How to build an army of happy, busy worker bees

May 23, 2011, 2:05 PM UTC

By Linda Mignone, guest contributor

FORTUNE — For all that’s been written about happiness at work — desiring it, seeking it, wishing for it — how do you actually create it? And how do

you use it to do better work?

Aside from it sounding sensible, recent studies have demonstrated that the happier a worker is, the more productive they will be on the job. While an employee may appear engaged in their work, they may not be as effective as they could be if they were happy.

“There is a big difference between how people report engagement and happiness,” says Jessica Pryce-Jones, who is the CEO of HR consulting firm iOpener and the author of Happiness at Work: Maximizing Your Psychological Capital for Success.

Pryce-Jones says that people who have a more vigorous work ethic find it easier to be engaged in what they are doing, but that does not necessarily mean that they are happy. There are many senior leaders who are highly engaged in their work but would rather leave their jobs.

“The happier you are at work, the greater sense of energy you feel [to do more],” says Pryce-Jones.

In survey studies conducted by iOpener, of employees who reported that they are happy at work, 78% also say that they feel energetic while at work, whereas a mere 13% of unhappy employees claim the same.

People who are happy at work put in far more effort, work longer hours, and are more productive than those who aren’t. They remain at their jobs twice as long and they work 25% more time than an unhappy employee works.

For Zappos founder Tony Heisch, happiness at work begins with giving employees a sense that they are part of something bigger and that they feel connected to the work they do.

“It’s about perceived control. At Zappos, we do not use scripts in our call centers; we leave it up to each rep on how to interact,” Heisch says. “There are no layers of approval. If they want to do something special, they can do it.”

Part of the employee happiness formula lays in the idea that happiness can be synthesized. At a TED conference talk back in 2004, Harvard psychology professor Dan Gilbert argued that people have the ability to create their own happiness, and that synthetic happiness is the kind we have when we don’t get exactly what we want.

Assuming that we are capable of making our own happiness, how can a manager help things along?

Putting a happiness formula to work

One way to get started on building happiness at your organization is to nurture your junior staff, the members of the team who usually support the strategic plan rather than devise and implement it. Consider a vital project in the organization and delegate some of the meatier aspects of the project to a junior task force.

For this to work, you’ll need to put aside preconceived notions of the roles and responsibilities at your company: what someone’s degree is in, their educational pedigree, and even their recent work experience. The junior analyst in IT could be your most creative copywriter, but when relegated to coding all day, she may never have a chance to collaborate in a way that can deliver the most to a project. Be sure to recruit an eclectic mix of junior employees to the team, and there’s no need to fear opinionated newcomers.

1. Put the team in charge

Don’t treat it like an internship exercise. Count on them and let them know it. Have the team establish their vision for getting to a solution, creating their own timelines and benchmarks. It’s important to provide guidance along the way and hold them accountable, but the goal is to give them a sense of autonomy. “People want more sense of control. [When organizations put] in more controls, they get the opposite of what they want,” says Pryce-Jones.

2. Give your team a name

Simply giving the team a name will introduce a layer of accountability and a sense of membership in something important. Heisch says that managers often think that fear or incentives inspire motivation in the workplace, but a sense of purpose in the company and in the employee’s work is more important.

3. Nurture your team

“Pride, trust and recognition from the company are critical factors in happiness,” says Pryce-Jones. Give the team the resources they need to get the job done and provide them with recognition that they are part of an important project even before they begin.

Some organizations have begun to analyze their internal social networks to determine which leaders foster the most happiness, says Pryce-Jones. “We’re not talking about emotional highs, or that someone has an optimistic [attitude]. We are talking about a mind-set.”

4. Provide visibility

Allow the team visibility at the highest levels of the organization and make them aware that they will present their ideas to senior staff and that they are responsible for the outcome. Have them present to the CEO if you can.

“We just started a new program where, once a quarter, individuals who are passionate about an idea can seek funding for it by coming to a quarterly meeting on a Saturday and presenting it,” says Heisch. “It’s like a pitch [for] internal venture capital.”


When employees feel like they have some control over the work they are doing and when they feel like they’re making progress, they are generally happier and more productive, and these feelings are often amplified when employees are part of a team. A team makes a bigger, bolder, richer sound, with more layers, like an orchestra. And the richest sounds come when the team feels that they are part of something big; a big idea, a vision.

Linda Mignone has 20 years of experience in brand, strategic and direct marketing with start-ups to international Fortune 500 companies and serves on the board of YouTern, a company that matches student interns with entrepreneurial employers.