Putting Performance and Happiness Together in the Workplace

Both job performance and the employees' level of happiness impact the potential of success for an organization.

2008 Volume 11 Issue 1

Performance and happiness go hand in hand in making an organization successful.[1] With both an appropriate performance management system and a positive approach to influencing people that increases happiness, an organization’s key results can more likely be achieved and sustained.

Which of the following types of persons would you prefer to have in greater numbers in your organization?







Photo: Lise Gagne







Which of the following types of persons would you prefer to have in greater numbers in your organization?

A. Happy Low Performers

B. Unhappy Low Performers

C. Unhappy High Performers

D. Happy High Performers

E. All of the above.

The obvious preference would be “D.” Intuition aside, mounting evidence suggests that happy high performing workforces correlate with greater employee satisfaction, customer loyalty, productivity, and profits.[2] The majority of workplaces, however, are filled with “E”: all of the above.

The intersection between the dimensions of performance and happiness will dictate whether an organization is able to sustain its success. This article highlights the importance of both performance and happiness to the long-term success of a business, describes the key dimensions of happiness in the workplace, and offers a self-assessment tool which individuals may use in thinking about their own personal performance and happiness at work. A call is made to practitioners and applied researchers to design, develop, and test happiness-enhancing interventions to assist practitioners in their efforts to boost happiness in the workplace.

The Performance – Happiness Matrix

In the context of performance management, “performance” refers to actions that drive the achievement of key results. A “high performer” is an individual (or work group) that performs the actions necessary to drive key results. “Happiness” is the experience of frequent, mildly pleasant emotions, the relative absence of unpleasant feelings, and a general feeling of satisfaction with one’s life.”[3] People who are happy in the work setting are generally having more positive experiences than negative ones in connection with the work place and their job.

An interesting and useful way of viewing people and groups across the two dimensions of performance and happiness is depicted in Figure 1. Happy and sad faces, with arrows symbolizing high and low performance, represent the four permutations in this analysis. The author often uses this matrix with executives to discuss their own situation as well as that of the people in their organizations. References in this article to the various quadrants are used for thought and discussion purposes only. For more specific analysis of areas of relative strength and weakness for a particular individual or group within an organization, see the Performance-Happiness Self-Assessment Survey here.

Performance-Happiness Matrix

1. Quadrant #1: Happy Low Performer. These employees remain happy in spite of poor performance. They may be especially optimistic, perhaps mismatched for their current position, or need training. Tom, for example, a new and inexperienced pharmaceutical sales person, was positive about his future and hopeful that his current poor performance would improve with sales skill training. He was optimistic and hopeful about succeeding in this position, even though his current performance was poor; as his performance improves, he would move toward Q4 behavior.

2. Quadrant #2: Unhappy Low Performer. Many factors can contribute to this condition, including a lack of performance management systems, poor selection practices, and little or no meaningful employee recognition. For example, Mary was frustrated and unhappy in the workplace most of the time. Her job required her to be detail-oriented, structured and willing to work alone for long periods of time. The problem was that Mary was not good with details, and she was creative and extroverted. She was an underperformer in her current job with little chance of succeeding because her work preferences did not match those required by her job.

Negative low performers can keep organizations from reaching their full potential. Their own lack of success drags down overall performance. Perhaps more significantly, unhappy low performers can infect others with negative attitudes and become negative role models, exacerbating the impact of their unhappiness, and allowing counterproductive behaviors to creep into the workplace.

3. Quadrant #3: Unhappy High Performer. Various reasons may underlie why an employee who is performing well may nonetheless be unhappy in the workplace. For instance, employees may be unhappy because their work is not challenging, or they are repeatedly asked to do the same assignments because they are good at a particular activity. Without challenging work, it is difficult for an employee to become involved, engaged, or positive about his or her work, making it difficult to sustain high performance over time. This may result in the most talented and marketable people, who are unhappy, leaving an organization.

For instance: Having been given the same assignments numerous times, Peter was unhappy and frustrated. While he continued to be a high performer in his current position, Peter believed that no one cared about his development and was contemplating looking for another position.

4. Quadrant #4: Happy High Performer. Happy high performance presents the best prospect for long-term organizational success. A high performer who is happy about his/her work will be much more likely to sustain high performance over time and deliver key results.

