How Leaders can help Employees with Morale, Resilience, Wellbeing and Happiness
“I believe that the very purpose of our life is to seek happiness.”
– The Dalia Lama, speaking to an audience in 1993, as recounted in The Art of Happiness
When I talk with friends and acquaintances, I often answer “surviving” or “hanging in there” as my answer to the question “How are you doing?”
A few years ago, we experienced a sizable shock to “normality” which added a lot of stress to already challenging lives. Still today, we see the effects. Stress leads to bad outcomes for individuals and businesses. Stress results in adverse health impacts (both physical and mental), reduced creativity, less productivity, and worse decision-making.
In all arenas of life, from the classroom (school or college) to the workplace to our communities, leaders have been challenged to come up with ways to increase morale, resilience, wellbeing, and overall happiness.
What Can Leaders Do?
This topic can come up repeatedly in recent conversations. It matters deeply to me. As a leader I have a responsibility to create a team culture and working environment that set the stage for my team and colleagues to perform at their best and move forward towards achieving their professional goals.
Who Is Responsible? – The Employee or the Employer
The unspoken underlying issue is who bears the primary responsibility for helping employees to thrive and be happier at work.
To date, most of the emphasis has been placed on the individual employee. After all, the employer pays employees to do the job. Isn’t that enough? It is called “work” for a reason. Work is not meant to be fun or make employees happy, right? Certainly not all the time. We’ve all heard the quote, “I don’t live to work. I work to live.” Work is viewed as a means to another end, and hence it being “unpleasant” has become acceptable.
Individuals are encouraged to take advantage of company benefits intended to help manage or reduce stress including: (i) individual support via mental health/EAP options; (ii) vacation days, (iii) group benefits such as meditation or yoga classes; and, (iv) team / company outings and happy hours. Outside of work, employees are urged to indulge in self-care. Some may choose to dive deeper and talk with executive or life coaches. These coaches may recommend practicing the tenets of positive psychology including changing beliefs and mindset about possibilities, seeking out positive opportunities, engaging personal strengths in the job, and living deeply held values through your work.
Work is a Relationship
Both Parties Must Act to Create a Positive Outcome.
Achieving business outcomes and being productive at work (unless one truly works alone all the time) is about collaboration and optimizing series of relationships. These relationships are between employees and their peers, their direct report(s) and their manager. Relationships are a two-way street where both parties must contribute for the relationship to thrive.
Leaders (and companies) are the party with the greater power to make the relationship successful. Sadly, in most cases, they have not been giving enough to help employees flourish. Leaders (and companies) need to acknowledge and lean into their responsibility to help employees thrive at work. To paraphrase from New Testament and from President Kennedy, “to those whom much is given [the leader], much is expected.”
Here are some of my thoughts, based on the tenets of positive psychology pioneered by Martin Seligman, on how leaders and employers can create a better workplace environment that can increase the happiness of employees.
I have found the work of Tal Ben Shahar particularly resonant and recommend listening to him speak (here and here are two videos.) He taught a Positive Psychology class at Harvard that at one point was the most popular class on campus. He has since left teaching and started the Happiness Study Academy. In his videos and other teaching on positive psychology, there are a lot of great nuggets on how individuals can undertake discrete practices to improve their happiness.
I will spend the rest of this piece on suggestions on what leaders can (and cannot) do to improve happiness and increase resilience of their teams and companies.
The Bad News First – There is No Silver Bullet
- No one can “force” others to be happier. We can create an environment which encourages people to be happier. However, people cannot be forced to be happier – I know this personally from my bouts with depression. Happiness comes from inside. As the Dalai Lama says, “happiness is determined more by one’s state of mind than by external events.”
- One can’t get to happiness directly. It is an outcome (not dissimilar to building wealth, exceeding quota, or achieving “Unicorn” status). It must be approached indirectly by working on a series of things that are in your direct control which in turn improve happiness and satisfaction.
- Happiness is not an absolute measure. It must be compared to something. The aim is to be happier rather than striving for the goal of “happy”. The goal for all of us is to progress a little bit forward compared to our own baseline each week.
- Happiness is not a destination. Often people say (and I have been guilty of this on several occasions,) “Once I get ___________ [fill in a goal be it a relationship, a promotion, a certain net worth figure or something else], I’ll be happy.” Usually when people reach that goal, they experience a moment of happiness. But that positive feeling wears off quickly. Thereafter many people wonder, now what should I strive for?
- Monetary rewards tend not to work. Compensation plays such an important role in the workplace. It provides a universal benchmark for one comparison of “worth” relative to our peers in the same company or same industry. It stands to reason that raises, bonuses, better benefits and new perks should help improve happiness. While these matter, what they do is move someone from a negative state to neutral rather than to positive. Monetary rewards are one-time things. Lots of studies have shown that humans exhibit “hedonic adaption” – increases in wealth rarely lead to a sustained higher level of happiness.
The Indirect Path to Increasing Happiness and Resilience
If a leader is committed to building a happier team, I recommend starting with the following:
- Talk about this topic openly with their team, and encourage a robust discussion.
- Model some of the suggested behavior that you want employees to follow.
- Recognize and accept that being happier does not preclude people from having days when they feel sad, angry, or afraid.
On each of the five major indirect paths to increasing happiness (shown above), here are some things leaders can do. These are a small set of suggestions which each of you can build on.
Promote Relationships and Encourage Seeking Social Support
Lots of research has shown that having strong personal relationships is critical to being happier and living longer. How can leaders create these opportunities in the workplace?
