How happiness can help business leaders

I was in a hotel in Asia this week tuning into Talking Business with Linda Yeah on BBC World Service. Linda was asking three CEOs, including John Rice of GE and Dominic Barton of McKinsey & Company, what makes a good leader.

Neither was from the traditional ‘command and control’ tradition of leadership. In their words, they saw it as their job to “unleash people”. Leading successful companies is not a one-man job but about creating a group of leaders. It is not about egos. It is about end results. Successes are shared, even if mistakes have to be owned by the person at the top.

To deal with this reality the business leaders talked about needing staff to be open about their problems and challenges so they are able to work them out together. To feel confident that they can work in this way employees “want to know you’re in their corner”.

How can concern for happiness at work help business leaders to create this sort of relationship with employees?

Creating a shift in boardroom culture from thinking about employees as human resources to human beings is subtle but its effect can be significant. For example, how we view staff affects how we communicate with them as well as the HR policies we implement.

For human resources To human beings
Human capital or assets People
Rational Rational and Emotional
Work self Whole self
What’s wrong What’s right

Perhaps the funniest example I have seen of company culture affecting communication has been a shipping inventory referring to the employees working the cargo vessel as “self-loading freight”. I am also reminded of a recent visit to an office of an organisation I know well, following an arduous and unpopular relocation. The distress of the move compounded by a new hot-desking policy had stripped the workplace of its soul. The dialogue between leaders and employees had been one of rational argument – there was a strong business case for lower officer rents and streamlining.

In an attempt to do something tangible to reintroduce the lost sense of belonging somebody had come up with the idea of painting all the doors and cabinets in the brand colour. As a solution, it feels a bit tokenistic as you walk around. It is devoid of the emotional depth which infuses the ‘us-them’ dynamic between leaders and employees that was forged over the long months of consultation.

I wonder how conversations about happiness could have opened up a different possibility space. For example, the office move could have been framed (and resourced) as an opportunity for staff to dream up and co-create a different sort of work environment, which worked for them.

In my experience, concern for happiness at work helps employees to feel that the company – and its leaders – understand them as whole people, where their individual performance at work is co-dependent on lots of other work and non-work factors – e.g., levels of trust in the team or childcare commitments. This creates a different foundation of engagement where employees feel they are working with leaders, rather than _for _them, to raise organisational performance and success.

Jody AkedJody has been improving lives with applied behavioural science for over twelve years and helps our clients kick-start positive change from the boardroom to the factory floor. Jody has vast experience consulting with a diverse range of organizations both public and private, and developed the Five Ways to Well-being alongside Nic, which went on to form the foundation of public health advice across the globe.

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