Does Being Happy Make You a Better Manager?

By Melissa J. Anderson (New York City)

According to a new study released by the UK’s Institute for Leadership and Management, positivity may be the key to unlocking superior performance.

In other words, being happy may make you a better manager.

The ILM asked 1,000 managers in the UK to rate their level of positivity, performance, their team’s happiness and performance, and other topics like stress and advancement. For anyone who’s attempted to wade into the vast pool of research on employee engagement, the results shouldn’t come as a surprise.

The study revealed that the top performers in the group were also the happiest. Not only that, but happier managers tend to have happier, better performing teams. Of course, it’s difficult to pinpoint the cause and effect here – maybe top-performing managers are happy because they are doing so well rather than vice-versa.

Nevertheless, the implication is clear: there is a link between happiness and performance. How are you going to increase your positivity and your productivity this year?

Happiness and Work

Last year in the Harvard Business Review, Peter N. Stearns, provost and professor of history at George Mason University, wrote about the rise of “happiness” as an ideal in Western culture. According to Stearns, it wasn’t until the Enlightenment that people really began to see happiness as something to strive for. Until the 18th century, he says, people tended toward a “a slightly saddened approach to life, with facial expressions to match.”

Coinciding with the Enlightenment (and better dental care encouraging people to smile more, he notes) was the Industrial Revolution. In the 19th century, he continues:

“The new middle-class work ethic came close to arguing that work should be a source of happiness. There was some complexity here: Horatio Alger stories of the beauties of work also pointed to higher earnings and social mobility—not just intrinsic happiness—as rewards. But it was convenient for a rising class to believe that working people had no reason not to be happy and that laziness and bad habits disrupted not only performance but also contentment.”

People have been drawing a connection between happiness and productivity for quite some time then. In the centuries since the Industrial Revolution, the movement toward a white-color economy focused on interpersonal exchange has only helped to strengthen the transition to a state of cheerfulness.

That’s not to say cheerfulness is necessarily a product of the modern workforce though. Some research shows quite the opposite. In Forbes, author Steve Jennings writes, “The hierarchical bureaucracies that are still pervasive in today’s large organizations are systematically making employees miserable. Engagement is generally low: only one in five workers is fully engaged in his or her work.”

But, he also sees a link between positivity and performance – and suggests that leaders realign their management techniques to leverage this potential. He adds, “In this new game, the energies and talents of the workers are the key to success. Traditional management practices not only dispirit the workers: they lose money for the firm.”

How can managers harness the power of positivity to increase their performance and the performance of their team? The ILM report suggests a few best practices.

Best Practices for Positivity and Performance

The ILM’s study shows that managers can maximize their performance – and their teams’ performance – by focusing on a few key areas. Here’s how.

Manage Stress: According to the researchers, there was a link between positivity and the ability to manage stress and workload. You may benefit by subscribing to a “Goldilocks and the Three Bears” approach – too much stress is no good, and no stress isn’t healthy either. Managers should strive for a middle ground – a little to somewhat stressed is “just right.”

Seek Advancement Potential: The study also showed that people who were able to see a path forward at work – that is, they felt their supervisors cared about their advancement and development as professionals – were happier. If you’re feeling lost at work, it may help to focus on getting to the next level, or ask your HR department about leadership development opportunities to polish your skills.

Maintain Perspective: The study also revealed that people in the first two years of their position tend to rate themselves significantly more positive and productive than they do at year three and beyond. This is to be expected, and doesn’t necessarily mean it’s time to scrap the job and try something new. It’s just normal for people new in a role to be brimming with enthusiasm – and for that enthusiasm to level off after some time. If you fit into this group of less-than-excited managers, try to figure out if that drop in enthusiasm is a natural extension of holding a long-term role, or if it is related to something else.

Communicate Regularly: Finally, the researchers found that teams whose managers provide frequent feedback, coaching, and access to development programs were happier and higher-performing, which in turn, improved manager performance and positivity. The more you communicate effectively with direct reports, the happier you’ll all be.

This research shows the value of learning to manage as a leader – mastering good management skills can help you handle your own workload and give your team the skills they need to manage theirs. It can also help you maintain a positive attitude, help you see the path forward at your company, and provide you with an ambitious edge that can get you to the next level. Go forth and be happy!