Photo via Eversheds International, Flickr
Happy employees work harder, are more productive, and healthier, studies show. And, perhaps surprisingly, if you want happy employees, you should ask them to work even harder. Not more hours, but more challenging projects or tasks.
In “The Science Behind the Smile,” Harvard Business Review‘s (HBR) Gardiner Morse talks with Harvard psychology professor Daniel Gilbert, best-selling author of Stumbling on Happiness.
For Happy employees: challenge, don’t threaten
Morse: Many managers would say that contented people aren’t the most productive employees, so you want to keep people a little uncomfortable, maybe a little anxious, about their jobs.
Gilbert: Managers who collect data instead of relying on intuition don’t say that. I know of no data showing that anxious, fearful employees are more creative or productive. Remember, contentment doesn’t mean sitting and staring at the wall. That’s what people do when they’re bored, and people hate being bored. We know that people are happiest when they’re appropriately challenged—when they’re trying to achieve goals that are difficult but not out of reach.
Challenge and threat are not the same thing. People blossom when challenged and wither when threatened. Sure, you can get results from threats: Tell someone, ‘If you don’t get this to me by Friday, you’re fired,’ and you’ll probably have it by Friday. But you’ll also have an employee who will thereafter do his best to undermine you, who will feel no loyalty to the organization, and who will never do more than he must.
It would be much more effective to tell your employee, ‘I don’t think most people could get this done by Friday. But I have full faith and confidence that you can. And it’s hugely important to the entire team.’ Psychologists have studied reward and punishment for a century, and the bottom line is perfectly clear: Reward works better.”
In fact, a Society of Human Resource Management (SHRM) survey, “Job Security Is No Longer Top Driver of Satisfaction,” indicates that “the opportunity to use skills and abilities” has displaced “job security” as the top driver of satisfaction. Liz Wiseman, president of The Wiseman Group, cites that finding in an HBR article, “An Easy Way to Make Your Employees Happier.”
Using skills and abilities “consistently ranks among the top two, regardless of a respondents’ tenure, age, gender, or organization staff size,” she notes, and her reasearch for the book Rookie Smarts confirms the finding.
“Employees don’t just want their skills used; they want them stretched,” she writes.
Her team asked roughly 1,000 people from various industries to rate the level of challenge in their jobs and their level of satisfaction, and they found a strong correlation between the two. As challenge level goes up, so does satisfaction.
“Upon further investigation, we discovered that people who had received a challenging assignment, in general, figured it out within three months and were ready for the next one. Respondents needed 12 months, on average, to begin to feel ready for a new role, and they started to feel stale after only 24 months, on average.”