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When it comes to the workplace, I’ve learned that happiness moves the dial. But how happiness impacts us at work has long been a subject of discussion. A 2014 study from the University of Warwick treated some workers to free chocolate and funny movies while others were asked to talk about family tragedies. According to their answers to survey questions, the workers who got chocolate and movies were happier – and 12% more productive on work tasks.

In today’s business world of squeezing more productivity out of every working hour, 12% could be the difference between a team’s – or a company’s – success or failure.

The Challenge: Setting the Scene

That study hadn’t yet been conducted when I was asked to take on leadership of a communications department about five years ago in the company where I’d been working for about 20 years, so I used my own experiences as a guide. I was already managing another team that was turning out terrific work without much drama in the process.

Now my challenge was to form new working relationships and establish a constructive culture with a different group. I wondered what sort of hand I would be dealt. What kinds of personalities would I inherit? How would their individual skills complement each other? Would there be emotional baggage left over from their experiences with the previous leadership? What strengths do I have that could pull the team together to pursue a common mission?

Yes, there were lots of questions. And I didn’t have all the answers right away. It took time, and it took focus. But it worked.

The ROI of Happiness

I decided the first thing I wanted to do was make happiness as a core value. That might sound a little odd in this era of proving return-on-investment through analytics and doing more with less. But I’ve found that we are more productive when we feel appreciated, when our work lives aren’t drudgery, when we can enjoy ourselves as we collaborate toward common goals.

Being a nurturing and inspiring leader is a never-ending work in progress that requires continuous attention by managers. Leadership has no autopilot switch that takes you where you want to be. Leadership is a journey toward perfection, and although that’s a standard I will never reach as a leader, I re-commit myself daily to moving toward it. Here are some of the things I try to remind myself every day on that journey:

  1. Encourage laughter. Not ridicule, but inclusive, good-natured joking around. Remind employees that their jobs should include some fun. If you sense a team member is unhappy, ask why and invite them to be candid. Find out what kind of changes might make them more content in their current role. If it becomes necessary, have a frank conversation about whether they might be happier somewhere else.
  1. Seek input from employees on the kind of culture they want. I think this is an important starting point. Ask them what kind of work environment they’d like to see, demonstrate that you’re open to ideas from all of the members of the team. Adopt some of their ideas; this gives them some ownership of the change process and a vested interest in the success of the transition. It’s important for your team to know that you don’t claim to have a monopoly on good ideas.
  1. Recognize good work. When someone comes up with a good idea, don’t claim it as your own. Reward employees who exceed expectations – and make the recognition public in front of the entire team. Shining a light on others is not only essential for morale, but it also shows the team that you are aware of their work and you’ll be their champion around the organization. A leader succeeds by putting others in a position to do great work. If your team looks good, then you look good.
  1. Lead by example. Act with authority and confidence, show your employees the way you want them to work and communicate with each other. Own up to your mistakes, just as you want your team members to do. Remember that leadership requires more doing than saying. As author E.M. Kelly noted: “A boss says, ‘Go!’ while a leader says, ‘Let’s go!’”
  1. Be patient. Give team members time to figure out how best to communicate with you and work with you. Don’t try to guess what their previous work environment was like. Don’t assume every day was all sweetness and light before you took over the team – and don’t assume their work lives were dismal, either. It may take them a little while to adjust to your leadership style and a new team culture, so don’t expect your final vision of the team will be realized overnight.

I was fortunate to take on leadership of a team of highly skilled professionals. Still, I sensed some apprehension in the early weeks of the transition from a few folks who would need some time to get used to the idea that productivity can be punctuated with the occasional chuckle. I needed to build their trust – I needed to be patient, I needed to demonstrate that although I might be their leader, I’m still their teammate.

There has been skepticism about the importance of living happy lives, but I find the so-called “happiness backlash” to be little more than forced cynicism for the sake of being contrary. For every “happiness is overrated” blog post, there is plenty of research pointing to the value – even in economic and financial terms – of happiness. I believe that as leaders, we are obligated to not only enable our teams to be productive, but also to help them feel productive.

It would be great if building a team that’s collaborative, supportive, productive – happy – were as simple as handing out free chocolate. I’ve found that the deliberate process of creating and nurturing a positive work environment is far more rewarding for the leader, the team and the organization.

 

Kathy Higgins

About Kathy Higgins

Kathy is President of BCBSNC Foundation and Vice President of BCBSNC Corporate Affairs. In her role as President of the BCBSNC Foundation, Kathy Higgins has led unprecedented growth, including the strategic investment of more than $100 million into North Carolina communities through more than 900 grants to improve the health of vulnerable populations, support physical activity and nutrition programs, and help nonprofit groups improve their organizational capacity. In addition to her duties with the Foundation, Kathy also serves as Vice President of Corporate Affairs at Blue Cross and Blue Shield of North Carolina, overseeing all corporate communications and corporate citizenship functions. During her 25 years of service to Blue Cross and to North Carolina’s communities, Kathy has served on numerous state and national boards, including the Carolina Hurricanes’ Kids ‘n Community Foundation (chair), the Alexander Family YMCA, BESTNC, the Underwood Foundation, NCFOREVER (chair), GoTriangle.