The Info Science Of Happy Cultures

In the pursuit of a healthy bottom line and relentless economic growth, there’s one thing that still too often gets pushed to the sidelines when companies and corporations think about culture: employee happiness.

The truth is, employee happiness is absolutely essential for a healthy work culture. Looking after somebody else’s existential contentment (or a few hundred people’s contentment) might sound like a tall order, but thankfully, science has delivered some data about the importance of happiness in the workplace — as well as some common-sense solutions for how to bolster morale in your own organization.

Let’s get started!

Five “Happy Culture” Info Points

Just about everybody in the business world has their own ideas and anecdotal evidence about what it takes to build a happy and thriving work culture. But what data does science actually provide? A lot, as it turns out! There are five major points worth considering as you decide to take an empirical approach to culture-building in your own organization:

1. Data on Why People Work

Apart from putting food on the table, why do people go to work each day? Ostensibly, it has something to do with getting some meaning or self-worth out of our day jobs. However, it takes a particular kind of company to really serve up worthwhile work.

In the 1980s, using a wealth of data from employed Americans, University of Rochester professors Edward Deci and Richard Ryan deduced that there are six primary reasons why human beings go to work each day. Of these six, three emerged as the most important: play, purpose, and potential.

The meaning behind “play” should be obvious, but the second two might be somewhat less intuitive. One possible interpretation? People need work that makes them feel as though their time is a worthwhile investment — both in the company’s future and in their own. The work they spend their waking hours completing also needs to be something that helps them fulfill their own potential — both as an employee and as a citizen.

What does this mean? For starters, it means building your daily operations around a simple, believable and pro-social company mission and platform. In other words, build something worth belonging to and believing in, and you’ll have far less trouble retaining your top talent.

2. Data on Effective Communications

We’re talking about culture, and central to culture is people. It stands to reason, then, that the methods we use to keep people in touch with one another can play a significant role in productivity, engagement and the ultimate success or failure of your venture.

In an effort to compile information on what makes a work team most successful, HBR found that communication consistently ranks among the most important factors.

They studied the success and failure of similar teams within a single organization. What they found was the teams that communicated most effectively were far and away the most successful, the most high-performing and the happiest.

But there’s an important caveat here: It’s not just about holding meetings to keep everybody up to speed — it’s about day-to-day interactions. It’s about making sure each member of the team is comfortable communicating outside “standard” channels.

In other words, don’t build walls. We’re not talking about cubicles — we’re talking about the kind of messy, splintered leadership structure that hinders workplace happiness in a variety of industries. Make a point to institute an open-door policy, and make sure each of your managers does the same. There should be no bottlenecks to swift and meaningful communications.

3. Data on “Democratizing” Leadership

It goes without saying that any formally incorporated enterprise requires a CEO — i.e. a firm hand on the tiller. But what we mentioned about communication above is just the first step toward democratizing leadership — the next step is rethinking leadership itself.

Think beyond traditional company roles and meetings. Consider what happens when the structure of a company allows for multidirectional, energetic and organic conversations. Teams and businesses should be structured in such a way that collaboration is encouraged in all things, and team members can interface with each other directly — formally or informally — rather than running everything “up the ladder” to a single leader.

Traditional ladder-based company structures seem to encourage an altogether different kind of dynamic within a company, in which individual employees more-or-less “compete” with one another to bring the best ideas to their immediate supervisor. The trouble with this model, of course, is that just about all of the scientific evidence available to us suggests that collaboration instead of competition results in the best end product.

4. Data on Realistic Expectations

A so-called “hit piece” published in the New York Times last year detailed how retail and cloud services megalith Amazon maintains “unreasonably high expectations” for its white-collar employees. The result? One former Amazon employee claimed: “Nearly every person I worked with, I saw cry at their desk.”

It’s true that high expectations have a tendency to bring out some of the best and most thoughtful innovations, but where’s the upper limit? Is tumbling employee morale really a price worth paying? According to that same NYT exposé, very few of these white-collar workers last more than a few years with the company.

The takeaway here is to set the bar high, but not so high that ambition is expected to replace job satisfaction — or sanity, for that matter. The information available on this topic suggests that your employees will thrive if they’re held to high standards, but that they also need to be free to pursue those standards in the way that makes the most sense for them, individually.

In other words, we give a lot of lip service to the concept of a “work-life balance,” but that probably starts with making sure your team members aren’t having existential crises at their desks every day.

5. Data on Effective Bosses

For our final point, let’s move beyond metaphysical health to the health of the body. Startling research from the Karolinska Institute suggests that there’s a very strong link between stress at work and incidences of heart disease in employees. In other words, ineffective or stress-inducing bosses are literally taking a toll on our life expectancies.

Further evidence indicates that as much as 80 percent of doctor’s office visits are directly attributable to workplace stress.

We saved this point for last because the things that separate a terrible boss from a great one can be truly subjective, and it may change from one industry to the next. However, it’s not hard to gauge your own impact as a boss. For starters, do your employees go out of their way to engage you in conversation? Do smiles and eye contact abound in the hallways? If the answer is no, you might have to do some thinking about your approach. Managing a business requires vision, certainly, but managing people requires a more personal touch.

Overcoming Stressors, Together

It’s true that our jobs will likely always have some say in the amount of stress in our lives, but there are ways to mitigate this influence — as well as build a workplace (and a workforce) that feels like a supportive, hopeful and happy place to work.

Your approach may differ from what’s been described here, and your mileage may vary, but becoming mindful of what science has to say about workplace happiness is a great place to start.


This article was written by William Craig from Forbes and was legally licensed through the NewsCred publisher network.