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4 ways to turn workplace happiness into a competitive advantage

Taco Thursdays and free yoga have their limits — for lasting workplace happiness leaders need to think about purpose.
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Adobe Stock / rootstocks / Big Think
Key Takeaways
  • Leaders who generate workplace happiness also create significant competitive advantages.
  • New research suggests the debate should be reframed from reward-focused happiness to purpose-driven happiness.
  • When we connect what we are doing at work with why we are doing it, we become a lot happier.

Each of us will clock roughly 84,365 hours at work in our lifetime. But for 1 in 3 of us, those working hours are not happy ones. Fortunately, many leaders are waking up to the fact that solving the crisis in workplace happiness is not only the right thing to do, but one that leads to immense competitive advantages. Studies are now linking happiness to higher work satisfaction and retention, more productivity, sharper strategic decision making, more ethical judgement calls and even better physiological health

So, if cracking this problem is such a commercially and ethically smart thing to do, why are most of us still missing the mark? The reality is that while today’s wellbeing-at-work industry has spun up to service everything from next-gen benefits to in-house yoga and Taco Thursdays, these perks will only tackle symptoms at the surface. To actually address the issue at the source, new research out of the London School of Economics (LSE) suggests it’s time to reframe the debate from reward-focused happiness to deeper (and incidentally cheaper) purpose-driven happiness.

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The study found that connecting your people to your purpose has the power to increase their experienced happiness in work by a phenomenal 12%. In this randomized control trial, those who engaged with the purpose of a stressful, time-pressured work task felt 12% higher positive affect after completing it, compared to the control group who didn’t have the purpose intervention. And fascinatingly, this small, simple experience took them from being 7.4% below the national average momentary happiness score to 4.2% above it. In short, when we connect what we are doing at work with why we are doing it, we become happier. A lot happier. 

So why does a sense of meaning have such a profound effect on how we feel? Evolutionary Goal Theorists think that to seek what we needed to survive in prehistoric times, almost every aspect of our wiring adapted in service of long and short term goal pursuit. And while we should resist tying things up in neat evolutionary bows, recent research from NYU exploring experiences in rat brains shows that dopamine spikes not only when a goal is achieved but, surprisingly, when it is set. Suggesting that our drive to find meaning in what we do is actually neurologically rigged into our brains. 

But while creating purpose-driven happiness at work is within every leader’s capability, it doesn’t come easy. Here are four things you need to get right to unlock the many benefits it brings. 

1. Sweat the words

Most companies now have purpose statements, but so many miss the mark with lofty or bland aspirations that could apply to any one of their competitors. To help your people join the dots between the task they are doing on a Tuesday afternoon and the impact that task could have in the world, your purpose has to work seriously hard. It has to be properly differentiated. Something that will stretch your ambitions both today and tomorrow. Simple enough for every single person to hold in their already-distracted heads. And compelling enough to remember in the moments that matter most.

Getting this right is tough. As leaders, you will need the space and courage to debate the big questions around where you play and don’t play, what actually makes you unique, and what impact you want to have on your customers’ lives and society for decades to come. Microsoft’s purpose is an excellent example. “To empower every person and every organization on the planet to achieve more” speaks to the markets they play in, while still being emotional enough to inspire belief, and ambitious enough to demand innovation. It’s helped CEO Satya Nadella grow Microsoft’s share price over 600% and turn them from stagnant incumbent to leader in major markets. 

2. Use purpose as a tool 

There is a difference between having the right purpose statement and actually being a purpose-driven company. Too many leaders use purpose to define “how we do good in the world” and strategy to define “how we make money.” But purpose-driven businesses have a single set of purposeful goals, and a strategic plan that makes impact and growth co-dependent. To do this, you need to use your purpose every day as a decision-making tool — the lens through which you judge performance, define the strategic choices you need to win, and guide how you execute together.   

There is a difference between having the right purpose statement and actually being a purpose-driven company.

When Leeds Building Society used their new purpose “Putting home ownership within reach of more people. Generation after generation” to reshape their strategy, they stopped their second home mortgages offer as it was contributing to the housing-stock shortage that kept home ownership out of reach for many. They replaced what they removed by adding record new first-time buyers to their books, increasing their lending by 25%, all while being true to what they stand for.

3. Get everyone committed

When was the last time you had a town hall meeting to announce an organizational change and, when it came to the Q&A, the room fell silent? PowerPoint comms from podiums won’t get people emotionally committed to your purpose — they need the safety and space to have open conversations. And this isn’t about forcing rose-tinted reactions. Humans need the chance to challenge and wrestle with something before we start to feel like it’s actually ours. To create the foundations for purpose-driven happiness, make sure your teams reflect on both the light and the dark: “What do you like about our purpose and what don’t you like? What feels exciting and what feels scary?”

Leaders also need to give people the time to find their own meaning in their work. Questions like: “When you think about the impact you personally want to have in the world, what within our purpose and work do you find most meaningful?” will help individuals start to draw clearer links between their small and big agenda. And let’s not forget we are disproportionately driven by what others do, because our wiring tells us we need the group to survive. Happiness grows not just from connecting personally with purpose, but from connecting as a team around it. Help groups ask themselves: “What unique role does this team have in delivering this purpose and strategy?” and “how are we going to work together to make that happen?” 

InterContinental Hotel Group is a company that values emotional commitment and the competitive edge it brings. Having first done the hard yards to make sure every employee got to experience and debate their new strategic direction, they embarked on a three-year journey delivering their highest net system-size growth in a decade whilst simultaneously taking 15% out of their cost base — all while improving on nearly every measure of cultural health. 

4. Join the dots every day

We are quick to commit, but we are also fast to forget. So it’s on leaders to actively find ways to help their teams align the what to the why in moments big and small.

What conversations will encourage new recruits to join the dots as they are interviewing and onboarding? How can you help your teams link back to purpose when they are setting personal goals and objectives? When can you inspire teams to reflect on their wins, their failures and their personal development in the context of purpose? And what can you do to hardwire it into your performance processes and reward conversations? Doing all this consistently takes real discipline. When it feels repetitive, you’re doing it right. 

Nothing joins the dots between our everyday work and our broader sense of impact better than celebrating progress.

And remember, nothing joins the dots between our everyday work and our broader sense of impact better than celebrating progress. The trick is to do that little and often. Rather than asking your teams to climb Everest, chunk the journey out into much smaller summits and make sure to mark the wins together every step of the way. 

We all have a right to be happy at work. And leaders must take responsibility for this, just as they do for customer satisfaction and shareholder returns. But with today’s workforce facing the immense complexity and uncertainty of the years ahead, now more than ever, we need deeper ways to turn someone’s Sunday night blues into a reason to get out of bed. As the LSE study reinforces, it’s only when we join the dots between the what and the why that we experience the kind of purpose-driven happiness that comes from feeling part of something bigger, and the kind of commitment that makes us want to run through walls to win.

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