A Closer Look at Quadrant #4, the Happy High Performer

People who occupy Quadrant #4 share some key characteristics. These individuals:

  1. Have a clear direction.
  2. Find that direction motivating.
  3. Focus on what is important and what they can influence.
  4. Are linked to the resources necessary to execute key actions.
  5. Talk and act in ways that promote performance and happiness.
  6. Are significantly engaged in their work.
  7. Find meaning and purpose in their work.
  8. Have more positive experiences than negative experiences at work.
  9. Are grateful about the past and do not carry grudges.
  10. Are optimistic looking into the future.
  11. Achieve agreed upon results.
  12. Are happy about their workplace.

Managerial leaders are encouraged to use the “Performance – Happiness Self-Assessment Survey” to rate themselves on these characteristics. This assessment tool is an informal survey that serves as a springboard for a conversation about areas of relative strength and areas where improvement may be indicated, with the goal of personal growth toward Q4.

Paths to Performance and Happiness

Job satisfaction researchers have had a long standing debate as to whether employees are happy first and performers second, or performers first and happy second.[4] However, both happiness and job performance need to be addressed.

Various paths exist to maximize performance and happiness. It may be relatively easier to move people from Q1 or Q3, rather than from Q2, toward the high performing happy Q4. For instance, a change in recognition and reward strategies may be sufficient to move people in Q3 to Q4. In most situations, however, the “fix” to enhance people’s happiness in their work environment will be challenging. Tools exist for increasing performance, but positivity enhancing interventions that drive happiness still need to be developed for use within organizational settings.

1. Increasing Performance. A managerial leader can maximize performance by taking action in the following four areas:

  1. Designing, developing, and delivering a clear and motivating direction
  2. Creating operational focus
  3. Effectively and efficiently linking or coordinating resources
  4. Ensuring that people practice effective influence skills

When managerial leaders effectively execute the action roles of director, focuser, linker and influencer,[5] performance is advanced. In order to be a high performer, an employee must have a clear and motivating direction, know what to focus on, know how to access and link with resources to maximize his or her performance, and be surrounded by people who practice effective influence or people skills, including individuals who model and promote happiness.

2. Increasing Happiness. In looking at happiness in the workplace, we find that a person’s orientation in reflecting on the past, focusing on the present, and looking into the future, is determinative of whether he or she is happy.[6]

  • When reflecting on the past, the way to happiness is to be grateful and “count your blessings.” Happy people do not carry grudges; they find effective ways to forgive others.
  • In looking at one’s present situation, individuals derive happiness from being significantly engaged in their work, finding meaning/purpose in what they do, and/or regularly having more happy/positive experiences than negative ones.
  • Individuals who are challenged while using their skills and strengths will be engaged in their work. When an optimal balance occurs between challenge and skill, a person becomes fully engaged in the activity at hand. Such individuals are “in flow” with their work.[7]
  • Employees experience meaning in their work when they recognize that their work has an impact on others. Meaning is often brought into greater focus when employees understand what needs they are satisfying for the end users of their organization’s products and services. For example, when production workers in a manufacturing plant recognize that their company’s products contribute to environmental safety in communities around the globe, they can see the greater good, or meaning, in their work beyond the relative simplicity of completing their own daily tasks.
  • Finally, happiness comes from work experiences that yield positive emotions, positive thoughts, and/or positive images in people. Positive emotions in particular have the capacity to “build and broaden” people’s positive response repertoire.[8] People who approach tasks with positivity have been found to be more productive, creative and resilient.[9]
  • When looking into the future, happy performers are optimistic and hopeful. They utilize positive goals, self-talk and other strategies to help them remain resilient as they move forward.

Perhaps the initial way for a managerial leader to think about how to influence the happiness level of his or her employees is in relation to the employee’s present situation. For example, engagement with one’s work can likely be enhanced by having an individual assess her “strengths” and utilize those strengths in her work. This may include coaching to help the individual use her strengths in innovative ways. An employee’s level of engagement at work, and subsequent happiness, is likely boosted when he or she has the opportunity to do what he or she does best at work – utilizing one’s strengths is a positive experience. (This could likely help Mary, the Q2 Unhappy Low Performer, move toward Q4.)

A Call to Action

Organizational leaders should strive to increase the number of Happy High Performers in their ranks. Start by assessing yourself in relation to the qualities of a high-performing happy person. With this assessment you can develop practical action plans that help you move toward higher performance and happiness in the work environment.

