Dr. Deming was fond of promoting the idea that every employee should be able to achieve joy at work and that joy would lead to improved quality and a high performance organization. The research on happiness or positive psychology supports the value of his intuition. Seeking happiness is consistent with seeking a high performance organization.

“Managements overall aim should be to create a system in which everybody may take joy in his work.” Dr. W. Edwards Deming

The cynic may picture workers sitting around with a drink in hand, party hats, and dancing around the workplace in a silly display of “joy.” But, obviously that is not what Deming was promoting. He was promoting the need and possibility of intrinsic reinforcement, joy from the job itself, the achievement, the self-satisfaction derived from the ability to improve and control one’s own work.

We have all experienced joy in our work. Whenever I have asked clients to identify the time they felt most joy in their work they are likely to describe a time when they were engaged in meeting a challenge and succeeding. That challenge might be learning a new job or developing and instituting a new process or product. Or, they may point to a time when they were working with a great team of colleagues who shared the same goal and determination. In other words, they were not partying, they were performing. Great parties are quickly forgotten, great performance is long remembered.

Happiness and the High Performance Organization

Dr. Deming’s instruction was based more on his own excellent intuition than on any research. However, in the past twenty years, the most popular area of psychological research has been in what is known as positive psychology, very simply the study of psychological wellness, rather than illness. The first book I read on this subject was Authentic Happiness by Martin Seligman and I recommend it highly. Since its publication there have been a flood of happiness books. I would encourage you to explore Dr. Seligman’s Authentic Happiness website where you can take a survey to find out how happy you are while at the same time contributing to his research data base.

So, what is the big finding of positive psychology?

“The belief that we can rely on shortcuts to happiness, joy, rapture, comfort, and ecstasy, rather than be entitled to these feelings by the exercise of personal strengths and virtues, leads to legions of people who in the middle of great wealth are starving spiritually. Positive emotions alienated from the exercise of character leads to emptiness, to in-authenticity, to depression, and, as we age, to the gnawing realization that we are fidgeting until we die.” (Authentic Happiness, p. 8)

In other words, if eating chocolate sundaes, sex and money resulted in authentic happiness you would find the happiest people to be those who have the most money, sex and ice cream. But, that simply isn’t so. They are more likely to be the most depressed and anxious. What does lead to happiness is knowing what your strengths are, developing and exercising those strengths; and exercising the virtues of character and strong social relationships. People who have a strong community of relatives and friends are happier than those who have few friends and only distant relatives. Those who are optimistic and have hope in achieving a positive goal are happier than those who are pessimistic or feeling helpless.

Happiness Findings and What You Should Do at Work

If you read many of the books that are based on research (below I provide a recommended reading list) you will find that there is a consensus view regarding the key factors that lead to a happy life and each of them has direct implications for creating a happy and productive workplace. Here they are:

1. Strong Social Relationships Lead to Joy

Forty percent of those who are married say they are “very happy” while only 24 percent of those who are not married report being very happy. That advantage holds for men and women, young and old. Very happy people spend the most time in socializing and the least time alone. People who are very sociable, good conversationalists, good listeners, tend to be happier and more likely to be married. It is hard to separate cause from effect because each of these factors reinforces the others. In other words if you are more sociable you are more likely to be married, and the reverse is true.

Religious belief and participation in a religious community strongly correlates with happiness. Religious Americans are less likely to abuse drugs, get divorced, commit crimes, or kill themselves. They are also physically healthier and live longer. There are several possible causes. One is simply that a strong moral code or value system provides guidance that directs one to behavior that is more satisfying and less the cause of unhappiness. Another possible explanation is that religion is often the basis of community life, a strong social network.

What does this tell us about creating “joy at work?” Joy is rarely derived alone. It is most likely to come from a strong social network, teams and teamwork, in the workplace. The family farm and early craft shop was a strong social relationship and provided security and happiness. The factories of mass production in which each worker was told “do your own work” led to isolation and alienation. The formation of unions, in which they called each other “brothers” was a natural act of psychological survival. Now we know that creating natural brotherhoods and sisterhoods, social bonds, in the workplace creates both happiness and leads to productive behavior. Almost all innovation is the result of trusting relationships and teamwork.

It is the duty of the manager to assure that no one is alone in their work and that everyone is a member of a supportive group, a social network or team.

2. We Derive Joy from our Strengths

Playing tennis does not make me happy. Dancing does not make me happy. Why? Because I suck at those things. Playing the guitar, and more particularly, learning a new tune on the guitar, makes me very happy. As you might guess, I am a decent guitar player (at least in my own mind and I ask you not to interrupt that thought) and a student of folk blues guitar. We all have strengths and a healthy workplace is composed of people with diverse strengths. Recognizing the value of that diversity, the contribution of each strength, provides the opportunity for joy. A great workplace is an orchestra comprised of individual competencies playing in harmony.

