happy at work question

Happy at work: some of your questions answered


  • What are the habits of emotionally agile people that make them more satisfied in the workplace?  

Emotional agility is imperative to workplace functioning to help forge real, empathic and flourishing relationships, and leadership to aid commitment and engagement to the organisational vision. Emotions are not good or bad per se, but they add very useful information, activate necessary behavioural responses, tune our decision making, enhance memory for important events and facilitate interpersonal interactions. Emotions are a driving force, however left unchecked they also have the ability to overwhelm, dent confidence in decision making and negatively affect the overall emotional dynamics of a team. Both negative and positive emotions have been found to effect workplace mood and dynamics, known as ‘emotional contagion’ (Barsade, 2002). Emotions play a far greater role in determining business outcomes than many professionals might think. In a study of 358 managers at Johnson and Johnson, researchers found that the managers who demonstrated the highest performance had significantly more emotional competencies (Cavallo & Brienza, 2001).

The main habits of emotionally agile people are:

  • Awareness of and knowledge of one’s own emotional states and reaction, as well as the emotional climate of one’s team;
  • Having superior level of emotional and creative sensitivity combined with an enhanced emotional vocabulary;
  • Being able to understand one’s emotional reactions and trace these back to the underlying causes, as well as being able to predict the eventual consequences;
  • Inclusion of an ‘emotional culture’ component to the development of the team vision that is likely to result in a “sticky” vision that is accepted both emotionally and intellectually, thus increasing motivation;
  • Even though perceiving emotions is a crucial part of emotional agility, it is not sufficient on its own and needs to be counterbalanced by high capacities for emotional regulation.


  • How do employee happiness and recognition correlate?

Feeling recognised at work means being valued for who you are. Recognition consists of a comment or small act that signals to you that you are valued. When you feel valued, you will feel and do a host of additional and positive things in the short and long term. You’ll feel more motivated and energized, help others more, set more challenging goals, want to stay longer in your job and take less time off sick. At the other side of the coin, feeling unrecognised has effects that aren’t merely neutral, but negative because one is likely actively withdraw their labour. 

Managers who provide frequent recognition and encouragement have significantly higher project performance from their team. Specifically, scoring in the top quarter on giving recognition equates to a 42 percent increase in productivity compared with managers who score in the bottom quartile (Arakawa & Greenberg, 2007). By providing recognition, these managers satisfy two needs – for competence (signaling that someone is doing well) and connection (there is a human being taking an interest in you).  If you use Facebook, you will be aware of the surge of satisfaction you experience on seeing the “likes” accumulating around a piece of news shared with others.


Research shows that if we want to predict people’s happiness levels, we should not look at their income level, but instead the amount of recognition and respect they receive from their peers (Anderson et al, 2012).


  • With every employee having different reasons for why they might feel happy at work, how can companies ensure they create a happy team overall?

Even though each and every one of us may have different reasons for feeling happy, there are many commonalities in this experience. There are multiple factors that have an effect on workplace happiness, such as job design aligned with human motivation principles, workplace design addressing to the needs of security, concentration and interactivity; clear, transparent and timely communication; feeling belonging and proud of one’s company; alignment between the organisational and personal vision, etc.

However, what affects the overall feelings of the team the most is the quality of the relationship the team members have between each other and with their management. Human beings are essentially social creatures and as such interpersonal relationships are of central importance for happiness. We need other human beings and we like being around them. Whether we are introverted or extraverted, spending time in social settings enhances our levels of well-being. The Gallup Health-ways Well-being Index poll recently found that people need to spend 6-7 hours per day in social settings, and up to 9 if their job is stressful, to enhance or maintain well-being.

From a business perspective, there are very clear benefits for organisations 
that pay attention to relationships. Positive relationships generate enrichment, vitality and learning for individuals and organisations. This implies more than people merely getting along with one another, avoiding toxicity in their interactions. It is obvious that positive relationships are satisfying and preferred by people, but the benefits extend well beyond just providing a pleasant experience. Positive relationships have been shown to cultivate higher levels of mutual benefits, foster healthy team functioning, raise levels of commitment to the organisation, create higher levels of energy, cost reduction, time saving and project performance. Leaders who enable positive functioning of an organisation deliberately invest into the formation of positive interpersonal relationships at work.

  • How can positive relationships be nurtured? Here are some ideas:


  • On-boarding with some elements of self-disclosure (enabling the creation of personal connections);
  • Slow on-boarding;
  • Facilitating non-linear reciprocity between employees;
  • Using relationships-friendly language, such as words “together” and “we”;
  • Running positive energy network diagnostic and ensuring that every team has positive energisers;
  • Facilitating informal get-togethers (free lunch, birthday celebrations, family-friendly parties).


  • How can you empower employees in the workplace to maintain their interest?  