To increase the number of happy high performers in the workplace, organizational leaders need access to proven happiness-enhancing interventions. Unfortunately, there has been little work done in organizational settings to address this need. As a foundation, there is a growing body of applied research which seeks to validate happiness enhancing interventions in self-help and mental health settings.[10] Practitioners and applied researchers working in organizations need to focus more attention on developing practical happiness-enhancing interventions to assist managerial leaders to help their people become more engaged in their work, experience meaning in their work, and experience positive emotions, thoughts, and images in relation to the work and work environment. With tools to help people in organizations enhance their happiness combined with effective performance management systems, happy high performers will likely grow in numbers within organizations.

Use this article as a springboard to look at yourself and your current organization from a performance-happiness perspective. You are encouraged to use the Performance – Happiness Self-Assessment Survey that is provided to help you target potential areas for personal change and fine tuning. Strive to become a happy high-performing role model for others as you move towards building and sustaining a high performing happy workplace.


[1] C.D. Fisher. “Why Do Lay People Believe That Satisfaction and Performance are Correlated? Possible Sources of a Commonsense Theory,” Journal of Organizational Behavior, 24, no. 6, (2003): 753-77.

[2] J.K. Harter, F.L. Schmidt, T.L. Hayes. “Business-Unit Relationship Between Employee Satisfaction, Employee Engagement, and Business Outcomes: A Meta-Analysis,” Journal of Applied Psychology, 87, no. 2, (2002/04): 268-79. S. Lyubomirsky, L. King, E. Diener. “The Benefits of Frequent Positive Affect: Does Happiness Lead To Success?” Psychological Bulletin, 131, no. 6, (2005): 803-55. D. Sirota, L.A. Mischkind, M.I. Meltzer. The Enthusiastic Employee: How Companies Profit By Giving Workers What They Want, (New Jersey: Wharton School Publishing, 2005).

[3] R. Biswas-Diener, B. Dean. Positive Psychology Coaching, (New Jersey: John Wiley & Sons, 2007): 41.

[4] T.A. Wright. “The Emergence Of Job Satisfaction In Organizational Behavior: A Historical Overview of the Dawn of Job Attitude Research,” Journal of Management History, 12, no. 3, (2006): 262-77. G.P. Latham, C.C. Pinder. “Work Motivation Theory and Research at the Dawn of the Twenty-First Century,” Annual Review of Psychology, 56, (2005): 485, 516.

[5] C.D. Kerns. Value-Centered Ethics, (Massachusetts: HRD Press, 2005). See Chapters 5-8 for a detailed review of the four action roles of Influencer, Director, Focuser and Linker.

[6] C. Peterson, N. Park, M.E.P. Seligman. “Orientations to Happiness and Life Satisfaction: The Full Life Versus the Empty Life,” Journal of Happiness Studies, 6, no. 1, (2005): 25-41.

[7] M. Csikszentmihalyi. Good Business: Leadership, Flow and the Making of Meaning, (New York: Viking, 2003).

[8] B.L. Fredrickson. “The Role of Positive Emotions in Positive Psychology: The Broaden-And -Build Theory of Positive Emotions,” American Psychologist, 56, no. 3. (2001): 218-26.

[9] B.L. Fredrickson, C. Branigan. “Positive Emotions Broaden the Scope of Attention and Thought -Action Repertoires,” Cognition and Emotion, 19, no. 3, (2005/4): 313-32.

[10] M.E.P. Seligman, N. Park, C. Peterson. “Positive Psychology Progress: Empirical Validation of Interventions,” American Psychologist, 60, (2005): 410-21. See psychological interventions designed and empirically tested to increase individual happiness. S. Lyubomirsky. The How Of Happiness: A Scientific Approach to Getting the Life You Want. (New York: The Penguin Press, 2007). See Chapters 4-9 for empirically supported happiness enhancing interventions targeted for individuals interested in using a self-help approach to becoming happier. Areas covered include managing stress, hardship, and trauma.

About the Author(s)

Charles D. Kerns, PhD, MBA, is a professor of applied behavioral science at the Graziadio School of Business and Management. He has more than 30 years of business, management, and consulting experience. Through his private consulting firm, Corperformance, he has implemented performance management programs and systems to help companies from many industries maximize their results. Since 1980, he has taught in almost every program in the Graziadio School, first as an adjunct faculty member, then, since 2000, as a member of the full-time faculty. He has also served as the associate dean for Academic Affairs. Dr. Kerns holds a Diplomate, ABPP, in both Industrial-Organizational Psychology and Organizational-Business Consulting Psychology.

Comments

W. Ying

July 22, 2012 at 2:51 am

I would like some one talk about “invalid happiness”. I think it is a serious problem for humankind.


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