Empower employees to be happy at work

HBR authors Annie McKee and Amy Gallo discussed HR's role in helping employees manage conflict and define happiness

Empowering employees to find their own solutions to becoming happy at work is an important but tricky endeavour for HR, according to senior fellow at the University of Pennsylvania Annie McKee and HBR contributing editor Amy Gallo.

Speaking to HR magazine following their Harvard Business Review 'How To Be Happy At Work' event in London, the pair discussed how critical personal responsibility and ownership are to an individual’s satisfaction with their job, as explored in McKee’s book of the same title.

McKee said there were many political and social pressures acting on people at work currently and these must be acknowledged. “External conditions are real so I don’t want to minimise them,” she said, citing “long hours, carrying work in our pockets [in the form of our phones meaning we can never switch off]”, and the fact that “management practices are not up to scratch”.

But while HR professionals must work to mitigate these pressures, they can also play a role in connecting employees with the perception element of happiness at work, and with their power to change their own circumstances.

“It’s really easy to blame that manager or even global trends,” she said, emphasising the psychological barriers individuals often put up around "work always necessarily and inherently being tough and unenjoyable" for example.

People often think “‘I couldn’t possibly be happy in this environment,’ and it’s far too easy to stop there,” agreed Gallo, author of The HBR Guide to Dealing with Conflict.

It is therefore important to throw the issue back at employees, the pair agreed, with careful thought needed, however, on exactly how to frame this.

“You have to look at what level of agency people have,” advised McKee. “If it’s low you’re going to have to take baby steps, which means looking at how to – through things you do already like training and online learning experiences – ask people what they want. You should start with that and then make sure you act on it.”

Gallo said employee surveys could play a role. Employers can make it clear they’re not shirking their responsibility for engaging employees by asking questions around their role as an organisation and the employee’s role in conjunction with each other, she said.

“Employers could ask: ‘What can we change?’ and then ‘What can you change?’” she said. “Not in a pushing it off on them way [but] to think about it in collaboration.”

McKee warned that most organisations aren’t currently geared around empowering employees to dictate and define their own happiness though. “That’s going to take time, because that’s not how our organisations are set up,” she said.

Creating cultures of hope, purpose and friendship – key elements to happiness at work according to McKee’s research – is about focusing on micro-cultures, Gallo and McKee agreed.

“Cultures often feel monolithic and you’re not going to move them,” said Gallo. “So why not choose a small piece of the pie? What all the research shows us is that those cultures are contagious [so such positive values will hopefully spread from micro-culture to micro-culture].”

McKee agreed that “taking a strength-based approach to culture without ignoring the downsides”, so that good elements of an existing culture are built on and negative ones addressed, is the best approach.

Gallo and McKee also discussed the significant detrimental role conflict can play in compromising job satisfaction. This is one of the biggest obstacles to happiness at work, said McKee.

Gallo explained that organisations face the double-edged sword of employees existing within “bubbles” outside of work – through interacting with like-minded people on social media for example – but then encountering people very different to themselves at work. This means many are not equipped to deal with conflict even though they’re increasingly likely to face it, she explained.

“One of the things we are seeing within the political environment in the US for example, is people are seeking out others with like opinions… so we want to work in a place where people watch the same television, and want to talk about the same things… We don’t know how to disagree and debate anymore.

“At the same time workplaces have become more and more diverse so conflict has increased because of that,” she said.

It’s critical therefore that employers equip staff with the tools and skillsets to embrace healthy conflict and work through difficult situations, Gallo advised.

“No-one really shows you how to have a disagreement; you learn it in the playground or from parents,” she said, advising that companies make constructive disagreement and discussion visible to role model its importance. She cited the example of where a disagreement in a meeting is “shut down” or “taken offline”, stressing the importance of instead letting people see this being played out constructively.

McKee shared the example of two leaders at an organisation she’d worked with who deliberately openly debated their viewpoints around a difficult strategic change on stage at a company conference. “It was scary for those leaders, but it was an amazing example of legitimising disagreement,” she said.

Gallo added the advice of “finding your most people-aware, emotionally intelligent” leaders to assist dysfunctional, negatively conflicting teams.