Take note, managers: Happiness can be passed from person to person, even from strangers.
A groundbreaking study by researchers at Harvard and the University of California San Diego demonstrates in the words of Nicholas Christakis, M.D. “Emotions have a collective existence – they are not just an individual phenomenon.” He told the New York Times that “Your happiness depends not just on your choices and actions, but also on the choices and actions of people you don’t even know who are one, two or three degrees removed from you.”
What this means for managers is that their actions, positive or negative, can influence the emotional health of others. Common sense may have told us this but this study affirms a principle of positive organizational scholarship, in fact that happiness can be “contagious.” This finding could not have come at a better time. With the economic travails grinding away the edges of even the most optimistic managers, this research may give impetus to managers who want to do something to cheer up their teams. Here’s how:
Resolve to cheer. It is a leader’s job to spread confidence. Optimism is critical. While few of us can do anything to affect business conditions, we can control what occurs on our watch, in our organizations. Therefore, managers owe it to their people to look on the bright side, when possible. Not naively, but resolutely. Optimism is not an excuse to be oblivious; it is an obligation of leadership.
Pick your moments. Too much optimism and good cheer, especially in the wake of layoffs or serious downturns, may seem foolhardy. And, in fact, may be perceived as such. That’s why the manager has to choose her moments carefully. When it comes to radiating optimism, you don’t do it when layoffs are announced or poor earnings reports are published. Rather you do it when you think people need that extra boost, that extra bucking up.
Keep on doing it. The story of legendary explorer, Ernest Shackleton’s ill-fated but heroic journey to the Antarctic is well known, in particular that every man with him was saved. What is less known is exactly how much attention to morale Shackleton paid. He shared his rations with the sick, ensured everyone had proper clothing, and spread confidence as best he could. My favorite story is that of Shackleton skiing out over the ice to bring hot tea to men returning from a periodic supply trek to their abandoned ship, Endurance.
What’s more, there may also be a business incentive in happiness. James Fowler, co-author of the study, told the Times, “if your friend’s friend becomes happy, that has a bigger impact on you being happy than putting an extra $5,000 in your pocket.” In recessionary times that should be music to the ears of any manager seeking ways to improve morale. While happiness will not make up for real (or perceived) shortcomings in compensation, a happy workplace, as researchers for generations have demonstrated, does make coming to work a more pleasant experience. Productivity even improves, and so too does engagement.
Happiness will not save a failing enterprise. That will require gumption and grit, as well as a strong business plan and marketable products and services. But an elixir for keeping organization in good spirits may be a dollop of managerial cheerfulness.
First posted on HBR.org 12/08/2008