There are several factors of job design that have been shown to make a real difference to happiness and engagement. Enhancing variety and challenge is one such important factor. Humans have a unique evolutionary tendency to react strongly to recent events; however this diminishes over time. Following multiple studies, researchers have suggested that humans tend to have a natural happiness ‘set-points’, which means that following good and/or bad news/events/changes, we tend to revert back to the previous state after approximately three months. Wait a few months longer, and it gets worse, as deep boredom starts setting in. The proposed antidote to this adaptation tendency is variety; hence individuals must continually change their approach in order to counteract any adaptation mechanisms. There are many real life examples of job variety initiatives, from Volvo’s Torslanda plant that introduced job rotation, to Texas Instruments who redesigned the jobs of cleaners and janitors (Robertson and Cooper, 2011). Every 18 months or so, Facebook engineers are required to rotate and work on something different for a while. This requirement constantly brings new perspectives and experience to the teams and ignites new ideas.


How about fun initiatives? Don’t you just dread that annual staff Christmas party always held at the same time, at the same location, with the same drinks and the same music? Fun is not fun when it is repetitive and non-creative. Many organisations are trying unusual and seasonal activities. One company created their own Ministry of Fun, empowering employees to create fresh and interesting initiatives.

A huge number of studies indicate the benefits of autonomy at work (Gagné & Bhave, 2011), which is directly associated with higher employee engagement, happiness and work performance in different work contexts and cultures. One of the strongest messages arising from psychological research is that the more control you have over your situation, the better your overall well-being, energy and taking on challenges will be. Autonomy practices are multiple and include flexible working arrangements (home-working, compressed working week, annualised hours, term time working, job sharing, career break, unlimited holidays) and enabling employees to work on the projects of their own choosing 20% of their time.

  • How can organisations make sure they are perceived as fair when each employee has a different understanding of what fairness is to them?

If there is one huge factor that affects the happiness (and thus performance) fluctuations in the workplace it must be fairness, or, to be precise, unfairness. Money or resource allocation, being hired or promoted, having access to information and decision-making, being selected for an interesting project – unfairness can creep in anywhere. Importantly, if the wages you receive are not the same as those of other people doing a similar job to you, you will feel very resentful of this fact. A well-known English study of public sector employees undertaken over ten-year period showed that the lack of fairness was associated with poorer thinking, sleeplessness and a significantly increased chance of heart attacks (Elovanio et al., 2009).

When we interact with others, we can’t help but compare ourselves to them on many levels. We compare our situation, attractiveness and wealth to others either in an upward or downward spiral. Thus we also tend to compare our workload with that of others and if we see others working less than us for the same or higher outcome, experiencing unfairness will follow.

Precisely because some aspects of unfairness are subjective (i.e. one’s perception versus objective indicators), I do not believe it is possible to ensure absolutely fair treatment is any situation. However, what can help is to ensure that performance indicators and their relationship with pay are clear, comprehensible and communicated. Furthermore, flat organisational structures and employee participation in decision making lower unfairness and predict engagement.  

For instance, Poult, a French company producing biscuits, featured in the Arte documentary “Le Bonheur au Travail” (aired on the 10.02.2015) had decided to eliminate all middle management, increasing the autonomy and responsibility of each individual worker. Results? Almost an overnight growth of 12%.

Finally, the leadership example also plays a role; this is a theme that emerged from my qualitative study on positive leadership. As one leader put it: “This is only a simplification but I’ll say it any way; people are only energised if they see that the person who is leading them is working as hard, or harder, than they are.”


Anderson, C., Kraus, M. W., Galinksy, A. D., & Keltner, D. (2012). The local ladder effect: Sociometric status and subjective wellbeing. Psychological Science, 23, 764–771.

Arakawa, D., & Greenberg, M. (2007). Optimistic managers ad their influence on productivity and employee engagement in a technology organization: Implication for coaching psychologists. International Coaching Psychology Review, 2, 78-89.

Barsade, S. G. (2002). The ripple effect: Emotional contagion and its influence on group behavior. Administrative Science Quarterly, 47(4), 644-675.

Cavallo, K., & Brienza, D. (2006). Emotional competence and leadership excellence at Johnson & Johnson. Europe’s Journal of Psychology, 2(1).

Elovainio, M., Ferrie, J. E., Gimeno, D., De Vogli, R., Shipley, M., Brunner, E. J., ... & Kivimäki, M. (2009). Organizational justice and sleeping problems: the Whitehall II study. Psychosomatic Medicine, 71(3), 334-340.

Gagné, M., & Bhave, D. (2011). Autonomy in the workplace: An essential ingredient to employee engagement and well-being in every culture. In: V. I. Chirkov, R. M. Ryan, & K. M. Sheldon (Eds.), Human autonomy in cross-cultural context (pp. 163-187). Springer Netherlands.

Robertson, I., & Cooper, C. L. (2011). Well-being: Productivity and happiness at work. Palgrave Macmillan.

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