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Harvard Instructor Shares How Companies Can Make Their Workers Happier

By News Creatives Authors , in Leadership , at September 9, 2021

The pandemic has led to crisis levels of mental health issues. After nearly two years of enduring  a deadly virus, people have shared that they’ve been wrestling with depression, anxiety, stress and fear. They’re continually plagued with self-doubt, along with an erosion of confidence. 

While many people have enjoyed the benefits of working from home, there are accompanying feelings of isolation. You worry that since you’re working remotely, it’s “out of sight, out of mind” and your career could suffer from not being noticed by management. If you are raising young children, you need to deftly juggle a career, while tending to childcare.

It’s imperative that executives and groups, such as human resources, pay close attention to the mental and emotional well-being of their people. They should make a practice of reaching out to their employees on a regular basis to check in and ask, “How are you?”—and mean it. Inquire how the company, its representatives and outside resources may assist with any mental, emotional or spiritual challenges that they are dealing with.

Michael J. McCarthy was a successful Wall Street money manager and entrepreneur who turned to academia. He teaches students at Harvard University, with a focus on human resources. McCarthy espouses the virtues of positive psychology and how it can help motivate employees and make them happier in their work.

In a Harvard Business Review piece, McCarthy outlines how companies can maximize profits and profitability by making their employees feel excited and energized in their roles. He points out what we often see with sports stars: if you are highly engaged and love what you’re doing, you become immersed in the game. Time loses its meaning, as the athlete is hyperfocused on the moment and living it to the fullest.

In psychology, this is referred to as being in the “flow.” McCarthy writes, “When you are in flow, you are at the perfect intersection of an engaging challenge that your talents can conquer.” As workers and teams are in the flow, productivity and profitability is maximized.

The problem for many businesses is that roughly 85% of employees around the world are not connected with their jobs. These folks aren’t “actively engaged” with what they are doing all day long. Nearly 20% of employees are not just out of the flow, but “actively disengaged.” These are the co-workers you see that are resentful, vengeful, gossipy, spread rumors, constantly complain and generally bring everyone down. They lack energy and passion and just go through the motions.

The key to creating an energized and motivated workforce, according to McCarthy, could be found through “positive psychology.” The founder of this movement is Dr. Martin E.P. Seligman of the University of Pennsylvania. Seligman calls for a model of well-being, referred to as PERMA. It’s an acronym for Positive Emotions, Engagement, Relationships, Meaning and Accomplishment. If a worker possesses these traits, they will likely outperform. 

McCarthy offers real-world applications. For example, hiring decisions should include giving a voice and vote to the members of the department in the selection of a candidate. It empowers the employees and shows respect for their decision-making skills. There’s an added benefit too. The odds are high that staffers who approved of the candidate will then do whatever it takes to make the new employee successful, in an effort to prove to management that they possess good judgement.

An employee will outperform if their tasks are aligned to their strengths and abilities. It’s important to provide them with autonomy and the room to succeed or fail. Avoid micromanaging and overcriticizing. Instead, keep an open line of communications, if the person needs advice, guidance and feedback.

As an executive recruiter, I’ve noticed that when a person maintains a close group of work friends, they are harder to poach. The bonds keep people connected to the company. I’d often hear from a person that I’m soliciting for a new job, “Thanks, but I like it here and enjoy working with my colleagues.” They’ll turn down better-paying jobs with great companies and growth prospects, as their work-wives/husbands and friends offer an emotional benefit that supersedes the extra cash and corporate titles.

The quickest way to discourage an employee is to withhold praise, gratitude and thanks. Without this, workers will think, “Why should I even bother?” The quality of their work will suffer, as they lose motivation. Managers must make an attempt to acknowledge the achievements and victories of their staff. It could be in the form of a simple “thank you,” proverbial pat on the back, pizza celebration or an announcement in front of their peers. If a person didn’t meet a deadline or botched an assignment, be fair and not too judgmental with your feedback. 

You should strive to pursue a job or career that offers the chance to be challenged. Find work that is meaningful, intellectually challenging and spiritually rewarding. Inner satisfaction is sometimes found in a job that enables you to help others, promotes positive change and serves a higher purpose. If possible, find a career that is aligned with your core values and principles and could make the world a better place.   

I understand that these are lofty, aspirational goals. It is rare to find work that offers a sense of purpose. In fact, it’s more likely that your job won’t offer intrinsic, meaningful rewards. You may enjoy the fact that your job is associated with a social status that people find impressive or that it helps you earn a nice living. Yet, you still feel that something is missing. 

If you feel that there is a lack of purpose in your career, you can choose to make a change. This change does not require you to seek out an entirely new role at a different company. Instead of taking risks by walking away from your current employer, you can initiate change by crafting your job to find optimal meaningfulness—the degree of significance an employee believes their work possesses. 

Job crafting is the process of redefining and reimagining your job design—tasks and relationships assigned to one person in an organization—to foster job satisfaction and bolster employee engagement and performance. As you aim to redefine your purpose within the company, you should focus on your motives, strengths and passions to help you get there. You can start your journey with small incremental changes that add up over time. 

Here is what you should do now to start:

Recognize that, with any job, there will be monotonous and unglamorous tasks. Even the CEO has to deal with canceled flights, late Ubers and surly underlings. Accept that there will always be a certain percentage of responsibilities that may not change and focus on the things that you do have the power to change. 

Ask to speak with your boss to discuss your goal of  job crafting, with respect to your responsibilities. Work with your manager to create new responsibilities that provide you with purpose and meaning. Take proactive steps to redesign elements of what you do at work. For example, if you are an accountant, you could suggest starting a unit that caters to charitable organizations. An attorney could request to do pro bono work to help displaced Afghan refugees. A stock broker can share financial advice to parents with college-bound students. 

People feel pride by offering to mentor and develop the careers of young workers. Change your mindset regarding your responsibilities. If you are a janitor at a hospital, for example, try and see yourself playing a role in curing people’s illnesses.  

Delegate certain responsibilities that don’t fit your skill set and rob you of your enthusiasm. Ask for assignments that you feel are a better match. If you are at a desk all day long and desire interaction with others, ask about opportunities to get out in front of clients. When you’re overloaded with tasks that take you away from the more important matters you enjoy, request to shift this work to a co-worker who likes these types of assignments. You may have mastered your job and require more challenging assignments.

Employees who execute job crafting often end up more engaged and fulfilled in their work lives, achieve higher levels of performance in their companies and obtain unrivaled personal gratification. You will be viewed in a positive light—seen as engaged, re-energized, loyal and dedicated. Your boss will respect your desire to pursue new and meaningful work. In a hot job market, management will welcome a person who desires to stay with the company and improve themselves. You could serve as an example for others to follow, thereby making additional employees feel empowered and dedicated to the company.

Happy, engaged and motivated employees will have a direct positive impact on the company. They’ll lead by example. Others will see their successes and emulate them. Productivity dramatically increases. The overall mood improves. The end result is that both the company and workers, who are now in the flow, greatly benefit.


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