Charting the Course Toward Workforce Happiness

An organization with a doom-and-gloom culture knows perfectly well it didn’t get that way by accident. But it doesn’t have to stay that way.

Charting the Course Toward Workforce Happiness

Author and happiness expert Michelle Gielan recently told me that when it comes to creating an uplifting environment, it helps to start every interaction you have on a positive note. Not-so positive news might come next, but upon entering a room filled with brightly colored balloons, by all means, keep your shiny sewing needle in your pocket, purse or wallet.

And if you can’t be the silver lining, be a gray one. If you aren’t a glass-half-full type, remember that you have a glass to begin with, and so on. We all have the power to positively change circumstances around us. In the workplace, that’s particularly true for leaders, who are among the biggest influencers of workforce happiness.

Happiness, as many of you have likely heard time and time again, increases productivity — by at least by 12 percent, the Social Market Foundation and the University of Warwick’s Centre for Competitive Advantage in the Global Economy reported last year.

I won’t dismiss the stories that poke holes in the role of positive psychology in the workplace: Too much happiness is exhausting, unrealistic, sets people up for a more severe let down in the face of inevitable disappointments, etc. I get all those things. But let’s look at striving for happiness less as a self-help intervention and more as a high-value company value that can affect results.

Culture is all about people. So I ask you now, is your company’s culture people-friendly? Because in the face of all the doom and gloom doled out from every direction on a regular basis — world issues, work issues, home issues, life issues — everyone deserves a psychologically safe and healthy place in which to work.

Leadership consultant Chris Edmonds told me that many people who are putting in their three, four, eight, 10, or 12 hours of work aren’t doing so in such a place. According to a TINYhr survey, a whopping 79 percent of employees feel marginally valued or extremely undervalued at work, and leadership has a great deal to do with it.

Employees are treated as cogs in a wheel, Edmonds said, worker bees who are praised for late nights at the office but not for the unique ideas and answers contributed therein. That draining culture — what he calls the ‘3 Ds’: dismissing, demeaning and discounting employees’ worth — is taking a toll and giving work a bad rep.

Why? Edmonds said some leaders don’t think culture is their responsibility. They don’t know how to change it, they aren’t privy to many culture changes that worked well, nor have they led one. Yet culture is probably their primary responsibility.

Edmonds, founder and CEO for The Purposeful Culture Group, said organizations have incredible systems to monitor results and profits; they should pay more attention to the people making them happen.

Sharing Happiness Day-by-Day

Gielan, a former journalist, is no stranger to bad news. A lot of her work revolved around depressing news items and ultimately drove her away from the field and on a journey to understand how the messages we’re continuously sharing with one another are shaping our world.

“We’re all broadcasters,” Gielan told me during a phone interview. She’s the founder of the Institute for Applied Positive Research. “We’re constantly broadcasting information to other people as parents, as leaders, as colleagues. We’re constantly transmitting that information, and the messages that we choose to broadcast — whether we do so consciously or unconsciously — can either create success or hold us back.”

Our brains are incredible processors, but our noggins are being bombarded by 11 million bits of information a daily basis, she said. Like everything in life, choices have to be made. Walk into a meeting with a crummy attitude focused on customer complaints, dipping sales, disruption and other stressors, and there’s little steam left to focus on the good things happening and what resources can be used to turn the ship around. Ruminate on how hopeless a situation looks, and there’s little room left for the hope needed to change it.

“Optimists believe that in the face of challenge, negative events are temporary and local, and that their behavior matters,” Gielan said.

Mind you, this doesn’t mean be detached from reality; nobody wins there. When it comes to creating a positive organizational culture, it’s about how we process things and what that processing looks like at the top, because leadership style influences as much as 70 percent of an organization’s climate.

Some research claims that happiness is at least partially heritable. Whether a leader believes that, some small yet strategic changes can help them retrain their brains to be less Negative Nia or Nathaniel and more Realistic Ricara or Raymond. The two latter characters have a knack for seeing opportunity instead of being preoccupied with lack.

Consider what Gielan described as the “power lead.” She told me about a tech manager she worked with during her research who sent bug reports out to his team. Then he’d go over all the fires everybody had to put out, stressing everyone out before meetings really got going. To improve the atmosphere, he began leading these meetings with something I’ll call his “gratefuls,” one thing he was grateful for about life, one thing he was grateful for about the team in general and one thing he was grateful for about someone in specific on the team. Then he got to the business challenges. Gielan said that small step changed the tone of the meetings, and team cohesiveness and productivity improved.

Now, the gratefuls aren’t everyone’s style, but Gielan said when a manager takes the time to deliver one piece of new and different praise to one person on their team each day, they’re making waves.

Steps Toward Positivity

Edmonds said learning leaders can play a pivotal role in socializing these behaviors across their organizations to help drive culture change from the top. He said learning leaders have an almost encyclopedic knowledge of the organization that can be used to start that shift.

Learning leaders are well positioned to lay out what a civil workplace looks like, developing an organizational constitution where valued behaviors aren’t just preferences but also expectations. Further, CLOs can hold leaders accountable for how they treat employees by helping extant performance management systems accommodate these values.

At the end of the day, people need to feel valued and that their work is meaningful. When those conditions are met, and people feel validated, appreciated and trustful of leadership, they show up differently, Edmonds said. “Instead of showing up as problem spotters, they actually see their role as solving problems.”

Bravetta Hassell is an associate editor for Chief Learning Officer. Comment below or email editor@CLOmedia.com.

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