There is a close relationship between Toyota’s principle of “respect for people” and Honda’s principle that “the world’s greatest experts are on-the-spot” and the joy that comes from building and using your strengths. In every workplace, every member of the organization should be respected for his or her expertise. They should know that they are expert and have the dignity and the joy that comes from that self-awareness and from building that strength. Or, in my guitar example, from learning a new tune. Learning, building on strengths, brings joy.

Does this mean that weakness should be ignored? No. If an employee is weak at showing up on time or completing assigned work, those weaknesses must be addressed. But, we should identify individual strengths, employ, celebrate and strengthen those. This is what makes for a joyful workplace.

Recently I was in a manufacturing plant in which many line production workers had been trained to do only one repetitive job and had been at it for many years. What do you think happens to the mind when someone does only one job and does it day after day, year after year? It is deadly. These same workers can be trained to do every job on the line. This increases the flexibility of the manufacturing process and increases every workers ability to solve problems and improve the process. Multi-skilled workers are more valuable than single-skilled workers. And, where does the joy come from? It comes from being on an effective team and having developed multiple skills that allow the worker to help others in their work. The greater the ability to contribute to the team, the greater the self-worth of the individual.

3. Money Does Make You Happy… To A Point

One of the great myths of motivation is that money doesn’t motivate. For some reason I always hear this from the person in the organization who makes the most money. It’s rubbish! It is fair to assume that everyone is motivated to be happy. The question then is, “Does money make you happy?” Let me quote from Christopher Peterson’s excellent book Pursuing the Good Life:

“Research shows that income has a positive relationship with happiness (life satisfaction), although it is not a straight line. As income increases, its added contribution to life satisfaction becomes smaller. The impact of additional income is greatest among those who have little money, but it does not stop mattering, even after someone is able to meet basic needs.”

When the life satisfaction of people who live in poor countries is compared to those who live in wealthier nations there is a strong correlation of wealth to happiness. The least happy nations are the poorest. However, once a certain level of wealth is achieved, it matters little. As Seligman writes, “So, the Swiss are happier than the Bulgarians, but it hardly matters if one is Irish, Italian or American.” Once a basic level of wealth is achieved, there is little gain in happiness above that.

In other words, if a manufacturing level work can raise his or her income enough to be able to save for retirement and for a child’s education, that increase does bring greater joy. The additional money has real utility. If the CEO of the company gets a raise from ten million dollars a year to eleven million dollars a year, after a day or two of self-congratulations, he will experience no greater happiness. In other words, that investment was a lousy one in terms of happiness gained.

We also know that money, or any reward, effects behavior when there is a contingency, an if-then relationship between performance and money. You all have used “if you eat your vegetables, then you can have dessert.” Or, if you study hard, you will get a good grade. Those are contingent relationships. Therefore, if you learn these additional skills and can perform these additional job functions, you will earn X more per hour in compensation, does in fact motivate performance.

4. Altruism, Performing Work in the Spirit of Service, Makes You Happy

Ayn Rand (Atlas Shrugged, The Fountainhead) was wrong! In her promotion of the pseudo religion of objectivism she decried altruism and promoted self-interest as the highest ethic and displayed great misunderstanding of altruism.

“What is the moral code of altruism? The basic principle of altruism is that man has no right to exist for his own sake, that service to others is the only justification of his existence, and that self-sacrifice is his highest moral duty, virtue and value… Time and again, I have found that the basic evil behind today’s ugliest phenomena is altruism. Well, I told you so. I have been telling you so since We The Living, which was published in 1936.” Ayn Rand

Unfortunately, Rand’s cynicism has permeated our political and social lives. You may choose between Ayn Rand’s view of ethics as the pursuit of self-interest or you can choose the virtue of the great religions:So whatever you wish that others would do to you, do also to them, for this is the Law and the Prophets.” (Mathew 7:12). Or, “One should seek for others the happiness one desires for himself” – Buddha. In Taoism – “Regard your neighbor’s gain as your gain, and your neighbor’s loss as your own loss.” Let me suggest an even more practical argument. From a Darwinian, survival of the fittest point of view, this teaching of altruism has survived through the ages in every great religion. Its universality and survival is a testimony to its truth and utility. The study of ant hills and beehives has similarly demonstrated that service and sacrifice for the common good is an essential survival trait engrained in the genetic codes of bees and ants. It likely is engrained in our own as well.

Of course, Ayn Rand was an atheist who enjoyed the adoration (and book royalties!) of those seeking to justify their own pursuit of self-interest. But what every great religion taught as the Golden Rule is exactly what leads to a deeper and more authentic happiness. It turns out that doing for others, serving others, is ultimately in one’s own self-interest, an investment returned in happiness.

