Don’t Be Stupid, Says Harvard, Be Happy

When the Harvard Business Review (HBR) and Talent Management post articles on happiness at work within days of one another, there is no way I am keeping my mouth shut, even if I did promise to go a whole quarter without writing a “happiness” article. But if you have been called a “happiness guru” by no less than the American Bar Association journal, you have to speak up when these things hit your inbox. Particularly when the venerable Harvard Business Review says we’d be “stupid” not to acknowledge the link between happiness and better business performance.

Frank Kalman kicked if off with his great blog last week in Talent Management, “Getting Employees Happy on Day 1.” Without calling us stupid – thanks, Frank – he cites companies that increase engagement by creating hands-on, meaningful work experiences from the moment the employee hits the door. This is not surprising – thinkers as diverse as Nobel Laureate Daniel Kahneman (Thinking Fast and Slow) and popularizer Malcolm Gladwell (Blink) have documented the importance of first impressions. Humans are wired to make snap judgments, and it should come as no surprise this is true when it comes to new jobs. The only surprise is that more companies don’t focus on it.

The current issue of the Harvard Business Review devotes more than 30 pages to workplace happiness. On its cover, which features the ubiquitous  yellow smiley face (isn’t there someone in Cambridge who can come up with a more original graphic?), it proclaims THE VALUE OF HAPPINESS: How Employee Well-Being Drives Profits and features five articles on the topic.

The first, which highlights how countries are turning to happiness metrics to replace GDP, and the last, about the philosophical history of happiness, are interesting but don’t really have much to do with well-being and corporate profits. The other three are of more use to those of us who labor in the talent management vineyards.

In “The Science Behind the Smile,” Harvard psychologist Daniel Gilbert (author of the book Stumbling on Happiness) notes that three distinct academic disciplines – psychology, economics and neuroscience – have joined to put happiness studies “on the scientific map.” Given this, it is not surprising that popular interest has “exploded,” spilling out of the ivy-covered halls of academe into the office. He offers useful tidbits for managers: “employees are happiest when they’re trying to achieve goals that are difficult but not out of reach.” He bursts the bubble of those office tyrants who like to keep employees edgy and uncertain: “… no data shows that anxious, fearful employees are more creative or productive.” Rewards vs. threats? “Psychologists have studied reward and punishment for a century, and the bottom line is perfectly clear: Reward works better.”

These are nice pointers, ones I wholeheartedly endorse, but they don’t exactly provide a clarion call for CEOs to order sweeping changes in HR strategy. The next two articles hit a bit closer to this mark.

In “Creating Sustainable Performance,” Gretchen Spreitzer and Christine Porath, management professors at Michigan and Georgetown, respectively, argue that worker vitality and learning are the keys to high-performing organizations. Vitality is defined by employees who are passionate in their work and lives. Learning is defined by employees who are regularly gaining new skills and experiences. In studying numerous organizations, they found that where employees share those two attributes they outperform competitors on a variety of metrics at double-digit rates.

The authors list four methods to promote vitality and growth:

  • Provide decision-making discretion.
  • Share information.
  • Minimize incivility.
  • Give positive feedback.

Of these, I found the advice to minimize incivility of particular interest. It strikes close to home. I have worked in more than one organization whose culture was destroyed and best talent chased off by a toxic hire in a critical role. One bad apple, does in fact, spoil the whole bunch. My No. 1 rule for improving workplace happiness?: fire the jerks.

Shawn Achor, Harvard lecturer and in-demand organizational consultant, follows with an article titled “Positive Intelligence.” Of the five articles, it is the one most directed at individuals, and might be the best of the bunch. He offers three prescriptions to increase your happiness at work.

  • Develop new habits.
  • Help your co-workers.
  • Change your relationship to stress.

Achor’s prescriptions are sound, but taken largely from the positive psychology playbook made popular by Martin Seligman 2001 best-seller Authentic Happiness (write down three good things that happen to you during the day, send a positive message to a friend, social connections are key, don’t sweat the things you can’t control. He touches on some exciting new research he is involved in, but not in the depth many of us would like). I am glad these ideas are now available to HBR’s audience, but I am not sure they are the groundbreaking insights a cover story would trumpet.

In summary, I am a little disappointed in the HBR special issue. Were I the CEO of a large company, I am not sure HBR carried the burden of proof in establishing that the link between happiness and performance is “absolutely clear.” I salute my friends at HBR for their focus on the issue, and anticipate that it will encourage even more workplace experimentation with employee happiness, but there was little in the issue that is new or different for regular readers of Talent Management.  I might be biased here — OK, I am biased — but Talent Management has been focusing on well-being in its many guises in the workplace for some time in its feature articles, columns and blogs.

What do you think; did you see the HBR special issue? Was there anything of value in it for you?