Why Happiness Is a Leadership Asset

Research shows that optimistic workers improve organizations. Leaders can't change personalities, but they can take steps to reset the mood.

Organizations thrive when their employees are happy, research shows. So now all you have to do is make sure your people are happy.

Of course, that’s a tough trick in any situation. Job satisfaction is a function of a variety of factors, not all of which a leader has control over, or may want to institute. (For instance, raises aren’t always in the budget, and they often have limited impact.) But happiness in the workplace has been even harder to find since the pandemic started. A report in the New York Times Magazine about the state of workplace ennui that’s in part driving the Great Resignation notes that 25 million people left their jobs in the second half of last year, a record.

And the General Social Survey, which tracks the American mood, finds us in a happiness deficit. As Noreen Malone writes in the Times magazine story: “Since the pandemic began, Americans’ happiness has cratered.… For the first time since the survey began, more people say they’re not too happy than say they’re very happy.”

One study found that ‘happy people are much more connected to other happy people within the network.’

So if you’re concerned about where your staff or members are at, mood-wise, it’s worth paying attention to what does and doesn’t affect happiness in the workplace. Three psychology scholars recently found an interesting place to explore the matter: the U.S. Army. As they wrote last week in the MIT Sloan Management Review, a five-year study found that soldiers who identified as happy won four times as many awards as those who were unhappiest. “Not only do happiness and optimism matter to employee performance, but they matter a lot, and both predict how well employees will do,” they write. (If you think the Army is an odd place to be looking for organizational diversity, they make a good argument that the military models a range of job roles, with hierarchies that echo the civilian workforce.)

The writers argue that when possible, organizations should hire with happiness in mind—there are various assessment tools that track exactly that. But “hiring for happiness” may not be practical, and it does nothing about the people you have now. For that, they recommend a handful of exercises that are designed to nudge mindsets in a more positive direction. That can include a “Gratitude Visit,” a brief testimony about a positive influence; writing down three things that went well each day, and the reasons why; and a survey that identifies strengths and encourages people to put them to work. 

All of those suggestions have data backing up their benefits, though I confess all of them also make me shudder a bit—pity the poor staffer who hates writing and now is compelled to write a Gratitude Visit. And making things programmatic does have a way of taking the fun out of them, even if happiness is the goal. But there are a couple of other options. Chief among them is recognizing, as the article’s authors write, that happiness is contagious. One long-running study found “not only that happiness can spread across a social network, but also that happy people are much more connected to other happy people within the network.” To put it another way: happiness helps provides the function in those cross-functional teams.

But if your goal is to improve the mood of the organization, they note, you should also connect with that influential person you see every time you pass a mirror. Wellness efforts succeed best when leaders demonstrate their full investment in them. But they also need to model the kind of mood they’re looking to encourage: “If leaders want to improve employee happiness, they must model that which is taught so that it becomes integral to the organization’s lexicon and culture.”

Happiness is a tough job, but somebody has to do it. Might as well be you.

(akinbostanci/E+/Getty Images Plus)

Mark Athitakis

By Mark Athitakis

Mark Athitakis, a contributing editor for Associations Now, has written on nonprofits, the arts, and leadership for a variety of publications. He is a coauthor of The Dumbest Moments in Business History and hopes you never qualify for the sequel. MORE

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