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How managers can make employees happy

Published:Sunday | June 7, 2015 | 6:00 AM

It's easy in these times of economic difficulty to focus on the bad news.

The fact is, just the exercise of watching prices rise and exchange rates falter gives each of us evidence that being unhappy is no longer a choice, but a consequence.

In corporate Jamaica, executives who trust in the link between employee productivity and happiness scratch their heads wondering what to do. They conclude that employees who can influence their state of mind can also be more productive. They know that giving away more money doesn't work for more than a short time, that engagement is not something that can be bought or sold at a price. It must come from inside.

However, they typically have a difficult time translating this knowledge into concrete action. For example, employee appraisals often devolve into little more than cliches. This confuses the recipient, who, based on the feedback, has no idea what to do differently.

An example borrowed from a recent study highlights the need for managers to do their own research. Happiness, it appears, is not a random mood that descends out of nowhere. Instead, it's strongly correlated to particular habits.

First, let's consider the opposite. I have a friend who has a habit of recreating past disappointments with remarkable ease. She not only remembers the details, but evokes all the emotions that were present in that moment, no matter how long ago. She is well-practiced.

Contrast her routine with one described by University of Pennsylvania professor, Martin Seligman. "Every night for the next week, set aside ten minutes before you go to sleep. Write down three things that went well today and why they went well. Next to each positive event, answer the question: Why did this happen?"

I can speak to the power of such a practice. For the past 13 years or so, I have recorded a list of things I am grateful for, before sending it via email to another person. Today, it's an activity scheduled in my calendar each week that I hope to become as routine as brushing my teeth.

The effect, which Seligman details, is remarkable. After I hit 'send' I feel immediately different. The fact that someone close to me is reading the list makes a big difference because it's a peek into some of my innermost thoughts. It acts as a powerful reminder of what's important.

As you may imagine, these two contrasting sets of habits produce opposite results. Is it conceivable that this simple technique could be taught in corporations? In the right context - yes.

Employee resilience is an attribute companies say they care about a great deal, but do little to help employees develop. The few who attempt to hire 'rah rah' motivational speakers discover that this effect doesn't last long. What endures for much longer are new repetitive behaviours like the ones Seligman uncovered.

The best news of all is that the technique of translating an emotional state into practical, teachable behaviour changes is one that anyone can learn. In fact, it's a must if you, as a manager, hope to create new productive habits among your employees. Here are some guidelines.

First, translate emotions into behaviours. Take a long, hard look at the end result: an emotion, feeling or attitude you want. It may be quite vague at first.

Then, decide which observable behaviours can be used as a proxy. In other words, ask yourself: If someone were to implement the chosen behaviours, would it be reasonable to assume that the end result has been achieved? For example, if someone consistently makes a Seligman-style bedtime list, is it reasonable to conclude they will become happier?

Second, do research. Much of our conventional wisdom around creating emotional results is just plain wrong, and our intuition is sometimes misleading. For example, many executives are motivated by corporate profits. They are baffled as to the reason why employees don't share this ambition. To get past these biases, use studies in psychology and management to separate fact from fiction. Then, convert research results, which usually come from outside the Caribbean, into local language and practice.

And third, coach your workers. The average employee isn't born with enlightened habits of mind and must be taught. The best method is usually some kind of coaching that involves their immediate supervisor. However, managers often don't attempt to model the desired behaviour and are reluctant to share their personal struggles. If you find yourself disconnected from your employees, this may be part of the problem.

Ultimately, the best way to start as a manager is by helping yourself, even if the pain isn't acute. Your direct experience is an invaluable asset if, like author Tim Ferris, you try your recommendations on yourself first. This is one powerful way to give yourself choice over what you feel, which is exactly what your employees want as well.

n Francis Wade is the author of 'Perfect Time-Based Productivity' and a management consultant. To receive a free summary of each of his past articles, send email to columns@fwconsulting.com