to be successful, achieve their goals and have a great time in the process. As we have seen, a happy and engaged team massively outperforms a disengaged team, so you have an organisational obligation but also a human and moral obligation to do whatever you can to maximise the active committed enthusiasm (ACE) of your team members.

How can I help? 

Most organisations try to improve engagement by, for example, having an annual survey and then modifying working conditions, environment and communications to engage people more effectively. This, as we have seen, doesn’t seem to be working. And we now know why – the biggest causes of high or low ACE are the immediate leader (that is you!) and the individual’s own attribution style.

Destroyers of enthusiasm

Our research suggests that very few leaders are good at maximising enthusiasm, and various complex theories of leadership such as ‘transformational leadership’ and ‘authentic leadership’ try to address this issue. However, it is very hard, and requires time, effort and extensive training, to make an ordinary person into a transformational leader.  Much more important, however, is that a great many leaders, it turns out, do things that actively destroy the enthusiasm of their teams! When we looked into this, we found that this wasn’t because the leaders were nasty, stupid or downright evil, but they simply didn’t know how to do a few crucial things correctly so as to maintain or even increase enthusiasm. For example, how many of us have come into work and faced an angry leader who proceeds to tell us off in front of other team members, or the leader who never gives praise, or the leader who runs a meeting which goes on forever and yet still leaves everyone not knowing what they’re doing or why?

If you want to know more about how to help your leaders to help their teams be more engaged – have a look at the toolset www.PACEtools.org and/or see the book Transforming Engagement, Happiness and Wellbeing.

The best me I can be

How can you, the leader, best help your people to maximise their own enthusiasm?  Well, first you can use iLeader to make sure you’re doing the most important things effectively. But you can also help them to increase their own propensity for enthusiasm. As part of the toolset, we developed an assessment (ACEq) which anyone can take and which helps them to see how they could become happier and more enthusiastic and gives practical, easy tips (based on years of research in Positive Psychology). We are also developing a fitness app for happiness and enthusiasm, called nFooze, which will help people assess themselves, do simple things to make themselves happier and monitor their own improvements and challenges. For updates see www.PACEtools.org

What next?

We have a restaurant near our Head Office in Oxford that we’ve been going to for many years. The restaurant always had a smiling staff, great service, and great food. Then, all of a sudden, it went through a period where everything wasn’t so great – the same staff were kind of surly, the food was a bit hit and miss and the atmosphere was slightly ‘brittle’. Finally, I worked out why. The manager had changed! And this confirms the theory that the whole of an organisation can be affected (or infected) with the mood and outlook of the leader. Look at Dubai as an example where the extreme positivity of His Highness Sheikh Mohammed seems to percolate down to everyone – even the humblest street cleaner.

So you, as a leader, need to maximise the enthusiasm of your people. The best ways to do that are to first help your leaders to be able to help their team members. Then, individuals must be given the tools and training to help themselves. But you, of course, are a person too, and you influence every single person in your team, organisation or country. So, I’d seriously recommend you have a look at the ACE assessment questionnaire and see if you could benefit from some simple actions.

Please visit www.PACEtools.org and see Transforming Engagement, Happiness and Wellbeing for more information.

William Scott-Jackson is the Chairman of Oxford Strategic Consulting and a Visiting Professor at Cass Business School, UK. He is recognised as a leading researcher, writer and presenter on human capital, with specific interests in talent and capability development in the Arab world as well as the West.