Annie McKee is an author and senior fellow at the University of Pennsylvania. McKee specializes in employee engagement and happiness at work, as well as organizational change. Her new book is called How to Be Happy at Work, and it explores how organizations can foster work climates that support employee engagement and happiness. 

Overall, how are businesses doing today at engaging their employees?
McKee: Businesses are doing a terrible job of engaging their employees. If you look at the Gallup statistics, which your readers may be familiar with, over two-thirds of employees are either actively disengaged or neutral about work, which means they either hate their jobs or they just don’t care. Neither one of those is good enough for organizations and individual employees. 

The costs of low engagement for middle market companies are really significant. When employees are not engaged, when they are not enthusiastic, excited, and don’t feel their work has meaning, they just don’t give their all. They don’t reach their full potential and neither do their organizations. That translates into poor productivity and business results, no matter the size of the organization. 

So what does employee engagement and happiness look like, in terms of behaviors?
McKee: When employees are excited and enthusiastic, they are generous with their time. They’re generous with resources. They are literally better able to think. They take in more information. They process it faster. They make better decisions, and are more creative, innovative, and on and on. 

Who is responsible for employee engagement and employee happiness? Is it the employee or their middle market employer? 
McKee: Both individuals and organizations are responsible for employee happiness. If I go to the individual employee, they can’t expect anybody else to make them happy. Whether that’s their boss, or their middle market company, or the world, they have to take charge themselves, so that’s first. 

Companies, and in particular managers, are also responsible for creating an environment where employees can be at their best. We call this a resonant culture; a culture that is marked by values that resonate with employees, values that help people direct their passion toward what they’re doing, as well as norms of engagement that encourage people to give not take. A resonant culture encourages us to build good relationships, to collaborate and to work well together. 

Why do leaders at middle-market companies, and employees too, generally accept high levels of workplace unhappiness?
McKee: Whether you’re at a middle market company or elsewhere, we’ve all grown up with this notion that people don’t deserve to be happy at work: happiness is for somewhere else in life. The notion is that we work to earn our paychecks so we can do the things we love outside of work. But you know what, we spend 8 to 10 hours a day at work. If you’re in a company that’s hard-driving and trying to grow, as most middle-market companies are, people work more than 10 hours a day. If we decide that we’re going to write-off 8 to 10 hours a day, that’s close to a third of our adult lives. We can’t do that, be both unhappy and productive.

We’ve got to banish those old myths that happiness at work doesn’t matter. These myths grew up in the industrial era. They weren’t good then, and they’re not good now. When we become all-consumed with goals and we just run from one to the next, it’s not fulfilling and we can find ourselves desperately unhappy, feeling as if life and work have no meaning. And if we’ve got organizational cultures that are ultra-focused on short-term profitability and they lose sight of the human beings involved, then we’ve got a big problem. 

What can middle-market leaders and organizations do to promote higher levels of employee engagement and happiness? 
McKee: What leaders can do at middle market companies is start with themselves. If you’re not happy, if you’re not committed, if work doesn’t feel fulfilling to you, and you don’t see the organization’s vision, that attitude is contagious. Your employees and team will pick up on that contagion. 

Next, look around and take stock of your organization’s values. Middle market companies are focused on growth, expanding their reach, on offering great customer service. Look for the values inside your company that resonate with you and that draw you and others to a higher purpose. They are often really simple. Doing good work, providing good service, frankly, compassion and being able to reach across the chasm to other individuals, to make sure there’s a generosity of spirit in the workplace. Find those values and then help your employees to rally around them and hold each other accountable for upholding them. 

Why are personal connections so vital for employee happiness?
McKee: Employees need to feel that the people around them have their backs. That they can give to others and it will be appreciated. They need to feel respected. Now, this doesn’t mean they have to go on vacation with their colleagues, or their boss, or even out to dinner. What I’m talking about is building relationships that are strong, and positive, with mutual commitment to one another, trusting relationships where colleagues have fun together. They look like friendship, they feel like friendship and they are friendships at work. 

What else would you like to say to middle market leaders about happiness at work?
McKee: There’s both a strong business case and a human case for happiness at work. The business case is clearer. When people are happy, they are more productive, more effective, and are better at what they do. There is plenty of research behind that.

The human case is, why would we waste a third of our adult lives being miserable? It’s just not acceptable. Happiness is a human right and that extends to work. If you happen to be a manager, it’s not only your happiness you should be concerned with, but all the people around you. My advice is take care of yourself, then look around you and see what you can do for others to create a resonant microculture.

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