People used to believe that you didn’t have to be happy at work to succeed. And you didn’t need to like the people you work with, or even share their values. “Work is not personal,” the thinking went. This is bunk.
My research with dozens of companies and hundreds of people — as well as the research conducted by the likes of neuroscientists Richard Davidson and V.S. Ramachandran and scholars such as Shawn Achor — increasingly points to a simple fact: Happy people are better workers. Those who are engaged with their jobs and colleagues work harder — and smarter.
And yet, there is an alarmingly high number of people who aren’t engaged. According to a sobering 2013 Gallup report, only 30% of the U.S. workforce is engaged. This echoes what I’ve seen in my work. Not very many people are truly “emotionally and intellectually committed” to their organizations. Far too many couldn’t care less about what’s happening around them. For them, Wednesday is “hump day” and they’re just working to get to Friday. And then there’s the other end of the bell curve — the nearly one out of five employees is actively disengaged, according to the same Gallup report. These people are sabotaging projects, backstabbing colleagues, and generally wreaking havoc in their workplaces.
The Gallup report also noted that employee engagement has remained largely constant over the years despite economic ups and downs. Scary: we’re not engaged with work and we haven’t been for a long time.
Disengaged, unhappy people aren’t any fun to work with, don’t add much value, and impact our organizations (and our economy) in profoundly negative ways. It’s even worse when leaders are disengaged because they infect others with their attitude. Their emotions and mindset impact others’ moods and performance tremendously. After all, how we feel is linked to what and how we think. In other words, thought influences emotion, and emotion influences thinking.
It’s time to finally blow up the myth that feelings don’t matter at work. Science is on our side: there are clear neurological links between feelings, thoughts, and actions. When we are in the grip of strong negative emotions, it’s like having blinders on. We focus mostly — sometimes only — on the source of the pain. We don’t process information as well, think creatively, or make good decisions. Frustration, anger, and stress cause an important part of us to shut down —the thinking, engaged part. Disengagement is a natural neurological and psychological response to pervasive negative emotions.
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But it’s not just negative emotions we need to watch out for. Extremely strong positive emotions have the same effect. Some studies show that too much happiness can make you less creative and prone to engage in riskier behaviors (think about how we act like fools when we fall in love!). On the work front: I’ve seen groups of people worked up into a frenzy at sales conferences and corporate pep rallies. Little learning or innovation comes out of these meetings. Throw in a lot of alcohol and you’ve got a whole host of other problems.
If we can agree that our emotional states at work matter, what do we do to increase engagement and improve performance?
Over the past few years, my team at the Teleos Leadership Institute and I have studied dozens of organizations and interviewed thousands of people. The early findings about the links between people’s feelings and engagement are fascinating. There are clear similarities in what people say they want and need, no matter where they are from, whom they work for, or what they do. We often assume that there are huge differences across industries and around the world but the research challenges that assumption.
To be fully engaged and happy, virtually everyone tells us they want three things:
- A meaningful vision of the future: When people talked with our research team about what was working or not in their organizations, and what helped or hindered them the most, they talked about vision. People want to be able to see the future and know how they fit in. And, as we know from our work with Richard Boyatzis on intentional change, people learn and change when they have a personal vision that is linked to an organizational vision. Sadly, far too many leaders don’t paint a very compelling vision of the future, they don’t try to link it to people’s personal visions, and they don’t communicate well. And they lose people as a result.
- A sense of purpose: People want to feel as if their work matters, and that their contributions help to achieve something really important. And except for those at the tippy top, shareholder value isn’t a meaningful goal that excites and engages them. They want to know that they — and their organizations — are doing something big that matters to other people.
- Great relationships: We know that people join an organization and leave a boss. A dissonant relationship with one’s boss is downright painful. So too are bad relationships with colleagues. Leaders, managers, and employees have all told us that close, trusting and supportive relationships are hugely important to their state of mind — and their willingness contribute to a team.
Added up, brain science and our organizational research are in fact debunking the old myths: emotions matter a lot at work. Happiness is important. To be fully engaged, people need vision, meaning, purpose, and resonant relationships.
It’s on individuals to find ways to live our values at work and build great relationships. And it’s on leaders to create an environment where people can thrive. It’s simple and it’s practical: if you want an engaged workforce, pay attention to how you create a vision, link people’s work to your company’s larger purpose, and reward people who resonate with others.
Originally published on Harvard Business Review.