Do Happy Employees Drive Results?

Does happiness matter at work? Does it drive business results?

I have long thought so and have written about it often in this column, as regular readers know. But from now on, I am waiting for hard empirical proof before making the claim again.

Marty Seligman, the “father” of positive psychology, is waiting as well. Recently, the Master of Applied Positive Psychology program at the University of Pennsylvania celebrated its 10th anniversary. The program has been an unqualified success, as has the field of study itself. Scholars who self-identify as positive psychologists number in the thousands, and practitioners span the globe. Who hasn’t read something recently on happiness studies?

But a place where the science of positive psychology hasn’t fully taken root is in business.

To me, and to Seligman, this is something of a surprise. Even though it is common to read bold, unqualified declarations that happiness drives results —I plead guilty in this regard—there is no gold standard of proof that an innovative CEO can seize upon to change their organization. Although there are exciting and promising things happening in organizations as diverse as Freddie Mac, NYSE Euronext and PricewaterhouseCoopers-Australia, as MAPP graduate Shannon Polly and I documented in the print edition of Talent Management, much of what is offered for proof of the bottom-line effectiveness of happiness consists of lab studies, survey results, unverifiable claims from consulting firms and/or hypothetical musings.

Perhaps that shouldn’t surprise anyone, and it doesn’t mean happiness at work does notdrive results. Seligman said as much at the MAPP celebration, and he is convinced positive psychology can take root in corporate America as firmly as it has in progressive school systems, hospitals and academe. Perhaps it already has, without designating itself “positive psychology” or using the word “happy.” When so-called “Vampire Squids” like Goldman Sachs go nice on employees all of a sudden, you know a sea of change is underway in the modern workplace.

But it is frustrating to those of us in the field not to have harder proof. Maybe it is just too soon to have a body of “hard” evidence; the scientific study of happiness in the workplace is a relatively recent phenomenon. Maybe it’s too difficult for researchers to find subjects. “Doing a serious controlled experiment in an organization is difficult,” said Kim Cameron, positive organizational scholar of the Ross School of Business at the University of Michigan. Maybe it is something darker —perhaps the Death Lizards of the Management Consultocracy are so fully invested in their 6-Sigmatized deficit focus models that simple things, like looking for the good in employees and organizations are beyond them. I don’t know.

While positive psychology hasn’t taken visible root in the business world, I think it is inevitable. We in the field need to be careful, however, about overpromising and underdelivering on our claims until it does. What we need are more longitudinal, controlled studies which link positive psychology interventions to metrics, such as increased sales and profits or return on invested capital research.

And fewer Vampire Squids and Death Lizards.