What Research Tells Us: Are Happy Workers Better Workers?

By Jan H. Katz Phd., Cornell School of Hotel Administration

April 14, 2016

One of the great truisms of management is that happy workers are better workers. If true, that would be wonderful because business wouldn’t be zero sum: making workers better off would also benefit business.

Unfortunately, despite tech companies’ creation of Chief Happiness Officers and other efforts to make workplaces happy, academics have known since 1955, when the first review of research into this topic was done, that it just isn’t true.

An extreme example will drive this point home: A friend had to fire an extremely happy worker who had perfect attendance and stayed at his computer even longer than expected. What made him so happy and why was he still fired? He spent his day downloading porn instead of doing his job.

There are many ways to make people happy and most of those don’t make them better workers. The only way to link happiness and productivity is to make people happy about work-relevant activities. Training managers to give authentic, positive feedback in response to excellent performance can induce positive feelings that are linked to good work. Creating an ordering system with a joyful interface instead of a bland, technical interface may also be beneficial. It isn’t easy to make work a source of joy, but that’s the only way to link happiness and productivity.

By the way, while it doesn’t help to make your workers generally happy, research has found that people with happy (a.k.a. sunny) dispositions are better workers. Luckily, most hospitality recruiting processes screen for that already.

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