Your employees are hurting.
A February 2021 Harvard Business Review survey shows that 85% of employees report that their well-being has declined since the start of the pandemic. As effective vaccines are widely distributed, there is light at the end of the tunnel for a return to some sort of ‘normal.’ But our old ‘normal’ didn’t really work well for most employees.
Gallup’s pre-pandemic surveys show only about a third of US workers and less than 15% of global workers are engaged and the vast majority of workplaces didn’t have a reputation for creating happiness.
So instead of passively returning to our old ways, let’s take advantage of the fact that working from home, low-touch workflows and the general chaos of life under COVID shattered many of our traditional ‘social scripts’ at work. This is our opportunity to build new social scrips and ways of working from the best of neuroscience, organizational and positive psychology research to build a better ’normal.’ So how do we do that?
The key is to change how we think about engagement. Traditionally, most organizations focused on increasing engagement for good reason. More engaged teams are more productive, have higher retention, create happier customers and higher profits. Yet even with billions of dollars of investment over a dozen years, little changed: Gallup’s engagement index stayed within 5% of where it was 20 years ago.
Why? We’re simply doing it wrong.
When leaders talk about engagement, they either focus on the benefits to the organization (productivity and profitability gains) or what they want to see from their team, usually attributes like loyalty, commitment, discretionary effort and a willingness to go the extra mile. But when engagement is described in this way, what most individual contributors hear is, “I want you to work harder but not pay you more.” So our teams either resist or go along for a little while and then revert back to their old habits.
But here’s the thing. Engagement measures activated positive emotions. Engaged employees feel inspired, enthusiastic, proud, have a sense of belonging and feel that their work matters. And guess what else they feel? Happy. Most people don’t care about their engagement, but they do care deeply about their happiness.
So if we can change how we think and talk about engagement with a focus on helping our teams experience more activated positive emotions – more happiness – then everyone starts pulling in the same direction. Everybody wins.
Twenty years of neuroscience, positive psychology and practical research have uncovered seven strategies to meaningfully increase both engagement and team happiness. These include:
Hardwire authentic appreciation
Most leaders recognize the importance of appreciation, but few people do it effectively. Bersin and Associates reported 80% of senior leaders believe their people are recognized at least monthly, while only 22% of individual contributors report their peers are appreciated that often. But there are practical tools to find more things to appreciate on your teams, make it effective, and create a culture of appreciation where everyone supports one another.
Cultivate connection with each other
Loneliness was a significant problem before COVID-19. The pandemic, masks, social distancing and working from home multiplied that sense of isolation. For many of us, work is one of the few places where we regularly spend time with non-family members. As leaders, we can make the most of workplace interactions – whether live or virtual – to increase the sense of social support, belonging and engagement of our teams.
Put stress to work, instead of fighting it
Powerful, counterintuitive research from the last decade has shown that one type of stress response (known as the challenge response) is better for our health and allows us to use the energy of our stress to address the underlying challenges. The ASPIRe toolset helps people to move toward a challenge response by Acknowledging your stress, Shifting your mindset, finding Purpose behind your stress, Inventorying your resources and Reaching out to others.
Activate employee superpowers
Traditional strength assessments miss the most important aspect of strengths that create more happiness and engagement: how energizing they are to the individual. You can tap that additional energy by helping teams find their energizing signature strengths and creating small changes to their work flow and perspectives to better use those strengths.
Mine for meaning
Finding meaning in the work we do is one of the most important and long-lasting ways to increase our motivation, engagement and sense of fulfilment. You can help each of your team members find what is meaningful to them in the contributions they all make to the team.
Embrace negative emotions
A key aspect of being happier and more engaged is, paradoxically, knowing that some negative emotions are essential both to living a good life and to learning from our experiences. Learn to differentiate your own negative emotions (those that must be embraced vs those that can safely be put aside), how to manage through emotional storms and how to work with the negative emotions of your teams.
Approach as a coach
How you approach leading your team is an essential aspect of creating independent, proactive, engaged and happy team members. At the heart of this approach are structured development meetings with each of your direct reports that creates opportunities for you to support their progress on a regular basis, help them tap into resources, provide recognition and encouragement, guide them to find meaning in their work and support their success and well-being.
And the best part is that you don’t need to implement all 7 strategies to effectively increase happiness and engagement. In Put Happiness to Work, I share dozens of scientifically proven habits and exercises as an action buffet. Read through them and decide what might fit best for you and the unique personalities on your team. Take a small helping by experimenting with it for a few days. If something doesn’t work, no problem. Go back to the buffet to find something else. If it does, then the book will help you find ways to take a larger helping and integrate these ideas into the work you do with your team every day. They are designed to become habits that hardwire these changes of behavior in sustainable ways.
Increased levels of happiness and engagement are within your grasp and there is no better time than now to build the new normal.