Dr. Ramya Ranganathan completed her B. Tech in electrical and electronics engineering at IIT Madras and a PGDM from IIM-A. What she gained from her work experience in the corporate world (ICICI, Infosys, and Citibank) is a fundamental question that soon took over her life: ‘Why do people work’? This led her to study organizational behavior, psychology, philosophy, and theology, which concluded in a PhD in Organizational Behavior from London Business School. Before IIM-B, she has also taught at the London School of Economics.
1. Why is ‘Happiness at work’ a corporate agenda these days? Why should it be a priority of HR?
I think this has happened because as a society, we have reached a threshold in terms of stress and frustration, both inside and outside the workplace. During the industrial era, people were generally accepting of the idea of work as an activity that they needed to endure in order to earn. However in the last several years, a certain class of people with white-collared jobs, who are above a certain economic standard have increasingly been feeling unhappy and dissatisfied at work. They have started questioning if there can indeed be a better way to experience work.
The current interest in happiness is coming as a reaction to the stress, unhappiness and dissatisfaction with a restricted kind of workplace that had come to be the dominant workplace model. People are gradually realizing that this does not have to be the norm. It just took a few organizations to break free of the dominant paradigm and start experimenting with how they could make work into a win-win between the employer and the employee. As a result, we are now witnessing a change in the way in which people view their work. Progressive companies have started looking into how they can invest in their employees, make them happy, and help them grow. Information and impressions about work culture travels far and wide in the internet era. This means that HR no longer has the option to disregard their employees’ happiness, unless they want to run the risk of losing their good ones.
2. Is there any research to show that Work and Happiness are related to one another?
There is a lot of research about the impact of happiness at work and the results almost one-sidedly show that there are hardly any downsides to happiness. Happiness increases productivity, creativity, worker relationships and health. It helps tide over conflicts by allowing differences in ideas and opinions while preserving the quality of relationships. People who go into negotiations happier are far more likely come out with a win-win outcome than those who don’t. All these results are primarily because the brain is wired to literally function differently when a person is happy.
3. How is employee well being/happiness central to achieving performance and productivity?
When the brain is under positive influence, we perform better. The technical term for this is the ‘broaden and build effect’, which means that the brain actually gets reconfigured in the moment to have an enhanced level of awareness, which in turn helps us see more and learn better. We can actually support more of the data input coming in and we also build resources and relationships for the future. Just as a smartphone can work in different modes: active mode, sleep mode etc., when we are happy, our brain also works in a different, better mode -- with its highest capacities unlocked.
There is a widely prevalent myth that in order to progress you need to be discontented and unhappy with the status quo. However, goals are of two kinds: approach goals and avoidance goals. Approach goals are when you reach for desired outcomes and say this is what I am going to try and get next. Avoidance goals focus on eliminating and escaping undesired outcomes. It is when you are unhappy with something and decide that you are going to take steps to move away from it. The myth related to the need for discontent is only true for avoidance goals because when we don’t like something, we are motivated to take steps to change it. However, a lack of avoidance goals is not a lack of goals in general. We can also have approach goals, which means that we can be happy with the way things are and still aspire to expand, experiment and do something different. And research actually shows that happiness is a strong motivator for approach goals.
4. People are definitely ‘satisfied’ in some sense if they are complacent. So how is complacency different from happiness, which you say motivates people?
This is a simple framework of comfort zone, challenge zone and frustration zone that describes human beings at work. The place of maximum enjoyment, where we feel the best, where we contribute the most, where we learn best and grow the most is in the challenge zone. That is where we should be ideally and not in the frustration zone where we are overwhelmed and overstretched.
It is a myth that we need to be pushed to go into the challenge zone. If you tell a child that they have 5 days of holiday to just sit and relax, you will puzzle them because children never want to just ‘sit and relax’ -- they want to play, learn and grow. Our natural state of being, just like we see in children is to be in the challenge zone.
The comfort zone is also of value as it makes you feel safe and cozy. People reach for the comfort zone when they have been too long in the frustration zone. If you have been stressed, overworked and anxious and you need some rest, you will want to come back to the comfort zone for recovery.