Much has been written about the pursuit of a worthy purpose in life, a legacy to look back upon. A worthy or noble purpose is never about oneself, but rather the good one may do for others. The knowledge that one is in pursuit of a noble purpose has the effect of ennobling oneself. One can argue that engaging in charity and service to others, sacrificing for others, is paradoxically, an act of self-interest because it leads to greater personal happiness.

All organizations have a responsibility to create a sense of meaning in the lives of those who dwell within its walls. Every great leader has understood his or her responsibility to ennoble their followers by holding up that which is worthy in their work and calling upon followers to sacrifice for that which is worthy, the good of the whole, the worthy purpose. In doing so the leader is giving them the gift of self-worth and meaning.

5. Optimism and Creative Dissatisfaction Generate Performance

Norman Vincent Peal was right. The Power of Positive Thinking is one of the most popular management and self help books of all time. He had no scientific data to support his philosophy, but like Dr. Deming, he had good intuition and powers of observation. You can summarize its guidance in this quote:

“Formulate and stamp indelibly on your mind a mental picture of yourself succeeding. Hold this picture tenaciously. Never permit it to fade. Your mind will seek to develop the picture…Do not build up obstacles in your imagination.”

Today we might view this as somewhat sophomoric advice from a bygone age. But, it turns out, that today’s science proves that he was right on the money. Martin Seligman wrote a great book title Learned Optimism which followed his less happy book, Learned Helplessness. In it he sites a great deal of research that demonstrated that well functioning, high performing, individuals are essentially optimistic and not pessimistic.

“The optimists and the pessimists: I have been studying them for the past twenty-five years. The defining characteristic of pessimists is that they tend to believe bad events will last a long time, will undermine everything they do, and are their own fault. The optimists, who are confronted with the same hard knocks of this world, think about misfortune in the opposite way. They tend to believe defeat is just a temporary setback, that its causes are confined to this one case. The optimists believe defeat is not their fault: Circumstances, bad luck, or other people brought it about. Such people are unfazed by defeat. Confronted by a bad situation, they perceive it as a challenge and try harder.” Martin Seligman in Learned Optimism.

In other words – hire optimists and not pessimists! Create a culture of optimism, of hope, of belief in a positive future for your organization. Winning cultures and winning teams are optimistic. No football coach before the game gave a speech to his team in which he said, “Well boys, we have no chance of beating this team, so let’s go out there and take what’s coming to us!” And, subsequently won the game. Losers tend to believe in their own defeat.

The positive psychology research has demonstrated that “On average, optimistic individuals are healthier because they take care of themselves; optimistic students earn better grades because they go to class; optimistic insurance agents sell more policies because they make cold calls; and so on.” (Peterson, p. 89.)

It is a core function of leadership in every organization to generate both optimism or hope and creative dissatisfaction. Where are we going and why will it be great when we get there? How will we get there? What must I do to help us get there? Effective leaders provide the answer to these questions and generate both optimism and creative dissatisfaction.However, optimists also need what I have termed creative dissatisfaction in order to motivate high performance. In order for positive reinforcement to have its effect there must be deprivation and not satiation. Creative dissatisfaction is the awareness of the gap between where I am or who I am and where I could be or who I could be. I could have a best selling book. I could get that promotion. I could get that better job or learn that new skill. On the other hand, I will never play in the NBA or make love to Penelope Cruz.

So, to summarize how you can instill joy and high performance in your organization:

  1. Build great teams! Be sure that every employee serves on a well functioning team with knowledge of its purpose and its performance. Encourage celebration of winning team goals and setting records.
  2. Build internal social networks. Build social networks around common interests and competencies. These become learning networks that provide both the joy of social relationships but also the joy of learning.
  3. Be sure to practice respect for people and recognize that the world’s greatest experts are those who are on-the-spot, with their hands on the work. This builds their self-esteem and encourages learning.
  4. Institute a process of gaining flexibility through multi-skilled, cross trained employees who can optimize the effectiveness of their teams.
  5. Stop wasting money where it doesn’t pay off and spend it where it does. Pay employees for gaining skills and achieving performance. Value high performance by paying for it.
  6. Know and promote the worthy purpose of your organization. Ennoble your employees by connecting them to a spirit of service. This is the essence of leadership.
  7. Hire optimists and not pessimists. Generate hope and optimism by clearly stating where we are going and why it will be great when we get there. Generate creative dissatisfaction in yourself and your employees.

If you do these things you will be applying much of the current research in positive psychology and it will fulfill Dr. Deming’s guidance to provide joy at work.

Recommended Reading: (You can quickly order through the Amazon links at the bottom of this page.)

  • Authentic Happiness by Martin Seligman
  • Pursuing the Good Life by Christopher Peterson
  • Happiness and the Good Life by Mike W. Martin
  • Stumbling on Happiness by Daniel Gilbert