Important but Uncommon Ways to Cultivate Happy, Thriving Employees (for Lasting Organizational Change) Part 1

In order to improve organizational wellbeing and employee engagement, leaders and employees may be asked to do things differently. However, people are typically not provided the development needed to support sustainable change. In fact, although many organizations have increased attention on employee engagement, research shows that it hasn’t improved much over the last decade.1 For lasting organizational change, focus on creating the conditions in which change can happen; a key component is supporting employees so that they can thrive.

A “thriving employee” is happy, energized, and engaged at work — and organizations with thriving employees will experience profound benefits. According to a 2012 Harvard Business Review study, across industries and job types, thriving employees:

  • demonstrate 16% better overall performance (reported by their managers) and 125% less burnout (self-reported) than their peers.
  • are 32% more committed to their organization.
  • are 46% more satisfied with their jobs.
  • miss fewer days of work.
  • report significantly fewer doctor visits.

Strategies for Success

Consider implementing these strategies to develop a workplace culture that supports happy, thriving employees:

  1. Take employee happiness seriously.

Recent research indicates that employee happiness is an important predictor of business performance. In addition to boosting employee engagement, employees who are happy produce more than unhappy ones over the long term.

Happiness is a variable that can change often, so it is important to get a pulse on employee happiness levels frequently to identify and address any problems early. Some companies use smartphone apps that provide managers a daily update on employee happiness. A simple way to gauge employee happiness is to ask employees to drop a green, yellow, or red chip into a transparent container at the end of the day (or week) to indicate how they felt about work during that time; this exercise offers insight into how employees are feeling with a quick glance.

It’s important to go beyond simply gauging employee happiness; you also need to address trends toward unhappiness before it becomes a widespread problem. Everybody is allowed to have a bad day now and again, but if you notice that more and more employees are unhappy for more and more of the time, it’s time to take action. An obvious way to find out what factors may be contributing to employee unhappiness is to ask employees directly. However, if your workplace is suffering from low morale, it’s possible that employees won’t feel comfortable sharing and you’ll need to assess potential contributing factors on your own. For example, are there any work-related requirements that have been recently implemented? A slew of people quitting or layoffs? A big project that might be causing employees stress and pressure to put in extra hours?

To get a jump-start on addressing employee happiness, consider these tips for how to help employees love coming into work.

  1. Change corporate language.

We know that human beings aren’t machines who can produce specific outcomes in predicable ways. Yet many organizations continue to communicate about employee and organizational wellbeing from this outdated perspective, based on a 17th-century scientific worldview that conceptualizes the universe and all of its components as machines.

Words have the power to shape the way people think and feel. Let employees know they are valued by communicating to them in a way that supports an updated worldview, which reflects the realities of our non-linear, non-mechanistic, holistic world. To best support thriving employees, move away from any corporate language that focuses on patriarchal, mechanistic, reductionist language.

For example, instead of using language about:

•  “participation,” focus on engagement
• “productivity,” talk about creating the conditions that allow people to do their best work
•  “wellness,” focus on holistic wellbeing
•  “human resources” or “human capital,” discuss human partners, people, or employees
“motivating” people, shift your focus to how your organization can support people to grow and develop
•  “personal responsibility,” explore the connection and relationships involved with both employee and organizational wellbeing.

Changing the way you communicate will send your employees the message that you value them as whole, autonomous human beings who have more to offer than simply completing a function at work. This will not only support employee happiness and engagement, but also improve organizational health and provide a foundation from which to make positive, lasting change.

In Part 2, we discuss an important third way to cultivate thriving, happy employees: supporting different and “better” ways of thinking.


  1. Gostick, A. & Elton, C. (2012). All In: How the Best Managers Create a Culture of Belief and Drive Big Results. New York: Free Press.
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