Weekly Wrap: There’s No Big Secret to What it Takes to Be Happy at Work

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© 9lives - Fotolia.com

Is there any great secret to what it takes to be happy at work?

The Washington Post‘s On Leadership blog talked this week to Shawn Achor, the author of an intriguing book titled The Happiness Advantage. The Post calls Achor “one of the world’s leading experts in human potential,” but don’t hold that against him, because he has some great insights.

Here are a couple of the highlights of the interview that cut to what Achor thinks workforce happiness is all about:

How can leaders create a culture of happiness?

We all work for money, but money only gets us in the room. It doesn’t mean we’re engaged once we’re there. Praise motivates us and improves productivity, but it has to be frequent and specific and based on reality. You can’t say, “I’m happy you work on this team.” It has to be, “I’m so grateful for the work you did on that project, getting it in by 9 o’clock yesterday.” That encourages specific behavior. Some leaders sugarcoat the present and then make bad decisions in the future and that causes people to mistrust positive leaders. We’re trying to create rational optimists, which means you start with a realistic assessment of the present but believe your behavior matters.”

What are the characteristics of successful leaders?

Positive leaders do the opposite of what you expect in the midst of their challenges. They invest more in social support networks and spend more time thanking people and having face-to-face conversations with their employees…

Social support is the greatest buffer against depression and predictor of success, according to research I did on 1,600 individuals. Positive leaders also recognize it’s not just intelligence that creates success. Seventy-five percent of employees’ job performance is predicted by three factors: belief that their behavior matters; their social support network at work and at home; and seeing stress as a challenge rather than a threat.”

How does happiness lead to better performance?

Positive mindset is the precursor to greater levels of success. If we can raise the levels of positivity in the midst of challenges, we find productivity and engagement rises and creativity triples. Every business outcome improves when an employee feels positive. We started to see that when it wasn’t working. We assumed employees at successful companies would be happy. We thought we could work harder and then we would be successful and happier and that is how we manage, how we see and even how we think in a down economy. We found the formula was backwards. Happiness led to higher success rates, but higher success rates did not necessarily lead to happiness.”

What struck me about this interview with Shawn Achor is how he kept coming back to many of these same, basic themes: positive thinking, strong, clear communication with the staff, sincere praise and encouragement, social support. These are not only simple qualities for a leader to execute, but they are also what employees keep clamoring for when you read any of the numerous employee engagement surveys that get published.

Now, just because these are basic and simple principles doesn’t mean they are easy. They’re not; they take time, work, and repetition for them to really have a meaningful impact with employees.

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But the fact that they are so simple and basic makes me wonder: why aren’t more so-called leaders and managers doing this stuff, especially now when workers are so down and disengaged about their current employers?

Worst hiring managers ever?

I’m sick of seeing over-compensated and underperforming executives walk away from jobs with boatloads of money, and lots of others are, too, because this is part of what’s fueling Occupy Wall Street and the other nationwide Occupy protests. If more business executives would really embrace and practice what Shawn Achor has to say, we might have a lot happier and productive workforce — and a lot fewer of the Occupy protests taking place.

Of course, there’s more than the secret to happiness at work in the news this week. Here are some other HR and workplace-related items you may have missed. This is TLNT’s weekly round-up of news, trends, and insights from the world of HR and talent management. I do it so you don’t have to.

  • Worst hiring managers ever? Liz Ryan at Bloomberg Businessweek has a great column this month where she recalls four of the worst hiring managers she has ever dealt with. “If you’re responsible for hiring in your organization, you should double-check the hiring judgment of the managers and HR folks in your shop. Without a clear set of signals from the person at the top of the organizational chart, plenty of all-too-human hiring managers will fall into misguided, unethical, or unlawful decision making patterns about hiring.”
  • Multi-millon dollar racial harassment award. A California jury this week awarded a Sears executive $5.2 million in a racial harassment lawsuit, according to the Sacramento Bee. “The African American employee of Sears Home Improvement Products … was at an August 2008 company barbecue with his family, court records say. A co-worker walked up and blurted a racial slur, issued with a “slave dialect.” (Medro) Johnson, an Elk Grove resident and a descendant of slaves, would later testify in court that he was humiliated to be referred to as a slave in front of his wife, son and daughter. …  A Sacramento Superior Court jury … awarded him $5.2 million in damages, including $2.2 million to compensate for lost earnings, pain and suffering. The other $3 million was for punitive damages, an award granted after the jury found that Sears’ policymakers and managers conducted themselves “with malice, oppression or fraud” for failing to investigate or to act on Johnson’s complaints about the slur and other racist acts.”
  • How much is spent on federal workers? The Washington Post has the answer, and not surprisingly, it’s a pretty big number. According to the director of the Congressional Budget Office, “The government spent about $200 billion to compensate federal workers in the fiscal year that ended in September. That’s 15 percent of total discretionary spending — the spending levels that lawmakers control through appropriations. In fiscal 2011, discretionary spending totaled $1.35 trillion — or 40 percent of federal outlays — with most of the money going to the Pentagon and to pay for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan … The $200 billion estimate includes worker salaries and benefits, such as health-care and retirement.”

John Hollon is Editor-at-Large at ERE Media and was the founding Editor of TLNT.com. A longtime newspaper, magazine, and business journal editor, John has deep roots in the talent management space. He's the former Editor of Workforce Management magazine and workforce.com, served as Editor of RecruitingDaily, and was Vice President for Content at HR technology firm Checkster. An award-winning journalist, John has written extensively about HR, talent management, leadership, and smart business practices, including for the popular Fistful of Talent blog. Contact him at johnhollon@ere.net, connect with him on LinkedIn, or follow him on Twitter @johnhollon.