The prevailing idea is that people by nature are complacent. There is a popular idea in management referred to as theory x and theory y. Theory x says that you have to push people and force them to work. Theory y argues that people naturally want to achieve and stretch themselves by creating new things because that’s when they feel good. This whole idea of complacency comes from theory x. We do see some evidence of this but usually it happens when people have been overworked for 2-3 years. After continuously having been in the frustration zone, all they want is to return to the comfort zone. If you allow them to rest and recoup in the comfort zone, you will naturally see them get back to the challenge zone. So it is incorrect to conclude that people are naturally complacent or lazy. Most of the time that’s just a reaction to having been overstretched earlier.
5. What practical steps can individuals and companies take towards cultivating happiness?
If you think of a person’s emotions as positive and negative, going up and down like a sine wave, there is sort of an average baseline that the emotions will be oscillating around. Our culture has somehow pushed this baseline far lower than what is desirable for most of us. Fortunately, a lot of research has been done around how we can shift this happiness baseline. Certain practices have been identified, which, if cultivated on a daily basis, will shift your happiness baseline higher. Among those are physical exercise, journaling — where you are writing to yourself, meditation — which is very powerful way to train your brain and gratitude logging -- the act of consciously writing things that you feel grateful for. By doing so, you can train your brain for looking at what is good and what is working in your life. Your brain then begins to form a new pattern which allows it to start savoring the good things.
Another practice is random acts of kindness. Going out of your way to be nice to people by doing little things -- leaving someone a flower or buying lunch for the next person in the queue. In our day-to-day lives, we feel programmed to do something only to get something. To reverse that, we can make it a ritual to do 3 random acts of kindness. It is useful to call it random so that your brain doesn’t get into the trap of asking, “what am I getting for this?” While these acts also improve your experience in the moment, the idea is also about making them into a long term ritual or habit.
Another popular practice, which a lot of corporate companies have really picked up on is to allow people to work to their strengths -- even if a little every day. There are things which some people are naturally inclined towards, which they are good at and which they want to do. Creating opportunities for them to do that is a win-win for the employers and the employees. Employers get results without having to motivate or push people who are doing things they like. Employees feel good doing these things and that in turn shifts their happiness baseline up, and with that their performance levels. There is less turnover because people feel satisfied. This is a practice that organizations like Google have leveraged very well through giving people greater autonomy in designing their projects and choosing what they want to work on.
6. How can leaders and managers encourage this?
By being a role model. Think of youngsters in their first job after finishing education. They really look up to the leaders and managers to learn how they should behave in the corporate world. That’s really where they get their signals from. So by being a role model -- leaders can shape the culture of the organization. Non-verbal signals are often more powerful than verbal declarations. If leaders conduct their meetings from a place of being calm and happy, and they interact with others from a place where they are embodying joy, a ripple effect that takes place. Emotions are very contagious. Science has actually shown us that there is something called mirror neurons in our brains. When we interact with someone and give them our attention, the configurations in our brain start imitating the configurations of the brain of the person that we are giving our attention to. A leader’s role is especially important here because people might not pay much attention if a person of no importance to them is mumbling or stuttering in anger. However everybody gives attention to the leader and are therefore affected by how he or she behaves.
Another way that leaders can really help is by promoting a culture where being happy is not seen as being wrong, selfish, unproductive or frivolous. There are some strange stereotypes and myths floating in the corporate world that if you don’t look strained, you are not working hard. Such myths can only be undone by having enough leaders who embody the reverse. We need to see real examples of leaders who are happy and brilliant, who are happy and productive, who are happy and powerful. We need examples of leaders who are happy and who are serious about what they do. That is when more and more employees will feel that they too have a right to be happy, and create more joy for themselves and others at the workplace.
For the last six years, Ramya has been teaching highly popular courses at IIM Bangalore, emphasizing on the need for happiness and meaning at work. You can read essays by her and learn more about her open program titled 'Leading with Joy' at Crafting Our Lives. Her poems can be read here.You can also listen to her TEDx talk.
Title Photo credit: Seema Swami