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Want Better Results? Focus on Creating Happiness

Oct. 30, 2023
It's a workplace quality that's hard to measure, often misunderstood and essential to building good teams.

IndustryWeek's elite panel of regular contributors.

Happiness. It can feel like a buzzword sometimes when discussing the importance of team engagement and employee retention, two crucial aspects of owning a business or leading a team. We know that happy employees are more likely to be committed to their work, contribute their ideas and have a positive impact on others, resulting in greater innovation and customer satisfaction.

However, happiness is not about small employee perks or “fun” workplace additions such as ping-pong tables or catered meals. Happiness—a state of emotional well-being, either in the moment or overall—is more foundational to our experience as human beings.

So, if we want happy employees, how do we create the conditions that result in their happiness?

One of the most impactful takeaways on my experiences on my executive Japan Study Trips — both for me, having lived in Japan and visited scores of successful Japanese companies over the past decade, as well as for the nearly 100 international leaders who have joined my study trips — is that executives of many of these Japanese organizations describe the actual purpose of their company is their people’s happiness and joy.

These leaders elaborate that their intention is not just to create a “nice” workplace, but rather that they genuinely care about their people and want them to experience real happiness through “emotional well-being” and a “positive evaluation of [their] life and accomplishments overall.”

To do so, these leaders go out of their way to seek employees’ input, provide stability of employment and create the conditions for them to grow and succeed.

This leadership ethos echos the deeper meaning of the Toyota Way pillar of “Respect for People,” as I describe in my book Learning to Lead, Leading to Learn: “holding precious what it means to be human.”

And this is not just a Japanese management thing. Successful business leaders in the United States and other countries know that happiness, joy and creating a work environment where people are cared for is the way to achieve extraordinary results. For example, Richard Sheridan, CEO of Menlo Innovations, has focused on creating a happy and joyful atmosphere at work as the way to achieve sustainable business results required for growth. (He has elaborated on this in his books Joy Inc. and Chief Joy Officer.) And Bob Chapman, CEO of the $1.7 billion manufacturing company Barry-Wehmiller, highlights in his book “Everybody Matters” how he transformed the company by creating an environment where employees are treated like family, resulting in greater engagement and happiness.

So if you want to create happiness, how do you know if you’ve achieved it?

Inspired by what we experienced at these companies in Japan, one of the executive leaders on a recent Japan Study Trip asked a well-intentioned question – one that was on the mind of most everyone else: “How do you measure happiness?” She went on to ask what survey tools the Japanese food product manufacturing company, which professes that “happiness is our purpose,” uses and what data they collect to understand whether they are meeting their happiness goal.

The COO of this company, whose founder is considered a sensei (mentor) to Toyota leadership other Japanese executives, was confused and replied “What do you mean, ‘how do we measure happiness?’ We just know it. Do you survey your family, or do you know their experience because you spend time with them?” He went on to say that he personally experiences how people are feeling because he goes out often to interact with them, asks for their input and gets to know them as people in his community – not just workers.

Too often we rely on what our metrics and data can provide—and while it’s great to have information about how employee satisfaction or performance has changed over time while working with us, at the end of the day, what good is that data if you cannot retain your employees long enough to make use of it? How long will your employees stay if they’re not feeling fulfilled, feeling happy in the work they do?

So, how do you measure happiness? You don’t measure it. You experience it. You help create the conditions that result in it.

Happiness is not a KPI that’s easily tracked, not something that you can find a metric for, or an app to help you determine just how happy your employees are. It’s not something where you can see how long an employee spends on a project to become “happy” or what benefits you can add in order to increase it.

You don’t need to create a survey, or questionnaire to determine how happy or fulfilled your employees are with their work at your company. It’s far more straightforward than that.

You go to gemba (in Japanese, this means “the place something happens”), you go to see your employees where they are and beyond the work they are doing. You connect one-on-one and ask them questions to get to know them—not just because of the business outcomes you need, but to strengthen their feeling and knowledge of you as a leader and as someone who cares. You make yourself available for questions and concerns from your employees and create a culture where active listening is prioritized and learning is shared. You don’t shut yourself off from getting involved or getting to know your team members; you embrace it.

How can you tell if your employees are happy? They may not articulate it directly, but you can see it in their engagement, in their excitement to get to work, in the innovative solutions they develop and in being a part of the process of bringing the team’s goals to life. If they’re happy, it isn’t something you have to ask them; it’s something you can see and feel as long as you are part of the process of involving yourself in the work, too.

If you seek to achieve business results, ask yourself: What are you doing to create real happiness with your people? And what are you doing to know – really know – that they are experiencing it?

Katie Anderson is an internationally recognized leadership coach, consultant, speaker, and learning enthusiast best known for inspiring leaders to lead with intention to increase their impact. Katie is the author of bestselling book “Learning to Lead, Leading to Learn: Lessons from Toyota Leader Isao Yoshino on a Lifetime of Continuous Improvement” and regularly leads executive learning trips to Japan to learn about the origins of lean and kaizen. Katie's new podcast, Chain of Learning, debuts November 1.

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