Happiness Drives Performance

  • Which comes first, succeeding and then being happy, or being happy and then succeeding? How much does initial happiness matter?
  • A large scale study found that well-being predicts outstanding job performance.

According to new research released in MIT Sloan Management Review, employees with high measures of well-being upon starting a job deliver superior performance at a dramatically higher rate than those with lower measures of happiness.

Paul Lester, associate professor of management at the Naval Postgraduate SchoolMartin Seligman, director of the University of Pennsylvania’s Positive Psychology Center, and Ed Diener, influential American psychologist, followed nearly 1 million U.S. Department of Defense employees (the single largest employer in the world) for five years, measuring their relative happiness and optimism using 25 questions drawn from PANAS and the Life Orientation Test. The participants spanned across all job functions (infantry soldiers, office workers, pilots, engineers, truck drivers, medical professionals, logistics experts, etc.).

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“While we expected that well-being and optimism would matter to performance, we were taken aback by just how much they mattered,” said Lester, “In short, not only do happiness and optimism matter to employee performance, but they matter a lot, and both predict how employees will do.”

Within the workplace, we know that employees with higher formal measures of well-being are more likely to emerge as leaders, earn higher scores on performance evaluations, and tend to be better teammates.[i] We also know, based on substantial research, that happier employees are healthier, have lower rates of absenteeism, are highly motivated to succeed, are more creative, have better relationships with peers, and are less likely to leave a company.[ii]

The results of the research underscore the importance of employee happiness to business results and beg the question: “What can leaders do about employee happiness?”

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Following the science and taking a structured approach to hiring for, promoting, and developing employee happiness, the authors urge leaders to commit to three actions:

  1. Measure happiness in both employees and job candidates. “We advocate using measures of happiness and optimism as discriminators, or ‘tiebreakers’ in the hiring process as the risks are low and benefits can be very important,” noted Lester.
  2. Develop happiness in the workplace. Training initiatives targeting employee well-being do not require a significant time investment, are cost effective, and carry a high ROI. (Examples are included in the article.)
  3. Retain employees who are happy. “While organizations should want happy employees because they perform significantly better than those who are unhappy; organizations also need happy employees because happiness is in fact contagious,” said Seligman.

This research with the Department of Defense over the last decade consistently uncovered a foundational truth: Employee well-being initiatives work best when confident leaders present the material and when senior leaders place significant emphasis on the overall effort.[iii]

Thus, leaders must be willing to invest their efforts into making the initiatives successful by not only advocating for them — for example, by securing resources for a program and promoting positive strategic messaging — but also by participating in the training and incorporating it into their own behaviors.

If leaders want to improve employee happiness, then they must model that which is taught so that it becomes integral to the organization’s lexicon and culture.

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[To share your insights with us, please write to sghosh@martechseries.com]