Shawn Achor, author of
The Happiness Advantage
and one of the world's leading experts in human potential, has lectured on his research in 48 countries. After more than a decade at Harvard University, Achor founded Good Think Inc. to share this research with organizations worldwide. This interview was conducted by Tom Fox, author of the Washington Post’s Federal Coach blog.
How can leaders create a culture of happiness?
What is leadership? Eight of the 2011 Service to America award winners answer the question.
First, take time for yourself. We have the greatest amount of control over our own mindset. Create a positive habit that takes about two minutes a day and do that for 21 days in a row. In trainings we have people journal about one positive experience, writing about every detail they can remember about a positive experience over the past 24 hours. Or meditate, exercise or write a kind letter to a friend. All these habits increase happiness and retrain the brain to get stuck in a positive pattern for evaluating work.
Sometimes managers get so focused on problems they miss seeing successes and finding the meaning in their work. These positive activities change that pattern and return power to the individual. Along with higher levels of happiness, the success rates on your team start to improve, which is where it starts to move from an individual to leadership.
We all work for money, but money only gets us in the room. It doesn’t mean we’re engaged once we’re there. Praise motivates us and improves productivity, but it has to be frequent and specific and based on reality. You can’t say, “I’m happy you work on this team.” It has to be, “I’m so grateful for the work you did on that project, getting it in by 9 o’clock yesterday.” That encourages specific behavior. Some leaders sugarcoat the present and then make bad decisions in the future and that causes people to mistrust positive leaders. We’re trying to create rational optimists, which means you start with a realistic assessment of the present but believe your behavior matters.
What are the characteristics of successful leaders?
Positive leaders do the opposite of what you expect in the midst of their challenges. They invest more in social support networks and spend more time thanking people and having face-to-face conversations with their employees. When I was working with Harvard students, I found many spent 18 hours a day in the library when they got stressed. They’d come out bleary eyed and depressed. Their grades were dropping and they hated Harvard.
I told them they were cutting themselves off from the greatest predictors of happiness and success. Social support is the greatest buffer against depression and predictor of success, according to research I did on 1,600 individuals. Positive leaders also recognize it’s not just intelligence that creates success. Seventy-five percent of employees’ job performance is predicted by three factors: belief that their behavior matters; their social support network at work and at home; and seeing stress as a challenge rather than a threat.