Writing on Harvard Business Review‘s website, author Annie McKee, a senior fellow at the University of Pennsylvania, says her research and that of others “points to a simple fact: Happy people are better workers. Those who are engaged with their jobs and colleagues work harder—and smarter.”
When I first read this research, I must admit that it struck me as kind of obvious. However, two points: First, I love what I do for work now, but I didn’t always, and I can certainly testify from firsthand experience that success is a much more realizable goal when you wake up in the morning looking forward to your work environment. Second, as plain as that might seem, it’s surprising how low a priority employee satisfaction is for many companies—and how clearly that negatively impacts the bottom line.
Here’s an anecdotal example: Writer Tim Wu, who says he’s flown close to 700,000 miles on United Airlines over the years, primarily out of a sense of “irrational loyalty,” took to the website of the New Yorker recently in order to announce his decision never to fly with them again. Much of his displeasure stems from the kind of cattle car-ism that has taken over most of the air travel industry, from more cramped seats to higher fees and less competition. However, it’s striking to notice what Wu pinpoints as “his breaking point.” After describing the increasing crabbiness of United’s gate agents and flight attendants, which he attributes to pressures that made work less rewarding and more difficult in the wake of United’s merger with Continental, he describes a single interaction with a “curt agent” who refused to let him board a plane ahead of the horde when he appeared holding a noisy baby in his arms.
It’s perhaps unfair to single out United, since according to Gallup only 30 percent of Americans like their jobs—and that fully 20 percent are “actively disengaged,” meaning they “have bosses from hell who make them miserable, [and] roam the halls spreading discontent.”
Perhaps surprisingly, it’s not primarily higher pay, better hours, more flexibility, or many of the other things we hear people considering when choosing jobs and careers that impacts workplace happiness, according to McKee’s research and surveys. Instead, she points to three key things that employees need in order to be happy at work, and thus to increase their odds of being successful in their careers—ingredients that she says are common to all industries, jobs, and geographies.
First, they need to understand where their organization is headed.
“People want to be able to see the future and know how they fit in,” McKee writes, and adds that the research literature suggests they want to find a way to link their personal vision of the future to their conception of the organization’s future.
“Sadly,” she writes, “far too many leaders don’t paint a very compelling vision of the future, they don’t try to link it to people’s personal visions, and they don’t communicate well. And they lose people as a result.”
Second, employees need to feel that what they are doing actually matters—both that they’re impacting the organization’s ultimate mission, and that the mission is worthy of their efforts.
“Except for those at the tippy top,” McKee writes, “shareholder value isn’t a meaningful goal that excites and engages them. They want to know that they—and their organizations—are doing something big that matters to other people.”
Finally, they need to have positive relationships with their managers and colleagues.
“[P]eople join an organization and leave a boss,” McKee writes, referencing another Gallup study that finds that employees who leave great organizations and corporations often report that their reason for doing so was a negative relationship with their immediate managers.
For workers whose experience is forged by emigration, depression and war—in other words, those whose lives are harder and whose work is probably less likely to be studied on the pages of Harvard Business Review—the idea of loving a job probably takes a backseat to more essential needs on Maslow’s hierarchy, like putting food on the table and a roof over one’s head.
But for the rest of us, the research points to an obvious and yet highly helpful bit of basic direction: If you want to succeed at your work, it helps to like what you’re doing.