9 Employee Happiness Secrets Good Leaders Know

Employee Happiness jump for joy

Since the invention of the office, business leaders have searched for the secret to employee happiness. Why? While not synonymous, happiness is a powerful driver of employee engagement. In fact, studies have shown that happy employees make the most productive employees.

With visions of employees skipping into work on Monday mornings, companies have been experimenting with different strategies to find what works. For many, the concept of “employee happiness” seems like an unachievable organizational goal.

But it doesn’t have to be.

Let’s put your employees aside for a second and consider the other people in your life. You probably agree that you make your friends and family happy. Now think about how you do it.

Sure, you might send them mushy birthday cards or pay for the good wine, but strip all of that away and you make your friends happy by being you.

Now strip away the bonuses, benefits, and perks that you offer your employees. While all of that might make them happy in the short term, they ultimately want a boss who’s human. Neuroscience shows great leadership comes from understanding human behavior, and so does employee happiness.

Keep reading to learn the secrets good leaders know about keeping employees happy.

1. People want to be more than just “employees”

Employee Happiness nametag

When Walt Disney opened his first theme park, he knew he could instill company culture in the smallest details, including what to call employees. To this day, Disney Parks call their employees “cast members.” While it might seem like just a name, this subtle shift in nomenclature also serves as a guiding mantra for employee behavior. “Employees” might slouch off for a complaining session during their breaks, but “cast members” always smile. They perform and care for the park’s guests. Beyond behavior, the richer title tells each employee they play a significant role in the grand show of a Disney Park.

You don’t have to be in a unique industry like entertainment to inspire employees with creative nomenclature. Start with your company’s mission. How do your employees contribute to it? For instance, if it’s important that all of your employees act as stewards of the brand, try the term “Ambassador.” The new title should remind your employees every day how they work towards the core goals of your company.

Results from the 2014 TINYpulse Employee Engagement and Organizational Culture Report reveal 64% of employees don’t find their work culture strong. Swap out “employee” with a title more descriptive of your mission to solidify your own internal culture, and help make your brand and product stronger in the process.

2. Attitudes, not just environments, create employee happiness

Winston Churchill once said, “The pessimist sees difficulty in every opportunity. The optimist sees the opportunity in every difficulty.”

As it turns out, he may have been onto one of the key components of employee happiness. In the TED Talk below, positive psychology expert Shawn Achor talks about rethinking happiness. People (even employers) tend to think of happiness in terms of the external world, but the core of happiness comes from inside. By adjusting our attitudes, especially by embracing challenges instead of becoming stressed by them, we can increase our happiness.

Anchor outlines five ways people can increase their happiness. Incorporate them into your office to improve employee happiness:

1. Write down three new things you’re grateful for every day for 21 days.

In your office: Invite people to share what they’re grateful for everyday on a whiteboard anonymously. Email a list at the end of the day so everyone else in the office can be inspired.

2. Journal about a positive experience.

In your office: Encourage journaling by offering incentives for “positivity posts” on the employee blog.

3. Exercise.

In your office: SnackNation suggests making your meetings walking meetings. A little exercise goes a long way.

4. Meditate.

In your office: Turn a conference room into a meditation zone. Put a guided meditation up on the monitor; you don’t have to be a zen guru for your staff to enjoy the benefits of meditation! 

5. Perform random acts of kindness.

In your office: Create a high-five board so people can give shout outs to others for good things they’ve done.

3. You can learn a lot from employee quirks

What do you know about your employees this week that you didn’t know last week? Maybe you know Esteban in Accounting bikes to work every day after a chance elevator run-in, or that Kate in Sales is into Muy Thai boxing. You might be surprised to learn how varied and multi-talented your employees are. There’s definitely more to learn, so take the time to do so.

You make your friends and family happy by knowing their quirks. Your employees’ quirks need discovering too, but you don’t have to have drinks with all of them one-on-one to do it. Use these two easy tricks to find out what makes your employees unique:

Employee Happiness giraffe

Photo belongs to Hans Hillewaert via Flickr’s Creative Commons License

  • Quizzes. Let’s face it, your employees love online quizzes. (More truth? They probably take them during office hours.)

Few can resist the pull of an online quiz. Who doesn’t want to know their wild spirit animal or Super Mario Brothers alter ego? If you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em.

Tons of tools help you create online quizzes to replace your boring quarterly surveys. They can help you get to know your employees in completely out-of-the-box ways. Who knew Sarah was a “giraffe” because she loves to be the center of attention? Now you do. Publish the results in an email or infographic to get your employees laughing on Friday afternoon.

  • Show and tell. Even the happiest employees have interests outside of the office.

Make them happier by letting them show off. Maybe you have a closet wine connoisseur who would love to do a tasting demonstration for the staff. This shows you value their interests, and makes everyone else happy at the same time.

4. Transparency leads to trust and happiness

Employee Happiness

“Transparency” is a popular buzzword these days. Everyone from CEOs to HR pros advocate radical transparency as a way to create the bonds between employer and employee that lead to happiness and engagement. There are as many strategies around strategies as there are opinions, and tons of advice on striking the right balance between transparency and discretion. But what does it really mean to be transparent? And is it really that difficult?

The word itself has its origins in Medieval Latin where it meant “shining through.” You can think of workplace transparency as letting your humanity “shine through” your professional persona. When you’re transparent in the office, you act in a way that lets your employees relate to and trust you. In other words, you act authentically. Your employees are smart, and they can smell inauthentic communication a million miles away. Transparency, in the end, is all about being authentically you.

