Being Happy at Work Matters

Courtesy of Harvard Business Review

By Annie McKee

People used to believe that you didn’t have to be happy at work to succeed. And you didn’t need to like the people you work with, or even share their values. “Work is not personal,” the thinking went. This is bunk.

My research with dozens of companies and hundreds of people — as well as the research conducted by the likes of neuroscientists Richard Davidson and V.S. Ramachandran and scholars such as Shawn Achor — increasingly points to a simple fact: Happy people are better workers. Those who are engaged with their jobs and colleagues work harder — and smarter.

And yet, there is an alarmingly high number of people who aren’t engaged. According to a sobering 2013 Gallup report, only 30% of the U.S. workforce is engaged. This echoes what I’ve seen in my work. Not very many people are truly “emotionally and intellectually committed” to their organizations. Far too many couldn’t care less about what’s happening around them. For them, Wednesday is “hump day” and they’re just working to get to Friday. And then there’s the other end of the bell curve — the nearly one out of five employees is actively disengaged, according to the same Gallup report. These people are sabotaging projects, backstabbing colleagues, and generally wreaking havoc in their workplaces.

The Gallup report also noted that employee engagement has remained largely constant over the years despite economic ups and downs. Scary: we’re not engaged with work and we haven’t been for a long time.

Disengaged, unhappy people aren’t any fun to work with, don’t add much value, and impact our organizations (and our economy) in profoundly negative ways. It’s even worse when leaders are disengaged because they infect others with their attitude. Their emotions and mindset impact others’ moods and performance tremendously. After all, how we feel is linked to what and how we think. In other words, thought influences emotion, and emotion influences thinking.

It’s time to finally blow up the myth that feelings don’t matter at work. Science is on our side: there are clear neurological links between feelings, thoughts, and actions. When we are in the grip of strong negative emotions, it’s like having blinders on. We focus mostly — sometimes only — on the source of the pain. We don’t process information as well, think creatively, or make good decisions. Frustration, anger, and stress cause an important part of us to shut down —the thinking, engaged part. Disengagement is a natural neurological and psychological response to pervasive negative emotions.

But it’s not just negative emotions we need to watch out for. Extremely strong positive emotions have the same effect. Some studies shows that too much happiness can make you less creative and prone to engage in riskier behaviors (think about how we act like fools when we fall in love!). On the work front: I’ve seen groups of people worked up into a frenzy at sales conferences and corporate pep rallies. Little learning or innovation comes out of these meetings. Throw in a lot of alcohol and you’ve got a whole host of other problems.

If we can agree that our emotional states at work matter, what do we do to increase engagement and improve performance?

Over the past few years, my team at the Teleos Leadership Institute and I have studied dozens of organizations and interviewed thousands of people. The early findings about the links between people’s feelings and engagement are fascinating. There are clear similarities in what people say they want and need, no matter where they are from, whom they work for, or what they do. We often assume that there are huge differences across industries and around the world but the research challenges that assumption.

To be fully engaged and happy, virtually everyone tells us they want three things:

  1. A meaningful vision of the future: When people talked with our research team about what was working or not in their organizations, and what helped or hindered them the most, they talked about vision. People want to be able to see the future and know how they fit in. And, as we know from our work with Richard Boyatzis on intentional change, people learn and change when they have a personal vision that is linked to an organizational vision. Sadly, far too many leaders don’t paint a very compelling vision of the future, they don’t try to link it to people’s personal visions, and they don’t communicate well. And they lose people as a result.
  2. A sense of purpose: People want to feel as if their work matters, and that their contributions help to achieve something really important. And except for those at the tippy top, shareholder value isn’t a meaningful goal that excites and engages them. They want to know that they — and their organizations — are doing something big that matters to other people.
  3. Great relationships: We know that people join an organization and leave a boss. A dissonant relationship with one’s boss is downright painful. So too are bad relationships with colleagues. Leaders, managers, and employees have all told us that close, trusting and supportive relationships are hugely important to their state of mind — and their willingness contribute to a team.

Added up, brain science and our organizational research are in fact debunking the old myths: emotions matter a lot at work. Happiness is important. To be fully engaged, people need vision, meaning, purpose, and resonant relationships.

It’s on individuals to find ways to live our values at work and build great relationships. And it’s on leaders to create an environment where people can thrive. It’s simple and it’s practical: if you want an engaged workforce, pay attention to how you create a vision, link people’s work to your company’s larger purpose, and reward people who resonate with others.


Annie McKee is a senior fellow at the University of Pennsylvania, director of the PennCLO Executive Doctoral Program and the founder of the Teleos Leadership Institute. She is the author of Primal Leadership with Daniel Goleman and Richard Boyatzis as well as Resonant Leadership andBecoming a Resonant Leader.

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2 Responses to Being Happy at Work Matters

  1. Jim LoPresti says:

    I couldn’t agree more with Annie’s comments here. I have witnessed the downward spiral of productivity and employee engagement that rapidly follows the announcement or even remote suggestion of layoffs in organizations where I have worked as a senior manager. Everybody (except those well connected politically or just indispensable) fall into a heavy funk. Walking around the office is like paying your respects at the reception after a funeral of a very popular person.

    On the other hand, I have also seen that those people in an organization with a positive, agreeable attitude are looked at more closely and frequently for advancement. Those positive emotions are contagious and attractive; people naturally want to be around those who have an affirming perspective.

    I think Annie’s observation here is underscored more profoundly by the almost absolute lack of productivity in our political system right now. In my opinion, there is so much open rancor, contempt, and disrespect on both sides of the aisle, that the work of running the country is not getting done. Remember, nothing, except religion, stirs the emotional caldron more than politics. Diplomacy and cooperative behavior is virtually non-existent, today. The 112th Congress (2011-2013) was the most unproductive since the 80th “Do Nothing” congress of 1947-8. And the 113th congress is still shaping up to be the worst in modern history. Our lawmakers are not happy, and their job affects everyone’s job (and happiness, in the long run). Unfortunately, there isn’t a lot we can do about Washington except wait and see. The recent elections were a happy pill for some, a cup of hemlock for others.

    Closer to home (and reality, perhaps) we can simply choose to smile more at work and to be genuinely interested in our peers’ and co-workers’ well-being. As a former senior manager, I feel it is incumbent on management and leadership to be more positive, more affirming of a brighter present AND future. People will get it…they want to get it. I firmly believe we, as human beings, are a life form compelled by optimism and hope, which I see as a powerful source of happiness and contentment. As Thoreau once pointed out: “Surely joy is the condition of life.”

  2. Ravi S Iyer says:

    Annie, This is a perfect article. Love this. It resonates with my passion for the subject of employee engagement, but I have one question;

    Q. On the one hand Gallup sets out to define “Employee Engagement” as measured by the Q6 questionnaire and says that engaged employees are not interested in the organization’s Vision or Purpose. They are more interested in the Six questions. On the other hand Gallup says that an employee needs to know the Vision and Purpose of the organization! So what’s the right finding?

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