happy employees

Photo via Eversheds International, Flickr

Happy employees work harder, are more productive, and healthier, studies show. And, perhaps surprisingly, if you want happy employees, you should ask them to work even harder. Not more hours, but more challenging projects or tasks.

In “The Science Behind the Smile,” Harvard Business Review‘s (HBR) Gardiner Morse talks with Harvard psychology professor Daniel Gilbert, best-selling author of Stumbling on Happiness.

For Happy employees: challenge, don’t threaten

Morse: Many managers would say that contented people aren’t the most productive employees, so you want to keep people a little uncomfortable, maybe a little anxious, about their jobs.

Gilbert: Managers who collect data instead of relying on intuition don’t say that. I know of no data showing that anxious, fearful employees are more creative or productive. Remember, contentment doesn’t mean sitting and staring at the wall. That’s what people do when they’re bored, and people hate being bored. We know that people are happiest when they’re appropriately challenged—when they’re trying to achieve goals that are difficult but not out of reach.

Challenge and threat are not the same thing. People blossom when challenged and wither when threatened. Sure, you can get results from threats: Tell someone, ‘If you don’t get this to me by Friday, you’re fired,’ and you’ll probably have it by Friday. But you’ll also have an employee who will thereafter do his best to undermine you, who will feel no loyalty to the organization, and who will never do more than he must.

It would be much more effective to tell your employee, ‘I don’t think most people could get this done by Friday. But I have full faith and confidence that you can. And it’s hugely important to the entire team.’ Psychologists have studied reward and punishment for a century, and the bottom line is perfectly clear: Reward works better.”

In fact, a Society of Human Resource Management (SHRM) survey, “Job Security Is No Longer Top Driver of Satisfaction,”  indicates that “the opportunity to use skills and abilities” has displaced “job security” as the top driver of satisfaction. Liz Wiseman, president of The Wiseman Group, cites that finding in an HBR article, “An Easy Way to Make Your Employees Happier.”

Using skills and abilities “consistently ranks among the top two, regardless of a respondents’ tenure, age, gender, or organization staff size,” she notes, and her reasearch for the book Rookie Smarts confirms the finding.

“Employees don’t just want their skills used; they want them stretched,” she writes.

Her team asked roughly 1,000 people from various industries to rate the level of challenge in their jobs and their level of satisfaction, and they found a strong correlation between the two.  As challenge level goes up, so does satisfaction.

“Upon further investigation, we discovered that people who had received a challenging assignment, in general, figured it out within three months and were ready for the next one.  Respondents needed 12 months, on average, to begin to feel ready for a new role, and they started to feel stale after only 24 months, on average.”

watch for boredom

Employees might be ready for new challenges sooner than you think, and Wiseman offers tips for detecting this:

  • Everything they manage has run smoothly for a significant period of time.
  • When faced with problems, they jump quickly to solutions.
  • They spend time trying to fix other peoples’ and other departments’ problems.
  • They’ve become increasingly but inexplicably negative.


Increase the degree of difficulty in their jobs, she recommends. 

‘Try giving them higher-stakes work that addresses more complex problems and a more diverse set of stakeholders.  For example, it might be time for one employee to take a divisional program to the entire company.

Remember to make it hard in the right ways though. … Don’t ask them to do the same work while carrying sandbags and juggling knives. You want to productively expand on the meaningful work they’re already doing.”

Give employees projects requiring learning new skills that complement their existing ones. Or have them use their current skills and expertise to solve new types of problems.

For example, Wiseman writes:

“A scientist working for a pharmaceutical company was asked to shift her research and discovery skills from cellular biology to oncology. Initially, she was unsure how to do so. But, after several months, she said, ‘I feel completely invigorated in this new role. I feel more challenged than I’ve felt in years but also more creative and in control of my life and career than every before. New scientific ideas are just pouring out!’”

Generally employees will take great pride in mastering new things.

freedom + guidance

When challenging your employees, Wiseman advises, give them freedom to learn and make mistakes, but provide guidance to help them succeed.

“The goal is to stretch them, not break them, and you should be willing to provide a safety net.”

Challenging your employees might even decrease your own workload. If you delegate some of your own responsibilities, your satisfaction might increase.

Happy employees make for a prosperous business, so challenge your team today!

For a comprehensive guide to growing a sustained workplace culture of happiness, trust and appreciation, download our FREE eBook: Transform Your Workplace with Gratitude.

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