Assistant Professor of Organisational Behaviour
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It’s broadly accepted now that we do our best at work when we are happy. It sounds simple but happiness comes in many forms. It’s as individual as you are and is significantly influenced by the culture that shaped you.
Happiness is a state of wellbeing. It often gets used synonymously with feeling positive but we know there are a lot of discrete, nuanced positive emotions. For example, there’s pride, passion, interest and joy. Happiness is used as sort of a gestalt, an aggregate of where we’re at in life.
In the workplace, what makes each individual happy is different. Do you want to be peaceful and calm at work and to have stability and security? Or are you a person that needs novelty and constant curiosity? Do you need to have something that you feel good about and recognition?
Happiness is also more than identifying these motivators, for these can change at different times. So as well as the ‘what makes me happy?’ there’s a ‘when am I happy?’ question to answer. The ‘when’ is influenced by what else is going on in people’s lives. They could be really happy at work but not at home, or unhappy at home and content at work. Overall, it’s whether the positive experiences outweigh the negative feelings that will define when we are happy.
Research shows that happiness typically comes to those who are making progress toward or are achieving meaningful goals. We have life goals, family goals and work goals, and if we’re making progress on any of those, then we’re usually happy and if we’re not, then we’re not usually happy in that particular domain.
This can present a challenge for organisations. What usually makes goals meaningful is that they are challenging and serve a higher purpose. However, by definition, this means that such goals will be more difficult for employees to make progress on or achieve. Organisations must constantly balance enabling people to make stable progress on existing goals while challenging them with new goals in order to help provide favourable conditions for happiness at work.
Individuals must also be mindful of how they pursue happiness. Often people can get stuck pursuing happiness like they would pursue perfection. What can happen is that happiness becomes an outcome that is always on the other side of accomplishing the next goal, and therefore, happiness is rarely achieved. Because we’re always adding new goals and pushing our goals to the next level, if we wait to be happy only when we accomplish our goals, we will miss out on many moments of happiness. Thus, pursuing happiness is a noble and worthwhile cause as long as you know it’s the process of being happy that often matters more than hoping for a particular result to make you happy.
Recognising this can give you back control over your happiness. You can define what that looks like for you and enjoy the process. Enjoy the winding path and ups and downs of your journey as opposed to just allowing your outcomes to drive your happiness for you. Everyone fundamentally can be happy. Instead of seeing unhappy periods as a bad thing, see it as part of the process.
Of course, we’re not always going to feel happy, we’re not always going to make progress, and we’re going to have failures. Individuals and organisations need to understand that a big part of happiness is recovery. Being happy isn’t just about how long you can sustain happiness for, it’s about how quickly you can recover and get back to a positive state after a setback.
This is something that organisations can help with. In creating space or capabilities for people to recover from negative experiences or setbacks, they promote a more resilient, and ultimately happier, workforce. Organisations with very supportive cultures that understand that humans have complex needs and emotions are better at creating that space and support. For example, some organisations develop high trust with employees and give them the flexibility to take off time when they are struggling. Others rely on supportive colleagues and leaders who help transform their co-workers’ negative experiences into more positive, optimistic outlooks. However, many organisations fail at these recovery capabilities; essentially they want people to be happy but they don’t want to have to work through problems and setbacks to do that.
The risk to organisations that don’t recognise unhappiness as an inevitable part of the process can burnout its employees. In my research on emotion climates at work, I have found that teams with more open, supportive environments for sharing authentic feelings have greater viability and creativity because they work through negative experiences as opposed to avoiding or suppressing them, which the latter usually leads to more tension and aversive states.
Keep in mind that these recommendations aren’t to suggest that organisations must attempt to fix peoples’ lives and turn management into counselling; that’s something that needs highly-skilled and trained facilitators. However, the middle ground and simple place to start is supporting people’s workplace experiences and understanding how they are doing on an ongoing basis. If something’s wrong, it could be a simple fix or a more systematic issue, but if you don’t explore it, you don’t know. It is helpful for leaders to understand the differing motivators and emotions of their employees.
Technology is also helping leaders and organisations to better understand their employees’ internal experiences and states of mind. For example, a company called Butterfly helps companies track indicators of employees’ happiness and engagement at work. Weekly or monthly, they send out short questionnaires that identify important factors to workplace engagement, such as: How is your work/life balance? How’s your role clarity? How is your opportunity to grow? The responses are anonymised and given to managers, who then use the information to follow up and address issues that surface. Such tools help create habits and routines for managers to check in with employees and provide a system and structure to address their concerns. Many good managers and leaders are very well-intentioned, but they often get so busy with their own responsibilities that they can forget to conduct simple check-ins with followers that are often critical to satisfying their needs.
Where we are can also influence how we define happiness. Different countries can have different norms about what’s expected in terms of emotions from each other. In the US, what people label happiness is often the high energy, positive emotions such as interest, excitement, passion, or optimism. Those who are calm and happy may even be regarded as being unenthusiastic. In other parts of the world, such as European countries and parts of Asia, people can prefer more calm and neutral pleasant states. Therefore, both country and organisation-specific values matter in defining one’s happiness.
Given such differences, an important question comes into play here regarding emotional authenticity: what if we’re just more open and accepting of people’s differences in their emotions as opposed to shunning people who do not feel or express what is normally preferred? Research in this area, including some of my own, is starting to show that organisations and teams that adopt such authentic emotion climates can increase engagement by allowing people to be their authentic selves instead of requiring them to constantly manufacture fake emotions. Some scholars even go as far to argue that emotion authenticity is the more humane and just approach to managing emotions in the workplace, especially when compared to other management traditions that require employees to be happy and upbeat and to avoid or hide any negative feelings.
Instead of socialising people’s happiness to the organisation, can we have organisations that are more open to the moulds of individuals’ uniqueness, talents, personalities, and what makes them happy. It’s certainly challenging, because that means more differences and these are more difficult to manage. But it also means potentially greater engagement and creativity, and those components of the workplace are really going to drive the future.
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