In writing about “the one perk that will guarantee employee happiness” CEO of PureWow, Ryan Harwood sums it up pretty well:

ryan harrow“Basically it comes down to being yourself. Don’t try to be someone or something you’re not.”

What does transparency look like in action? You talk to your employees like you would your friends and family. You speak frankly and honestly. You celebrate victories as a team, and you never sugarcoat or ignore things when they don’t go the company’s way.

Transparency makes employees feel like connected members of a company team instead of corporate minions. Teams are always happier than minions.

5. Happy employees feel good from the inside out

Employee Happiness smile

Photo by Maya Myers.

Some employee happiness initiatives work like aspirin. They get rid of some unpleasant symptoms for a short time, but neglect long term healing. Unhappy employees might be happier for a few months after a small raise, but inevitably they’ll revert back to unhappiness after the initial excitement wears off.

While you can’t make everyone happy, you can implement wellness initiatives targeting some deep human sources of unhappiness like stress, poor diet, and lack of exercise. This SnackNation post offers up 121 wellness program ideas for your office. Bet you can’t choose just one.

6. There’s no such thing as “all staff”

Employee Happiness group

Photo by Maya Myers.

Mother Teresa said she focused on one person at a time to help the masses. Thinking about one person adds emotion to your decisions that the nameless “masses” simply can’t evoke. So, if you think about helping a mass of nameless employees, your employee happiness initiatives will fail.

Be human by thinking instead about how your actions will affect one person. It can be a different someone for every decision, but thinking about how that one person will feel and react will add a whole new layer of humanity to your most difficult “boss decisions.” Your marketing department knows a general audience doesn’t exist. Don’t generalize your employees either.

7. Encouraging failure pays off

Employee Happiness failure

Photo belongs to Kate Sumbler via Flickr’s Creative Commons License

Calm down. We’re not talking about careless failures like Excel typos that lose your company thousands of dollars. We’re talking about the kind of failure that encourages growth because it pushes boundaries.

Spanx founder Sara Blakely believes in the power of failure. She likes to talk about how her dad would ask her what she failed at every evening. He knew if she failed at something, it meant she tackled things outside of her comfort zone.

Boredom drains employee happiness. Your employees do amazing work, but maybe they want to grow in ways outside of what they do every single day. Encourage department heads to do “flash projects” where they email your full staff about projects requiring a little extra help. Sit back, and learn what skills and interests your employees have been hiding.

8. Finding meaning makes employees happy

Behavioral psychologist Dan Ariely has uncovered the underlying reasons we feel happy about our work by studying people in action.

To summarize, acknowledgement and meaning lead to employee happiness.

Employee Happiness trophy

  • Acknowledgement: People desire acknowledgement for their work. No surprise there. However, Ariely found most people appreciate even small acts of acknowledgment from his observations in a classroom. It seemed like a normal test; everyone received their assignment and recorded their answers on paper. Afterwards, they walked their answers up to the test administrator. In one group, the administrator put their answers in a shredder as they watched. Understandably, people in this group felt despair at having their work destroyed in front of them. In another group, the test administrator simply nodded and placed the answers in a pile. The simple acknowledgement of a nod was enough to make this group feel significantly more satisfied with the work they had done.Your employees crave acknowledgement, but the level might be much simpler than you think. Casual nods and expressions of appreciation could go far in achieving employee happiness.

  • True meaning comes from effort. People like to work harder than you might think. Making things easier might rob certain projects of meaning. Ariely uses the example of cake mixes to illustrate this point. In the early days of cake mixes, home bakers only needed to add water to produce an entire cake. The inventors thought they would be delighted with the easy process. The ease backfired. Bakers lacked pride in their cakes. Cake mix inventors took the eggs out of the mix so home bakers would need to crack a few eggs to achieve the perfect cake. That little extra effort created a recipe for success. After that, cake mixes became popular and remain popular to this day.

In an office, people want to own their work. They want to put effort into making something great. When you feel like you’ve truly created something, whether it’s a report or a marketing plan, your sense of meaning and connection with the company skyrockets. In some cases, unhappy employees might just be craving more work!

9. Learn from employee goals

You probably have a running list of your employees’ top goals and how they’ve tried to accomplish them.

Do you know why your employees find their goals important?

During your one-on-one meeting with staff to discuss their goals, make sure you dedicate time to finding out why their goals matter to them and why they think they matter to the company.

Best case scenario: You find out they know their place in the company and organizational successes contribute to their happiness.

Worst case scenario: You find out they only outlined the goals they did because you told them to.

Silver lining: Either scenario gives you invaluable human insight into the minds of your employees. Now you know what might be necessary to make them happier.

Bonus: If you usually assign goals to your employees, give them a chance to outline some goals of their own invention. As we learned from Dan Ariely, meaning creates happiness at work, and meaning comes from owning the work we do every day. Find out how your employees want to add value to your company and let them do it.

Remember: You define your workplace happiness

Employee Happiness mug

Photo belongs to Glen Wright via Flickr’s Creative Commons License

The happiest employees work for leaders who know how to be human. You can do that, right? Even small things like smiling, explaining your decisions, and showing appreciation take you from being “a boss” to being a leader who makes employees happy.

And while happiness is just one piece of the engagement puzzle, it’s certainly an important one. Remember, you spend the majority of your waking hours at work. Why not make those hours more enjoyable?

Want more engagement, productivity, and wellness tips? Subscribe to our blog and never miss a post!

Get Access