Effective decision making is absolutely essential to an organization's ability to survive. That means decisions need to be made relatively quickly and with the right information available at the time. Yet, unclear 'decision rights' may be the single most common problem organizations face, especially in growing startups and companies that value collaboration. Common symptoms include meeting overload, slow productivity, low engagement and interpersonal tensions. While defining clear roles and decision making authority may feel uncomfortable at first, it is critical to scaling, maintaining market value, and keeping your best people engaged and employed.
Effective leaders already know that the key to sustained success is through an engaged, motivated and productive workforce, yet not every leader knows how to create this in their own organization. Reliably and consistently generating this experience for others requires an understanding of human motivation so that they can effectively see where it’s blocked or missing.
When leaders rigorously ensure that their people get a daily experience of meaningful connection, autonomy, mastery, purpose and progress, their teams perform well, feel happy, and grow with their company instead of looking for it elsewhere, such as in another company.
My favorite definition of happiness right now comes from Sonja Lyubomirsky, one of positive psychology’s thought leaders and author of the book, The How of Happiness. She calls it “the experience of joy, contentment, or positive well-being, combined with a sense that one’s life is good, meaningful, and worthwhile.”
I like this definition because it nicely encompasses what I think of as two states of happiness: “Be Happy” and “Do Happy.”
Philosophers and mystics tell us that “Being Happy” is achieved through absolute presence to and acceptance of what IS right now. “Being happy” is an inner state of well being that we alone are able to create for ourselves through personal practices like exercise, meditation, gratitude, selfless contribution, and detachment from outcomes.
The other state, “Do Happy”, is that warm sense of contentment and satisfaction with how we are spending our time, infused with the motivation to keep moving forward. It has purpose, it has momentum, it has drive.
When we talk about workplace engagement and performance, “Do Happy” is our lens for assessment and action. Once leaders understand the principles of “Do Happy,” they can create these conditions for themselves and others, and cause a massive ripple of positive impact within their organizations and without.
“Do Happy” is largely rooted in Self-Determination Theory (1), The five elements of “Do Happy” are Connection, Autonomy, Mastery and Purpose infused with a sense of Progress.
“Just 30% of employees have a best friend at work. Those who do are seven times as likely to be engaged in their jobs, are better at engaging customers, produce higher quality work, have higher well-being, and are less likely to get injured on the job. In sharp contrast, those without a best friend in the workplace have just a 1 in 12 chance of being engaged.” [Gallup, 2010]
Connection is the fuel that sustains us day to day. It is the experience of caring about and being cared about by others. If all the other elements of happiness are missing, a daily sense of connection can still keep us going.
Our ability to survive is linked to our ability to connect, collaborate and support one another. We’ve evolved over thousands of years to be social creatures, and our need for connection is hardwired into our brains. Positive social interactions not only enhance our sense of self-esteem and efficacy, [HBR, 2017], they release powerful chemicals in our brains which are tied to motivation and well being [Stanford, 2017]. When adequate connection is missing, we easily fall into a state of stress and eventually, depression.
How much connection do we really need? According to Gallup, we need around six hours a day, including time at home and work, on email and phone.
While some of the things that get in the way of connection, such as trauma or anxiety, are deeply personal and may be beyond our ability to impact in others, the most common interrupters tend to be external and well within our control.
As leaders, we need to make sure everyone in our organizations have adequate time and reason for meaningful connection. Connection can be created for people who don’t have it by building a foundation of mutual trust, then providing opportunities to support each other in reaching shared goals. Healthy functioning teams already have this built in.
Common interrupters to workplace connection are:
Autonomy is the perception of freedom and choice, of acting of one’s own volition, and being the agent of one’s own actions. As leaders, the way we engage with our workforce either promotes intrinsic motivation or undermines it.
Dan Pink, in his book Drive, writes:
“According to a cluster of recent behavioral science studies, autonomous motivation promotes greater conceptual understanding, better grades, enhanced persistence at school and, in sporting activities, higher productivity, less burnout and greater psychological well-being. Those effects carry over to the workplace...The resulting enhancement in job satisfaction, in turn, led to higher performance on the job. What’s more, the benefits that autonomy confers on individuals extends to their organizations.
“Businesses that offered autonomy grew at four times the rate of the control-oriented firms and had one-third the employee turnover.”
Companies like Zappos, Semco and Spotify are shining examples of how well pro-autonomy practices such as self management work for people and their organizations (2). Another approach to providing the experience of autonomy is through Servant Leadership where managers put the needs of their team members first and work in service of their achievement of personal and shared goals.
Common interrupters of workplace autonomy are:
Dan Pink describes mastery as “the desire to get better and better at something that matters.” It’s also the experience of effectively meeting everyday challenges, building skill over time and of personal growth. The need for this experience applies both to individuals and to teams.
As leaders, it’s critical to give attention and reinforcement to the behaviors we want to see.
Regardless of our actual abilities, the experience of being good or bad at something shapes our enjoyment of an activity and the likelihood we will continue doing it. For example, girls typically start out with the same mathematical abilities as boys but have slightly better abilities at reading. Because the experience of reading is easier than math for these girls, they believe that they are good at reading but bad at math even though in reality they are good at both. This causes them to repeatedly choose to spend time on literature over mathematics. Over time, this early belief becomes a reality. [Barbara Oakley, 2018]
When we receive unexpected positive feedback on a task, our intrinsic motivation to do that task increases. In fact, research shows that giving positive feedback on a task serves only to increase intrinsic motivation and decrease extrinsic motivation for the task [Deci, 1971].
I’ll say that again:
Giving positive feedback on a task serves only to increase intrinsic motivation and decrease extrinsic motivation for the task.
