Federal Coach

By Tom Fox, VP for Leadership and Innovation, Partnership for Public Service

Blog archive

Federal Coach: How to be happy at work

(Fox's Federal Coach column was originally published on The Washington Post On Leadership site.)

Shawn Achor, author of The Happiness Advantage and one of the world's leading experts in human potential, has lectured on his research in 48 countries. After more than a decade at Harvard University, Achor founded Good Think Inc. to share this research with organizations worldwide. This interview was conducted by Tom Fox, author of the Washington Post’s Federal Coach blog.

How can leaders create a culture of happiness?

First, take time for yourself. We have the greatest amount of control over our own mindset. Create a positive habit that takes about two minutes a day and do that for 21 days in a row. In trainings we have people journal about one positive experience, writing about every detail they can remember about a positive experience over the past 24 hours. Or meditate, exercise or write a kind letter to a friend. All these habits increase happiness and retrain the brain to get stuck in a positive pattern for evaluating work.

Sometimes managers get so focused on problems they miss seeing successes and finding the meaning in their work. These positive activities change that pattern and return power to the individual. Along with higher levels of happiness, the success rates on your team start to improve, which is where it starts to move from an individual to leadership.

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. When I was working with Harvard students, I found many spent 18 hours a day in the library when they got stressed. They’d come out bleary eyed and depressed. Their grades were dropping and they hated Harvard.

I told them they were cutting themselves off from the greatest predictors of happiness and success. 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.

How do you know if you’re the right kind of optimist?

If you are only seeing the good things, you’ve got a distorted view of the world. If you recognize both strengths and weaknesses of your team and yourself, you are starting in a rational place. The trouble is when a manager thinks that a person is negative or underperforms and will never change. That can create problems. We’ve found that hospitals that report the greatest number of medical errors have some of the lowest malpractice rates. It’s completely counterintuitive, but the positive leaders created the psychological thinking to bring up problems that could fixed. On teams without the psychological safety, people felt they couldn’t make mistakes or bring up negatives—and problems never got fixed and even got worse.

If you had one more hour a day, how would you use it?

I’d make it completely altruistic. It’s actually selfish. If I wrote emails or called friends, I’d feel like I’m spreading positivity and happiness. When you do kind things for other people, it creates a longer happiness effect than if you do something for yourself. Eating a chocolate bar makes us happy for five minutes. Donating money to charity keeps that cycle of feeling good going because you’re making positive change in the world.

We found that people who gave social support at work and asked friends to lunch or helped someone with their work are far and away the happiest people. They were 40 percent more likely to receive a promotion and had significantly less burnout. The more you give, the more you get in terms of meaning, happiness and success rates.

Posted by Tom Fox, VP for Leadership and Innovation, Partnership for Public Service on Oct 26, 2011 at 4:02 PM

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