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Change with a smile

By Alexander Kjerulf

Why must change in organizations be so hard?

No company can thrive and survive if it can’t adapt and innovate and yet there’s an almost universal cry going up today that “change is tough and takes too much time and energy!”

You’ll have upper management on one side pushing for innovation, employees on the other side clinging to the old ways and middle managers caught (where else?) in the middle trying to actually get stuff done. Sound familiar?

My work with organizations all over the world has shown me that there is one vital factor that is being overlooked practically everywhere. One factor that can not only help companies change more rapidly and effectively but which contributes massively to the bottom line. That factor is happiness at work.

Here are the top three reasons why happy companies change more effectively and painlessly.

1: Happy people get more ideas
In times of change, companies cannot rely on the old ways of doing business and thus need new ideas. Preferably lots of them. And a fascinating study by Teresa Amabile of Harvard Business School shows that creativity is positively associated with joy and love and negatively associated with anger, fear, and anxiety. In other words, happy employees generate more ideas.

2: Happy people buy into new ideas.
It’s not enough to generate lots of ideas, you also need people to believe enough in them to actually want to implement them. Many managers work from a belief that change comes from dissatisfaction, pain and unhappiness, but psychological research proves them wrong. It turns out that what a business needs is optimists. Optimistic employees believe that change projects will pay off and are thus much more likely to commit. Unhappy, pessimistic employees only see all the ways a project can fail and often only go along on the surface – offering compliance rather than commitment.

3: Happy people implement new ideas.
And finally, once you have the ideas and people buy into them, you need to have the motivation to actually do something about it. And once again research shows that happy, satisfied employees are much more motivated. In fact, while managers must constantly work help dissatisfied employees find their motivation, happy employees motivate themselves. If you like the company you work for, you want the company to succeed – if you hate your workplace, you don’t give a damn.

In short, happy companies change willingly and effectively, while their unhappy competitors cling to business as usual and throw up massive resistance to all things new and uncertain.

And it doesn’t stop there. Additional research shows that happy workplaces are more productive, have happier customers and (most importantly) make more money! Unhappy workplaces on the other hand waste huge sums on high absenteeism and employee turnover rates. One Danish company reduced their absenteeism from around 20% to less than 1% and their annual employee turnover from 25% to almost nothing – simply by becoming a happy workplace. It’s incredibly easy (but potentially depressing) to calculate how much money similar improvements could save your company every single month.

In fact, studies indicate that happiness at work is the most important success factor for businesses today. Don’t just take my word for it. Richard Branson of Virgin says that “More than anything, fun is the secret behind Virgin’s success” and Apple CEO Steve Jobs says that “The only way to do great work is to love what you do.” Many other hugely successful companies like Google, Disney Southwest Airlines and SAS Institute also focus relentlessly on employee happiness – because it helps them change and grow and make more money.

And the good news is that happiness at work ain’t rocket science. Any company, big or small, public or private, can do it, provided it is willing to engage both managers and employees in efforts to create a happy workplace, where people actually enjoy themselves and look forward to coming, rather than one where they show up reluctantly to do as little as they can get away with.

This piece was originally written for the South African management magazine Strictly Business.

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