Since the dawn of work, managers, directors, and presidents have wrestled with employment’s most perplexing paradox: “How is it possible that after everything I’ve done for my employees (e.g., hiring, training, and paying them), they could be unhappy?”
From a boss’s perspective, it makes sense. Not everyone who applies gets the job, so the boss sees employees as the lucky few who’ve been given the opportunity to join the team. Employees, on the other hand, see their jobs in a much more fluid and personal way. A job, for many, represents a pathway to financial security, upward mobility, identity expression, and, yes, happiness.
That’s a lot of pressure on a boss that just wants to pay people to help them run a park, resort, or attraction.
Bosses tend to avoid journeying into the emotional and subjective aspects of work, which they tend to see as a slippery slope and a battle they can’t win. They’d rather focus on operational execution, safety, and revenue—all things that can be controlled. And that works for many employees whose baseline expectation from employment is being recognized for doing a good job. When employees get that, they achieve a certain level of satisfaction.
It’s like both parties have an implicit agreement not to screw up each other’s lives. Let’s both do our thing, and nobody gets hurt. But, is that the best attitude for the long-term success of your business?
HAPPINESS: HARD TO DEFINE
According to a number of recent studies, it’s pays to pay attention to workplace happiness. “Happy employees are a great asset to a company,” says Matthew Spaur, founder of Marketing the Social Good and member of the Teal Team collective on organizational development. “They are more engaged, productive, innovative, and they stick around longer.”
According to Forbes magazine, happy employees are up to 20 percent more productive than unhappy ones. Similarly, happy salespeople increase sales by 37 percent. Finally, it points to the stock prices of Fortune Magazine’s “100 Best Companies to Work For,” which rose 14 percent per year from 1998 to 2005, while companies not on the list only reported a 6 percent increase. Companies around the world are making substantial investments in workplace culture in order to keep employees “happy.”
The research into workplace happiness, however, is not conclusive. Harvard Business Review, in response to the “fad” of workplace happiness, published a fascinating article in 2015 that presents some alternative perspectives on workplace happiness. The authors point out that “happiness” is poorly defined, hard to measure, and that focusing too closely on it can harm the business.
Should “happiness” even be something that a business provides (or promises) when it simply cannot predict or control the inner workings of its employees? Julia Markish, engagement expert and founder of culture consultancy Orca, encourages careful thinking when it comes to happiness efforts.
“Happiness in and of itself will not help your company achieve its mission, nor will it help your employees unleash their potential,” she says. “At best, it will be correlated to other positive outcomes. At worst, it will take your precious focus and energy off of the goals and metrics that are truly important.”
So, what’s really at play here, and what really keeps people happy at work? Here are a few simple and pragmatic ways to think about workplace happiness:
YOUR ROLE AS A LEADER
First, you’re not totally on the hook for your employees’ happiness. Travis Marsh, workplace culture expert and co-founder and CEO of Tapinta.com, says nothing will lead to someone being more unhappy than if they believe it’s solely their manager’s responsibility to take care of their happiness. “We all need to realize creating happiness at work is a joint responsibility,” says Marsh.
Focus on creating conditions that maximize employee happiness: a physically and psychologically safe work environment; reasonable pay and benefits; and letting people do work they like and are good at.
The most important thing you can do to improve the chances that your employees are happy is to show genuine concern for their well-being. Showing genuine concern—researched extensively by Real World Group—is the leadership act most highly correlated with employee engagement, a key driver of happiness.
Intentionally adding appropriately personal questions to your one-on-one meetings, remembering important non-work events and activities, and impromptu check-ins are all strategies you can begin practicing today. Many executive coaches help specifically with this aspect of leadership.
RECRUITMENT AND ONBOARDING
Before people become your employees, they are sizing you up. They have to decide to commit to you based on what they believe you have to offer, and they consider a lot of variables.
Making the interview experience positive has a major benefit to you and the employee: It’s the first opportunity to build trust. While you want to make a good first impression, which is definitely important, it has to be authentic and honest. How many stories have you heard (or experienced first hand) where a worker has a great interview experience only to find the workplace completely different from what they expected? When that happens, trust is immediately broken and nearly impossible to get back. Start with accurate job postings, friendly and authentic interview questions, and sharing a clear picture of the workplace with all of your recruits.
It’s not always possible to chart a clear, upward trajectory for your employees, especially for seasonal or hourly workers. Often, dissatisfaction or unhappiness gets pinned to “there’s no upward mobility here.” A great way to stay away from that negative spiral is to provide work that challenges the employee and provides learning opportunities.
According to Mercer research, today’s employees are looking for workplace flexibility, a commitment to health and well-being, and working with a purpose. While its employees can’t “work from home,” the aerial adventure industry checks the well-being and purpose boxes. By providing employees with opportunities to excel at a variety of tasks, from operations to guest services, they will feel more fulfilled. And when they inevitably hit the limit of their competence, you can be there to offer coaching, support, advice, and additional learning opportunities.
There’s an old saying, “If momma ain’t happy, ain’t nobody happy.”
Researchers have, of course, proven this by studying the human brain. Emotions are contagious. When you as the boss enter the room, whatever vibe you bring resonates with everyone around you. So, if you’re tense, the room becomes tense. If you’re relaxed, the room becomes relaxed.
And if you ain’t happy, ain’t nobody going to be happy. Before you try any “happiness initiative,” you should take some time to look inward. Are you happy yourself? How is your happiness impacting your behaviors, and how are your behaviors impacting your employees? It can be a grind, and developing good skills around resilience will help build some capability to listen to your employees, show genuine concern, and make the employee experience pleasant for everyone.
Your employees are a critical part of your business’ success. Keeping them engaged and satisfied isn’t everything you have to do in a day, but directing some of your energy in a very tactical way to your employees’ experience will certainly put you in a position to retain your best talent, keep guests safe, and grow your business.