Harping on happiness

Monday, 30 September 2013 00:40 -     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}

It was amazing to watch a brief video clip on YouTube featuring W.V. Sugathapala. He has received global acclaim as one of the happiest persons in the world. Do happy people produce more results? Do we give adequate attention to employee satisfaction? Today’s column will shed light onto this happiness factor, in the context of Sri Lankan organisations. Background “Everyone chases after happiness, not noticing that happiness is right at their heels,” said Bertolt Brecht. We have one solid Sri Lankan example in this respect. He is W.V. Sugathapala from Damameellawatta, who is a security guard of a popular confectionary shop in Payagala. Whilst struggling to survive with a family of five, he enjoys every bit of his job at the age of 60 years. If you doubt me, log on to YouTube and he will show you how and why. “I like to smile always. I want to make my customers happy. Then I am also happy. My body becomes healthier.” These are the utterances of Sugathapala, who has gone through a transition from a desperate job seeker, having been fired from a well-established firm for no valid reason, to a contended, committed and caring employee. Happiness in the management context “Happiness is when what you think, what you say, and what you do are in harmony,” said Mahatma Gandhi. It is a state of well-being and satisfaction. The key word that associates the workplace happiness is employee satisfaction. Employee satisfaction is the terminology used to describe whether employees are happy and contented and fulfilling their desires and needs at work. Many measures purport that employee satisfaction is a factor in employee motivation, employee goal achievement, and positive employee morale in the workplace. During the 1930s, a series of management studies were conducted at the Hawthorne Works of the Western Electric Company in Cicero, Illinois. Researchers wanted to learn the effect of working conditions on worker productivity, and the executives of the company saw an opportunity to boost productivity without increasing costs. What they really found was the increase of attention and care resulted in a boost of productivity. Employee happiness has always been measured as job satisfaction. If you’re happy, you’ll like your job. Wright pointed out that job satisfaction is arrived at after an evaluation of job activities. A happy person could poorly evaluate a job with difficult working conditions and yet still be a happy person. An unhappy person could favourably evaluate a job with good working conditions yet still be an unhappy person. The connection to productivity was being lost. Wright suspected that this simple mistake had confounded all these earlier studies, so he decided to find out. For decades organisational psychologists have searched for what exactly makes work most enjoyable. There’s still no magic formula for job satisfaction, since people have their own preferences for what they need and want from a job environment. Some would rather get work done and leave, while others seek a greater sense of community. Happiness studies Happiness studies, a fairly new field, comprise academic disciplines as diverse as positive psychology, neuroscience, positive organisational scholarship and behavioural economics. Hundreds of researchers around the globe are working in this area. What they say is interesting. The optimism increases life satisfaction and creates positive business outcomes. Strong human relationships have a direct impact on the quality and length of life, and developing strengths is more powerful than trying to fix weaknesses. These are being applied in the military, health care, education and the highest reaches of several governments. Happiness studies, broadly defined, even won psychologist Daniel Kahneman a Nobel Prize in economics. In business, while no one has shown a direct correlation between happiness and stock price, “There is a lot of compelling evidence — across industries, continents, sectors, that positive practices pay off,” said Kim Cameron, a positive organisational scholar at the University of Michigan’s Ross School of Business. “Companies make more money, they are more productive, they produce higher quality, higher customer satisfaction and higher employee engagement” when they focus on positive practices. Happiness how? How can an organisation make employees happy? This might be the critical question for all concerned managers. Udai Pareek came up with an interesting and insightful approach with regard to this. He called it OCTAPACE, which is an acronym for openness, collaboration, trust, authenticity, pro-activity, autonomy, confrontation and experimentation. Let’s look into them in detail, in the Sri Lankan context. Openness: Employees feel free to express their ideas, when the climate has openness as a key feature. There is hardly any risk of employees being punished for telling the truth or for constructively being critical. It is in fact a mature state of affairs with sound communication practices across the organisation. Sri Lankan organisations in general have a long way to go with this respect. What we mostly have resembles a part of a nursery rhyme, “Yes sir, no sir, three bags full”. The ability to say no to seniors even when it is the reality is sadly lacking in some cases. Confrontation: The point here is to confront the issues without hiding them under the carpet. It is a case of taking the bull by the horns. Highlighting the issues will pave way for solutions without stagnation. We have a cultural disadvantage here. Confronting issues may be perceived as asking for troubles. Delaying and delaying as much as possible has become the practice in resolving issues. This escape route is not healthy for any progressive organisation. Perhaps, why people are not doing it enough could be deficits in communication, training and performance management. Trust: How much the employees trust one another is the focus here, with specific reference to leader behaviour. Some seniors become micro-managers in checking each and every step of their subordinate movements. It indicates a low level of trust. In contrast, there can be a climate where people are encouraged to take own initiatives to achieve agreed targets. We see both the above scenarios in Sri Lankan organisations. It again reflects the link between deep foundations of culture and what can be seen. A climate of trust has been the proven way forward. Authenticity: It is the value underlying trust. It is the willingness of a person to acknowledge the feelings he/she has, and accept himself/herself as well as others who relate to him/her as persons. The call is to be genuine, without posing as what one is not. When employees demonstrate authenticity, relationship building becomes much easier. The Sri Lankan scenario is often a mixed one with this regard. A lot depends on the leadership style. There are model organisations where authenticity is fostered, with fullest support from the top. Pro-activity: This is the call to be pro-active rather than re-active. Employees should be action – oriented, in making things happen. It is a case of anticipating issues and exploiting opportunities appropriately. Sri Lankan organisations can improve a lot in this respect. We are more reactive then proactive. Waiting till the last moment to make key decisions has become a national habit. Prolonged union issues were seen in the past when proactive steps were not taken by the respective managers. Autonomy: It is the willingness to use power without fear, and helping others to do the same. Employees should have some freedom to act independently within the boundaries imposed by their role. The essence is empowering the employees. We have a long way to go in the local context. The consolation is that HRM is increasingly taken more seriously by the corporate leaders, and degree of empowerment is also on the rise. Collaboration: Collaboration involves working together and using one another’s strength for a common cause. Individuals, instead of solving their problems by themselves, should share their concerns with one another and prepare strategies, work out plans of action, and implement them together. It essentially refers to teaming together. We see a growing emphasis on team work and collaboration in Sri Lankan organisations. Especially in the private sector, the team concept is highly emphasised. However, in some cases the working as a team is just confined to wearing a t-shirt with team details (Team-X, Team-Y, etc.), which obviously limits collaboration. Experimentation: Experimenting as a value emphasises the importance given to innovation. It involves risk taking and trying out new ways of dealing with problems in the organisation. Unless there is a tolerance of failures, experimentation will not foster. The encouragement should come from the organisation to encourage people to experiment within a reasonably accepted risk levels. We can do more in this regard in Sri Lankan organisations. Whether we more creativity oriented or compliance oriented is the fundamental question. The challenge is to strike a balance between experimentation and expected results. Way forward Happiness is something that leaders and managers cannot simply ignore. Happy employees have been producing higher results, globally, regionally and locally. What is required is to streamline it in order to make it the way of life. Richard Branson of Virgin Group said: “My employees should have fun and enjoy themselves, in a family like atmosphere.” Creating such a climate where a contended community commits for concrete results is the need of the hour. (Dr. Ajantha Dharmasiri works at the Postgraduate Institute of Management. He can be reached on ajantha@pim.lk or www.ajanthadharmasiri.info.)

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