- Create Opportunities for People to Get to Know Each Other in a Different Way. Work, particularly over video conferencing, can become highly transactional. Add in small interactions on a regular where everyone can share a different facet of themselves – favorite ice cream, first concert, preferred cuisine or go-to cocktail etc. etc. No one needs to talk at length or should hog the limelight. These little “shares” allow people to get to know each other through a different lens. It can facilitate different points for deeper connection in the future.
- Create Opportunities to Give Back. Being of service to others is a proven powerful way to increase happiness. Everyone, regardless of their seniority in the company, has strengths and unique skills. Identify the unique skills of each person on your team (as it relates to the business) and then collaborate with other team leaders to allow people to teach their peers who are interested in learning about what each person has to offer.
- Create Shared Experiences. Be creative and include those on your hybrid/remote teams. Events could include happy hours, a lunch out, team challenges, or even gift certificates. Consider something different that is more of an experience whether an escape room, axe throwing or an obstacle course, to name a few. Shared experiences create memories which often are a source of future happiness.
- Create Opportunities for Growth and Development. An element of happiness is the feeling of growth, development, and forward progress. People thrive when they are learning. Employees want opportunities to grow. Inquire about their interests and desires. Find ways (even when budgets are limited) to create growth and learning opportunities. Get creative here. Growth and development lead to mastery. Mastery is one of the three key factors as outlined in Daniel Pink’s research reveals which drives intrinsic motivation. Mastery is the desire to improve. Find out about areas of mastery that appeal to each of your team members, in the context of their work and job. Help them cultivate it and equally importantly, showcase their mastery to others, so that they can experience the joy of self-confidence and pride in the workplace.
- Empower Your Team. Give employees greater autonomy over their work. Autonomy is another of the “big three” drivers of intrinsic motivation cited by Daniel Pink. For example, as the CFO, empower your controller to be the final decision-maker about the selection of an audit firm or tax advisor out of a slate of finalists. Another path to increasing empowerment is to ask all employees to suggest ways to make their jobs more efficient and satisfying while still accomplishing the key tasks that need to be done. If your team knows that you are open-minded and have truly empowered them, you will be surprised by the new ideas generated by them which can help the business be more successful and efficient.
Meaning and Purpose (the third of Daniel Pink’s drivers of intrinsic motivation) can be found in many different milieus and not simply through religion. Create those opportunities in the workplace.
- Invest in the Long-Term Future of your Team. Make the time for quarterly meetings outside the office with all direct reports (and at least once a year, if possible, with everyone on your larger team.) Use that time to hear them talk about their career goals and aspirations. Let your team know you care about their career goals and aspiration beyond this job and even beyond this company. When people believe you care about them, they feel happier and are more likely to contribute above and beyond to the company.
- Inquire About What Motivates Each Employee. Everyone wants to find linkages between their values and their work. Ask about values. Find ways to connect each employee’s most salient values to the work they do and the contribution they make to the company, its customers, their fellow employees, and the investors.
- Listen in a Way that Conveys you are Truly Considering all Input. We all know listening matters. Simply listening is not enough (something I have learned repeatedly in personal and professional relationships.) Employees need to believe that even if you choose not to implement their advice, you have truly considered it. If they believe that they are being fully heard, there will be a constant positive flow of ideas from them to you. People who feel heard also feel valued and happier.
- Model Vulnerability. Share examples of where you have made mistakes and talk about how you felt, dealt with them, and what you learned. Let your team know that it is ok to ask for help and even ok to make mistakes, since without risks and mistakes, you will also likely never see excellence and out-performance.
- Focus on Strengths. Ask everyone on a weekly basis, “What is going well?”. Encourage them to write down what they have accomplished on a weekly basis and talk about what they did well. Most of the “reflective” time at work is spent time analyzing mistakes and shortfalls. Make the effort to focus on the wins as well – both little and big. Go beyond simply celebrating the outcome, but rather describe how the individual acted and how the process unfolded leading to the eventual positive outcome.
- Reframe Things. Words really matter (I’ve learned that again and again the hard way). When things go wrong, don’t merely analyze the causes of failure. Look for positive lessons. As Henry Ford said, “Failure is only the opportunity more intelligently to begin again.”
- Model Having Boundaries. Today we can be at work always, regardless of where we are or what the time is. Leaders can showcase healthy boundaries to their teams. Even if you choose to work “after hours”, e-mails can be scheduled for delivery during more normal business hours and slack messages can be left in the draft folder until the workday starts and sent out then.
- Encourage Downtime and Taking Vacation. Encourage your direct reports to take all their vacation. Tell them that research shows that those who take downtime return refreshed, recharged and more productive. Leaders need to take their vacation, so the direct reports know it is ok to take vacation.
- Set Specific Time Windows for Important Meetings. People may choose to do something for their personal health early in the day, at lunchtime or in the evening. Do you best to avoid team meetings in those slots. If you choose to schedule them then, allow everyone who cannot attend a free pass.
Building a more resilient workforce and increasing happiness is not a goal for the faint of heart. It is hard work and yet important, necessary, and valuable.
More important that anything behavior I have suggested above, I want to re-iterate an item I touched on briefly. Acknowledge and accept the fullness of being human, which includes sadness, anger, fear, guilt, and shame. Ensure there is safety for people on your teams to talk about their feelings, and that let them know this range of feelings is part of being human. Tell them it is ok to feel bad and to experience the negative. And assure them that these emotions will pass. That acknowledgment of everyone’s humanity will give your team and colleagues the permission to notice the good and seek out the positive on a more regular basis.
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