That means, when you give periodic positive feedback about someone’s work, it will reduce their need for financial rewards as a motivator and increase their desire to perform for the sake of it.
For leaders, this takes some effort and discipline since our brains are wired to filter out what’s working and focus on what’s not. But motivating others means building an experience of mastery by acknowledging and celebrating what’s working well along with the small daily gains that build toward the larger goals in an organization.
Here are some common leadership behaviors that negatively impact mastery:
“People who find purpose in their work unlock the highest level of the motivation game. Purpose is what gets you out of bed in the morning and into work without groaning and grumbling — something that you just can’t fake.” - Delivering Happiness (3)
When we know our work has a positive impact on others, it meets a fundamental human need for contribution. When this contribution has a direct positive impact, whether on a colleague or a client, it feeds our need for connection. When we believe that our work is contributing to the greater good, it meets our need to matter.
Given all of this, it’s no surprise that the need for purpose is hardwired into our neurobiology.
Dan Cable, Professor of Organizational Development at London University, writes in his HBR article,
“It’s crucial to understand that as humans we want to feel motivated and to find meaning in the things that we do. It’s part of our biology. In fact, there’s a part of our brains called the seeking system that creates the natural impulses to learn new skills and take on challenging but meaningful tasks. When we follow these urges, we receive a jolt of dopamine — a neurotransmitter linked to motivation and pleasure — which make us want to engage in these activities even more. And, when our seeking systems are activated, we feel more motivated, purposeful, and zestful. We feel more alive.”
Employees who connect their work with a higher purpose are 5.3 times more likely to stay at their company, [pwc, 2016]. People who are connected to their “why” experience greater grit, resilience and fortitude. This is also the reason organizations with a strong higher purpose enjoy higher levels of productivity, engagement, and long-term profitability [Purpose+].
Here are some common interrupters of purpose at work:
“Humans weren’t meant to be happy all the time. As biological creatures, we’re built to strive.” - John Monterosso
“Do Happy” is as much about the journey as it is the destination. In fact, it’s ALL about the journey. Progress toward our goals is a key component of day-to-day happiness and motivation.
This means that as we begin to set goals and work to achieve them, we begin to experience increased satisfaction right away.
“...the successful pursuit of meaningful goals plays an important role in the development and maintenance of our psychological well-being. To the extent that we’re making progress on our goals, we’re happier emotionally and more satisfied with our lives.” - Timothy A Pychyl, Ph.D
The things that impede progress are typically the same things that impede other areas of happiness such as unclear decision-making authority, poorly managed meetings, unhealthy team function, and weak or missing work structures.
The good news here is that even if we discover there’s work to do in the other areas, we can start generating workplace happiness TODAY, simply by getting started.
As leaders, we have the ability to look at each of these areas and see what might be missing for each person on our team and take steps to bring these to them in partnership. As we begin to address connection, autonomy, mastery and purpose we also trigger a virtuous cycle and start to create an environment that meets fundamental human needs, motivates people who are part of it and creates a company that “Does Happy” intentionally and sustainably.
(1) SDT tells us that all humans are motivated by three things: Autonomy, Relatedness, and Competence. Dan Pink, in his book Drive, which also pulls from this work, says we are motivated by “Autonomy, Mastery and Purpose.” My favorite version comes from Delivering Happiness, who tells us that a great place to work provides “Progress, Control and Connectedness,” along with a strong organizational higher purpose as a guiding north star.
(2) Managers have historically served a critical role in organizations to align, prioritize, delegate and evaluate outcomes. Some alternative organizational models such as Sociocracy, Holacracy and The Menlo Way recreate these functions through structured group practices.
(3) How to Boost Productivity: Autonomy, Mastery & Purpose, Delivering Happiness
People want to do their best work. And they want to know that they matter. The role of leadership is to create systems that enable people to do that work and set a tone in the company so that people feel on a daily basis that they are appreciated, both for their work and for who they are. Today, this is NOT normal. We are still living with the skeletons and ghosts of the industrial revolution where managers were brains and workers were hands, where schools were developed to prepare children to get used to leaving the autonomy and reward of working with their families at the farm for the anonymous and mindless routine of someone else’s factory.
At business school we are taught to look at numbers and profit as measures of our success and in HR we are taught to become emotionally detached so that we don’t get sued or hurt too much when a human resource is cut from the business and as leaders we are taught to be authoritarian parents that must always be smarter and faster than their children, offended when they do not submit to our will. And today THIS is normal. Even though the world has changed. Even though we’ve built machines to work in the factories. Even though it’s costing us our sanity. It’s costing time with our families. It’s costing those who are already poor. It’s costing our planet.
Today, when a leader sees a decline in productivity it’s “an accountability problem” or a “talent problem” or a “management problem” and the solutions typically come through some form of reward or punishment, pressure, blame, or budget. But these ‘problems’ aren’t the real problems so the solutions rarely last. They are symptoms.
By putting people first, we can learn what’s really going on that’s the problem. because human beings world wide are motivated by a just a few important things - to know that they can impact outcomes, most especially their own, through their actions; that they are good at what they do; and to feel care for and cared by others during much of their day. People know when they are blocked in their work, when they are being asked to do something they don’t have the skills or time to do, when they feel conflict and negativity in the work place. The solutions start with leadership mindset: what we believe about ourselves and others, how and what we communicate, how aware we are of what people need. The solutions end in the system design: the role definitions, the clarity of how decisions are made, how people are trained and developed, teams designed, information shared, and work rewarded. When these two things, leadership and systems are set up to meet the core needs of people–autonomy, mastery and connection–these same people now become the brains and sensory organs of the system, they understand what’s not working and then they go and fix it.
What’s good for people is good for business.