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Happiness Drives Business Results? Not So Fast…

Here is an article written by Dan Bowling for Talent Management magazine. To check out all the resources and sign up for a free subscription to the TM and/or Chief Learning Officer magazines published by MedfiaTec, please click here.

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If you are a college football fan, you are familiar with ESPN Gameday, the live show filmed before big games. It’s like a traveling circus rolling from campus to campus. Excitement reaches a fever pitch as game time nears, with thousands of students in strange costumes and inconsistent levels of sobriety gathering around the stage of the hosts. The hosts have some routine shtick. Near kickoff, one of them, Kirk Herbstreit, delivers a serious thesis about who will win the game and why. It is always well-reasoned and founded on solid theory and observation of practice sessions. Then his partner Lee Corso responds with a refrain familiar to viewers: “Not so fast, my friend.” In other words, theories about the game’s outcome might sound good, but only when they are tested on the field do we know if they work.

Recently, it has become common to read bold, unqualified declarations that happiness drives business results.  I have certainly been guilty of hyperbole in this regard. However, during the past few weeks positive psychologist Shannon Polly and I have been preparing an article for a future edition of Talent Management exploring the connection between happiness and business results, and we have found the causal link is not that clear. Although there are exciting and promising things happening in organizations as diverse as Freddie Mac, NYSE Euronext, and PWC-Australia (you’ll have to read the article to learn about them!), much of what we discovered during our research consisted of lab studies, survey results, unverifiable claims from consulting firms or hypothetical musings. Nothing wrong with all of this, but it is like Herbstreit’s pre-game analytics: we have an excellent idea of what should work, but not too many final scores.

Perhaps that shouldn’t surprise anyone, and doesn’t mean happiness at work does not drive results. I certainly believe it does, based upon my years in the Coca-Cola system in both HR and business unit leadership, and I write about it ad nauseum in this blog. Also, the theoretical foundations of “happiness studies” rests upon very sound academic footing with test studies showing robust results.

Indeed, charges of insufficient empirical proof can be leveled against almost any HR-related business initiative, but that doesn’t mean the initiative doesn’t become part of the normative standards and culture of an organization. Take for example, diversity. It might startle younger readers, but 20 years ago few people gave “diversity” little more than lip service, and to the extent it was incorporated in workplace practices it tended to be couched in terms of litigation avoidance. Today, it is impossible to imagine a major corporation that doesn’t trumpet the importance of diversity to its mission, and many organizations have officer-level departments devoted to promoting diversity. When its empirical links to financial performance are probed, however, the water becomes a bit cloudy, but that doesn’t stop – nor should it – its mainstream place in corporate America.

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To read the complete article, please click here.

Daniel S. Bowling III is an expert on the science of well-being and work and conducts empirical research on this topic through the University of Pennsylvania. Formerly, he was a partner in a major law firm and later, the global head of human resources at Coca-Cola Enterprises, where he directed all HR activities for more than 80,000 employees worldwide. He currently holds faculty positions at both Duke Law School and UPenn. He also leads a consulting firm, Positive Workplace Solutions, that works with some of the largest institutions in the country showing that well-being enhances not just life satisfaction but productivity and performance, and writes and speaks extensively on these topics. He can be reached at his firm.

 


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