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To Increase Productivity: Work Less, Get Happy

02/09/2015 10:39 am ET | Updated Apr 11, 2015

Managers are perpetually searching for new and better ways to increase productivity and engagement of employees. While conventional reward systems for hard work and achievements show appreciation for those who are adding value to your team, these programs may not be enough to inspire people to contribute more or to become creative or productive. Is it possible that management is focusing on the wrong ingredient for inspiring employees? Have we become overly obsessed with proving that we're busy and working long hours when the real challenge is finding effective strategies to becoming more productive in less time?

Most people associate being successful with working hard, getting good grades, getting into a better school, getting a good job, then a better job, hitting targets, and so on. Management is no different when it comes to evaluating their employees and what defines a successful employee from a non-successful one. The problem with getting employees to solely focus on 'success' is that this formula does not guarantee they'll be more productive and in fact it can ultimately result in burnout or worse, failure. What's forgotten or completely left out in this common formula for success is happiness. If a person is unhappy or lacks optimism, research shows that he is less productive, efficient and creative in all areas of his life, including work.

Surprising research on who becomes successful

It's not always brains and hard work. Shawn Achor, author of The Happiness Advantage, leading expert on human potential and founder of Good Think Inc., a consulting firm that uses research to enhance individual achievement and cultivate a more productive workplace, says that when you're happy you achieve more: Your intelligence rises, your creativity rises, your energy level rises and every single business outcome improves. He sums this up as the "Happiness Advantage." Achor's research shows that your brain at positive is 31 percent more productive that your brain at negative, neutral or stressed. You're 37 percent better at sales. Doctors are 19 percent faster, more accurate at coming up with the correct diagnosis when positive instead of negative, neutral or stressed. Which means we can reverse the formula, to achieve success you should work at also being happy.

Happiness precedes productivity and success

If we can find a way of becoming positive, then our brains work even more successfully as we're able to work harder, faster and more intelligently.

Studies show that most companies and schools follow a formula for success, which is this: If I work harder, I'll be more successful. And if I'm more successful, then I'll be happier. Research shows that our brains actually work in the reverse order. The findings all show that success follows happiness not the other way around. People are more productive and engaged at work when they're wiring is happy. So the obvious goal for managers should be, how can we make our employees happier?

How can companies cultivate a happy culture?

Richard Branson, author and founder of Virgin Group says, "You need to think about what your crew needs to stay engaged, and what motivates them in the long term. The basics are well-designed offices with plenty of sunlight, stimulating tasks to work on and a fair reward." Research also shows that a healthy workforce is a happier one -- people are more productive and out sick less often. Building on that, a few years ago Branson found a flexible working policy to be very effective.

These guidelines effectively mean that as long as employees do their work, they can work whenever they want, from wherever they want.

Branson admits that it wasn't easy to put this system in place: "Our team invested in research beforehand to make sure it was workable, and once we all agreed, we had to encourage a change of culture across our offices." He said that was a small price to pay, because it's what his employees wanted, and he knew that demonstrating respect and trust in his employees would boost their happiness levels, and in turn, their productivity and creativity.

Industry Leaders Advice on How to Increase Employee Engagement and Happiness

Be transparent
B.J. Shannon, manager of customer happiness at TINYpulse, found in a 2013 employee engagement survey that the number-one contributor to employee happiness is transparency: "Money and promotions are important, but what people want to know is the truth about the state of the company. The cost of improving transparency is almost zero, but it requires an ongoing dialogue between management and staff."

Make employees part of the big picture

"The best benefit you can provide to your employees is the opportunity to make a difference through their work and help guide the course of the company. Benefits such as clear and frequent communication on company happenings, individual and department direction, and big-picture company direction, make all the difference in employee happiness." - Anthony Smith, CEO and founder of Insightly

How can you train your brain to be able to become more positive?

Studies show that in just a two-minute span of time done for 21 days in a row; we can actually rewire your brain, allowing your brain to actually work more optimistically and more successfully. Achor did these things in research in every company he worked with. His suggestions apply to individuals seeking to increase their happiness and could easily be applied in a group exercise within a company.

Express your gratitude daily in writing

Write down three new things you are grateful for each day for 21 days in a row. Research shows the brain starts to retain a pattern of scanning the world, for the positive first, not for the negative. It also showed that this activity will significantly improve your optimism even 6 months later, and raises your success rates significantly.

Describe one positive experience every day in writing

Write for 2 minutes a day describing one positive experience you had over the past 24 hours. Scanning the world for meaning instead of endless to-do's dramatically increases work happiness.

Exercise daily

Exercise for 10 minutes a day. This trains your brain to believe your behavior matters, which causes a cascade of success throughout the rest of the day.

Meditate daily

Meditate for 2 minutes, focusing on your breath going in and out. This will help you undo the negative effects of multitasking. Research shows you get multiple tasks done faster if you do them one at a time. It also decreases stress and raises happiness.

Express daily thanks or praise to a team member

Write one quick email first thing in the morning thanking or praising a member on your team. This significantly increases your feeling of social support which in Achor's study at Harvard was the largest predictor of happiness for the students.

How we look at the world and our lens on life can shift our inertia towards our work. It could afford more energy towards achieving one's targets when one's happiness is not attached to the outcome of a given project. If managers take the pressure off of the achievement itself as the ultimate defining factor of success they may inspire employees to feel happier and thereby become more productive at works. When they are more freed up in their minds and are in a happier place emotionally, they're true potential for success could shine through more radiantly.

Managers, who implement Achor's advice on the happiness advantage, shift their focus from rewarding achievements to caring for their employees' happiness, (developing programs that focus on creating joy at work) could reap the benefit of innovation and increased profits.

Encouraging employees to seek and experience happiness, regardless of a success with particular outcomes, may surprisingly be the antidote to staleness and stagnation at work. Focusing on happiness rather than on 'working harder' could give employers the advantage they need to become more engaged and productive at work. It's a science that seems intuitive yet not one that's traditionally considered a concern for management. Perhaps it's time to rethink what makes successful people tick and begin addressing the obvious...It's easier to focus and be creative when we're happy.