Published in, CU Times

By Stuart R. Levine

In my decades of working with CEOs, and in occupying the position myself, maximizing the CEO’s positive effect on the culture organization is always on my mind. We know that there is “no one size fits all” approach to leadership, yet I do see how much an organization benefits when a CEO chooses to be positive and chooses happiness. When leaders choose happiness, businesses do better. The CEO leads the culture, and the CEO’s attitude filters throughout the organization’s culture. Infusing the culture with a “happiness quotient” strengthens employee loyalty and performance, improves retention, attracts talent and brings out the best in people. The organization performs better.

Research performed at the University of Michigan led by Dr. Kim Cameron found: “When organizations institute positive, virtuous practices, they achieve significantly higher levels of organizational effectiveness”. Positive practices include: being interested in and caring about colleagues; supporting one another; showing compassion when someone is struggling; avoiding blaming others; forgiving mistakes; inspiring colleagues at work; treating others with respect, gratitude, trust and integrity; and emphasizing the meaningfulness of the work. The Michigan study showed that the more virtuous the culture, the higher the performance in profitability and financial performance, customer satisfaction, and employee productivity and engagement. One illustrative data point from Gallup Healthways describes how “happier” employees show up for work, while those with a low “life satisfaction,” score are absent on average 15 days per year more.

One of the most hard-driving and successful CEOs that I know makes it a practice to choose happiness every day, and he is not unique. I see the positive effect that his approach has on his organization. He knows that organizational culture is more important than strategy in producing results. When a choice for positivity comes from the top, and is a value for recruitment and promotion, the organization is populated by those who choose productivity and engagement over negativity, passivity, and sitting on the sidelines. Bad behavior is not tolerated. A leaders’ “happiness quotient” provides a psychological buffer against the negative stresses of constant change and disruption that are a fact of modern work life. Positivity improves employee resiliency and ability to perform well in the face of these difficulties.

You may ask, isn’t choosing happiness a function of the leader’s personality? Yes, leader’s personalities are well-formed and ever-present, however a leader’s mindset of conscious choice is powerful in strengthening any traits that might harm the culture. Self-aware leaders actively seek knowledge of their blind spots, work on them, and make sure that the culture does not reflect them. This level of emotional intelligence is the foundation of modern leadership. Too often in the past, strategic genius was associated with a culture of criticism that undermined employees. One or our client makes sure she works to build a culture that reflects her strengths and not her weaknesses. This leader’s self-awareness means that her passion, decisiveness, clear vision, and drive to excellence inspires the workforce. Her productive leadership qualities are never viewed as aggressive, insensitive or hurtful to others.

In a culture of positivity, leaders take an interest in their people and are curious about their stories. When management takes a real interest in employees and engender a deep understanding about the meaningfulness of their work, it empowers people to do more and more. One client uses in-depth probing to make sure that employees know, not just the “how” of their work, but the “why”. This organizational philosophy promotes deep curiosity, questioning and probing in an environment of safety and trust. This leader and the employees themselves ask “why” until they develop comprehensive answers. Only after the team is clear on the why, will they then focus on the how. This process brings clarity to the meaning of the work.

For the employee, a current positive outlook, emphasis on the meaning of the work and living according to one’s values brings achievement. Studies show that success and promotion come from performing well the job at hand, not from a focus on the next position. Too often people fixate on a position they want at the expense of the present one. Worse, they believe that happiness will depend on a future success, for example thinking: “Once I get promoted, I’ll be happy.” The successful execution of the current job is what builds a record of success that makes the organization want to promote that person.

When leaders look for ways to bring positivity to the life of the organization, the leader, the employees, and the whole organization benefit.