The Happiest People At Work And What You Can Learn From Them

Written by Mike Shapiro | | March 10, 2016

We spend so much time working it’s only natural to want to be happy there. I mean, after all, if you’re not happy at work, you’re going to spend a big percentage of your life being miserable, right?

So, we give and get a lot of advice: “Find work that comes naturally to you.” “Do what you love and the money will come.” “Follow your bliss.” “Quit when you’re not feeling happy or fulfilled.” “Leave when you have a “‘bad boss'” (whatever that means).

Someone else says: “It’s not supposed to be fun. That’s why they call it work. Get over it.”

Maybe we should look at the people who are already happy, and try to understand what’s different about how they experience the same situation that encourages happier feelings.

I’ve found that people who are brand new to the company or work unit are often happy. Why?

  1. They’re optimistic. They just made the decision to come on board, and presumably did so because of the good things they saw — the opportunity to join a high performing team and to do important work with people they felt they could get along with. These newbies haven’t had the chance to see any negatives that exist in every workplace, but which can take awhile to discern. They’re relentlessly curious about how things work around here, and that creates an uplifting feeling of possibilities.
  2. Others don’t really know what to expect from newcomers, at least right away, so there’s less pressure to meet a self-set standard of performance. When they do swing into action, new people tend to seek — and get — a lot of energy directed their way about how they’re doing as they start getting used to the new work responsibilities and environment.

People on their way out also tend to be happy, too.

  1. They expect nothing more from this workplace experience. For better and for worse, they’ve made the decision to leave. Whatever good or bad things have happened to them personally, whatever negative aspects exist in the workplace, all that is fast receding in the rear-view mirror.
  2. There is no threat of consequences of not meeting a standard of performance — self-set or otherwise. They’ve already gotten their last bit of feedback about their work, and they’re not experiencing the anxiety of not knowing how they’re doing.
  3. They too have a sense of curiosity, excitement and hope — not about this place, but about the next chapter of their work lives into which they are about to move.

You can start to see how the attitudes of these two groups might affect the way they experience the work environment. By contrast, when your permanent folks are in the middle of a work situation, the definition of success is often unclear. The expectations of them aren’t well-defined. As they’ve gotten to know their leaders, some disillusionment has taken place, they’ve learned some of their weaknesses, and perhaps have concluded they can’t rely on them to make it a particularly happy place to work.

And critically, although there may be occasional and anecdotal feedback here and there, there’s no real mechanism to let them know day-by-day how they’re doing — moving the organization, and their own stake in it, in the right direction.

How can we borrow from the observations of newbies and short-timers to address this important gap?

Well, it turns out there’s another group that’s happy: People temporarily assigned to a work unit or position. Think consultants brought in from outside or folks borrowed from another unit to work on a particular area of the project. These folks share many of the same characteristics with newbies and short-timers!

They’re here for a finite period of time – they’re new and short-timers. So they’re curious and optimistic, and they know they’re not going to be around long enough to become disillusioned.

Most importantly, they know exactly what’s expected of them because it’s spelled out in their contracting agreement or engagement letter! And, they’ll be given lots of feedback during and after the assignment about how well they met expectations.

What if you could give your onboard team members — your permanent staff — the same clarity of expectations — and feedback — you give your temporary employees, vendors and consultants?

One concrete step in this direction is to create a Work Agreement for each associate for each project.

The kind of Work Agreement I’m talking about doesn’t have to be elaborate. Here’s what it should include.

Expected Observed
What company goals will this work affect and promote?
Unit objective involved
Team member’s personal objectives in this project
Competencies to be demonstrated.

You can’t guarantee your people a happy workplace. And you can’t wave a wand and make the members of your team newbies or short-timers or contractors. But you can give them the benefits shared by happy people in these categories by providing a mechanism for regular on-the-spot, as-you-go feedback about their efforts and the impact of their work on the goals of the company, your unit and toward the fulfillment of their own objectives (the WHAT of the work). And you can provide a a real-time progress report on the competencies you expect them to demonstrate and which will be the subject of their performance reviews at the end of the year (the HOW part).

Whether anyone is really happy at work is ultimately up to each person, but this simple process that helps them connect the work they’re doing with the bigger picture can go a long way in creating work satisfaction and fulfillment.