How Happiness affects High Performing Teams

A recent article in the Chicago Tribune discussed the topic of happiness.  Based on research by Jack Bauer, associate professor at the University of Dayton, the article provided some interesting tips for those interested in happiness.  In this post, we look at those tips for pursuing happiness and we apply those to leading high-performing teams.

Happiness is an elusive emotion. How do we go about being happy?  Is that a choice, that is, can we simply choose to be happy instead of feeling sad or angry?  If so, the question for many of us is this “why can’t we just be happy?”.

Which is a great question.  Why can’t we just be happy?  The research by Jack Bauer and others indicates that happiness is not something that we seek directly, but that we achieve indirectly through other things.  Here are some of the key findings from the research:

  • Happiness flows from engaging in activities in which we are totally immersed; when we lose ourselves.
  • Happiness is rising to a challenge that we have the capacity to meet.  When we tackle something difficult and our skills are up to the challenge, happiness tends to flow.  It is when we are working toward personal mastery, rather than performance.
  • Happiness is more likely to to be experienced in community with others, rather then when we are alone and isolated.  This was an overarching theme of the research.
  • Happiness was more likely when people were doing things that were personally meaningful or for the greater human good, rather than for our own personal goals or for material goods.
  • The research also showed something that many of have heard before, having more money doesn’t necessarily increase happiness.  Interestingly enough, the opposite is generally true.  Happy people tend to make more money for a variety of reasons including because others like them and their work, they are more creative and optimistic. (There is actually a book that has been around for a while called, Do What You Love and the Money will Follow, which is based on this premise.)

I looked at these lessons from a personal perspective at first, then began to think from the lens of a project manager or leader.  What can we apply from this research to help our teams perform at the highest possible level?  Here are my conclusions:

#1 Know the strengths and weaknesses of your individual team members and align them to it.

If we want to align people with the right work, we need to know them inside and out.  That will help us to get people into those positions where they are doing work they like and are good at and where they are stretching themselves to meet a challenge.  Likewise, we need to avoid placing people in roles where they feel overwhelmed or not up to the challenge.  We want to be pushing people to stretch themselves in roles where they feel challenged, but not necessarily overhelmed.

This can be a bit tricky and may require taking some risks.  On a recent program, we put a junior PM into a role leading a large outsourcing effort.  She had little PM experience and no prior experience with outsourcing and she quickly began to feel like she was in over her head.  What she overlooked was that she was very familiar with the teams that were affected, and the tasks and specific products that were being outsourced.  It was because of her unique prior experience in these areas, and her good relationships with the impacted teams that made her capable of rising to the challenge.

#2 Challenge Team Members at their Growth Edge

When we know the strengths and weaknesses of our team members, we can also push them to perform at high levels.  We can challenge them in those areas where they are up to it but need to be supported to increase their performance.

This is something I have personally experienced and written about here and in my book.  I do some of my best work when I have a mentor or coach who is supporting me, challenging me, and yes sometimes pushing me beyond what I think I can do.  It has been one of the most important things that has fueled me, encouraged me, and has resulted in the most personal growth.  My mentor Rich will often say something like, “my vision for you Anthony is that you are…”.  He holds the bar high for me, when I am not able to do it for myself.

#3 Prevent Individuals from working in Isolation. 

I recognize that it is a natural tendency for many people to want to isolate and work alone.  There is an attraction for many of us to think that if we were just left to work alone, we would be happy.  (Hey, that’s exactly why I became a writer!)  In fact, people are more happy and engaged when they are working as part of a team.  So while there is a tendency to isolate, and certainly there are some tasks that naturally need to be performed by a single person, we want to avoid this if possible.  We want people working together.  As leaders, we need to build a sense of community and help team members to stay connected to the greater team.

Building community can help with happiness and actually speed the progress toward the team’s goals.  I recently had a virtual team of developers working to create programs to convert material from one format to another.  This team had a consistent track record of missing every deadline and milestone. Working together with the leader of the team, we implemented twice weekly standup calls.  What we discovered during our standup calls was a little shocking – each developer was working in near perfect isolation; they didn’t talk to each other!  While there was some level of email between them, they were largely isolated in trying to solve the collective challenges.  Our standup calls quickly became their forum for communication and they started performing as a group and actually hit a few deadlines.

#4 Help people to connect their work to the goals of the larger organization or the company. 

This is something that is important but not done very often.  People don’t get inspired by working each week for a paycheck.  They might get inspired by being part of a team that is making an impact inside their organization or out.  It is important that team members understand the bigger picture of your team goals and how their task or activity contributes toward that.  When people see the connection, they see it as for the greater good and not something that they have to do for you.

Back in 2003 I was lucky enough to get involved with a large program that was implementing systems to support education reform in the country of Qatar.  It was fascinating to me how many people wanted to join the team to be part of that work.  We capitalized on it by providing lots of information about the country of Qatar, the state of education, and the people that would be impacted by the program.  People got it, and it helped to fuel their performance.  We had a very high-performing team because everyone understood, and bought into the larger goals of the organization. We worked some incredibly long hours and met some goals that at the time seemed unachievable.  We even adopted the team slogan ‘Inconceivable!’

I am sure there are other takeaways from a leadership perspective.  As always, I am interested in your thoughts.  Cheers!

Anthony

 

This Post Has 2 Comments

  1. The focus of this post is on happiness at work and I belive that the takeaways above are spot on as it relates to creating an team environment where individuals may find professional happiness (“may” because as leaders, we only set the environment, not the result). But as work lives and personal lives continue to integrate, it is also important to understand the personal/professional points of balance fo our team members. If happiness is the objective, then enabling an appropriate (and individually defined) balance between work and home is equally important as aligning people with appropriate work, challenging individuals to their capability, and connecting to larger organizational goals.

  2. Stephen, I think the idea of balance between work and home is important – thanks for pointing that out. I also agree with you that it is up to the individual to find the balance between work and non-work activities. For me, I find that when I am doing well at work and being challenged to work at my best, I feel happier and I bring that home with me. I get satisfaction from performing well at work. Similarly, when I am happy with my non-work life (life outside work), I bring that to my work and perform better. It is like two sides of the same coin.
    Thanks for your comments!
    Cheers, Anthony

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