Not happy at your job? Your company is paying for it in innovation potential.

June 13, 2013

A Nov. 2011 paper from European Union-backed academic institution evoREG makes the case that happiness is both integral to the innovation process and oddly enough simultaneously misunderstood. The authors find happiness to be both an input factor as well as an output factor of the innovation process. In other words, happiness leads to more innovation, and when directed properly, innovation creates more happiness for societies.


When your employees aren’t happy, it’s a safe bet your bottom line isn’t either. (istockphoto)

My friend, author, Srikumar Rao, has been saying this for years, including in his book Happiness at Work.

The biggest, single factor inhibiting innovation, says Rao, is fear of the consequences. Thus a human resources manager will not engage a new trainer with an unusual approach because anything new is going to be disruptive to some degree. And if senior managers do not like the change and/or will not wait to see the benefits, his or her evaluation could suffer. It’s better to be safe , follow precedent, and go with what has been established as the norm.

Such timidity and hesitation has real consequences in business.

This is, for example, what held IBM back for decades. Customers didn’t buy IBM products because they were the best or cheapest but because, as the old corporate IT saying goes, no one ever got fired for buying IBM. But in the late ‘80s the company got into serious trouble. It could no longer ignore the changes that were happening in the computing industry. To survive, it had to reinvent itself.

So, where does happiness come into this?

The link is complicated, says Rao, but very real. Persons who are consistently happy have acquired the ability to focus on the process and not on the outcome. They know that the outcome – read goals – are not under their control, but their actions are within their control.

So, rather than fretting about what will or could happen, they put all their emotional energy into doing the best job that they can to reach the goal that they have set for themselves. If they succeed, fine. If they don’t, that becomes a new starting point for a fresh direction.

“This is a process that leads to both success in innovation and greater well-being,” says Rao. Now that is tough to beat. It’s kind of like discovering cheesecake that makes you thin.

Steve Jobs was an exemplar of pouring yourself into the process rather than the outcome. That’s not to say he could divine what the sales of any product or service would be. He had very public failures, such as the LISA and MobileMe. But he persevered and delivered revolutionary products, including the iPod, the iPhone and iTunes. These changed the structure of entire industries and made Apple the most valuable company in the world.

There is also evidence that happy employees are more productive.

In a 2004 paper titled “The Role of Psychological Well Being in Job Performance: A New Look at and Age Old Quest”, Thomas Wright and Russell Crapanzano documented that employees at research and development facilities and in inherently creative positions are more likely to be innovative when their self-reported psychological well-being, or happiness in other words, is high.

The authors go on to present three possible approaches to building a “happier” workforce:

  • Select employees who are already “happy” (though the authors point out that this could make the other candidates even more depressed and unemployable!).
  • Train employees to be happier through a number of cognitive restructuring stress-management techniques.
  • Through situational engineering, change the environment so that it is more conducive to happiness.

So, let’s have more cheesecake and happy employees. Innovation and economic growth depends on it.

Vivek Wadhwa is a fellow at Rock Center for Corporate Governance at Stanford University, director of research at Center for Entrepreneurship and Research Commercialization at Duke, and distinguished fellow at Singularity University. His past appointments include Harvard Law School, University of California Berkeley, and Emory University.
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