Conventional wisdom used to suggest that we didn’t have to be happy at work to succeed at work. Work is not personal, the reasoning went, so it’s not important to like the people we work with or even share their values. After countless studies, a simple fact has become increasingly clear—happy people are better workers. Those who are engaged with their work and their colleagues work harder and smarter.
Yet, there is an alarming number of people who aren’t engaged at work. According to a Gallup report, only 30% of the U.S. workforce is engaged. And on the other side of the bell curve, nearly 20% of workers are actively disengaged. These people are sometimes unintentionally sabotaging projects, backstabbing colleagues, and commonly wreaking havoc in their workplaces. Interestingly, Gallup reports employee engagement stats have been nearly constant for years, despite economic highs and lows.
Unhappy, disengaged people aren’t fun to work with, don’t add much value, and impact our organizations in profoundly negative ways. It’s worse when leaders are disengaged because they infect others with their attitude (remember the emotional contagion articles we’ve written?), which leads to poor moods and even poorer performance.
Given all the data, it’s time to let go of the myth that feelings don’t matter at work. When we are in the grasp of strong negative emotions, it’s like having blinders on. We primarily (and sometimes exclusively) focus on the origin of our pain. We don’t think creatively, fail to process information effectively, and make bad decisions. Disappointment, resentment, and stress cause an essential part of us to shut down—the thinking, engaged part.
How do we help people feel engaged and happy at work? Research offers four paths that are consistent across industry type, organization size, and paygrade. To feel fully engaged and happy, here’s what people need:
- An important vision of the future. People want to be able to see the future and know how they fit in. Sadly, far too many leaders don’t paint a compelling picture of the future, don’t do the hard work of trying to link it to people’s personal visions, and don’t communicate well. Subsequently, they lose people’s interest.
- A sense of purpose. We want to feel as if our work matters and that our contributions help achieve something. People are most engaged when they know that they—and the organizations that they’re working for—are doing something big that matters to other people.
- Great relationships. Many people join an organization and leave a boss. Let that sink in a minute. A complicated relationship with one’s boss is excruciatingly painful. So too are poor relationships with co-workers. Leaders and employees have all told us that close relationships are important to their state of mind and their willingness to contribute to a team.
It’s on people to find ways to live their values at work and build great relationships, but it’s on leaders to create environments where people can flourish. It’s simple, and it’s practical: if you want engaged people, pay attention to how you cast vision, link people’s work to your company’s greater purpose, and reward people who work well with others.
From Thought to Action: To have the best chance to be fully engaged, people need vision, purpose, and stable relationships. Which area will you focus on this week to create an environment where people can flourish?