Why Does Employee Happiness Matter?

By on July 24, 2019
Employee happiness matters

When we say our people matter but we don’t actually care for them, it can shatter trust and create a culture of paranoia, cynicism, and self-interest. This is not some highfalutin management theory — it’s biology. We are social animals and we respond to the environments we’re in. Good people put in a bad environment are capable of doing bad things. People who may have done bad things, put in a good environment, are capable of becoming remarkable, trustworthy, and valuable members of an organization.”
– A quote by Bob Chapman from his book, “Everybody Matters: The Extraordinary Power of Caring for Your People Like Family

Bob Chapman, CEO of Barry-Wehmiller Industries of Clayton, Missouri is one of the most respected CEOs in the country. His company has experienced remarkable growth over the last 30 years. And what has driven this growth? A number of things, but Chapman’s belief that the first goal of his company is “caring for his employees like family” is, I believe, the primary driver of the success of Barry-Wehmiller and other companies that “care for their employees like a family.”

The many benefits of happy employees

What happens when people like you and I feel like we’re part of a healthy family when we’re at work? We’re highly engaged in the work we do, we’re energized and we’re happy. Many factors impact this feeling, but these are the two primary drivers of the feeling:

  • We feel safe.
  • We feel liked.

How does feeling safe and liked impact our productivity and the productivity of our company?

When we feel safe, one of the greatest impediments to continuous improvement, fear, is removed from the workplace.

We are no longer afraid to openly and candidly discuss problems we encounter in the work we’re doing. I’ve done work in companies where problems were continually hidden from management. Why? Because line workers had learned from experience that the plant manager and her/his direct reports didn’t want to know about problems.

A company’s approach to problems can make or break their culture

A member of the engineering department at one of the companies for which I provided consulting services told me that in preparation for a visit of the company’s president to their department, their director met with them and told them exactly what to say in response to their president’s questions. He told me that what was reported to their president “was virtually complete fiction.” Fear drove an unwillingness to talk about any problems they were having. It kept their CEO in a bubble of illusions, protected from any knowledge about the actual state of work in this department.

This was very different from what I heard at New United Motor Manufacturing, Inc. (NUMMI) in 1986 when a team of us from the performance improvement company for which I worked provided team-building training. NUMMI, as many of you know, was a joint venture of General Motors (GM) and Toyota, formed so GM could learn about the Toyota production system.

Shortly after NUMMI opened, the plant manager had a meeting with all first-line supervisors, telling them, “No problem is a problem.”

He went on to say that when they were asked about their areas of responsibility, they were never to respond with “no problems” because that just wasn’t possible. Employees came to understand that they could talk very safely and candidly about problems they were encountering. In fact, it was expected.

The same issue surfaced when Toyota opened its plant in Georgetown, Kentucky. One of the major challenges the Georgetown plant faced was also changing the way employees thought about the word “problem.”

As described by Hiroyoshi Yoshiki, a lead consultant at the plant, “We were most surprised by the reaction of people when we asked them about problems. The reactions from Americans were very, very negative. It does not have a negative connotation for us in Japan. Americans think, ‘I messed up.’ We were faced with the challenge of how to make the word ‘problem’ a positive word. We worked hard to separate the problem from the person.”

Safety vs. fear: What motivates employees most?

When employees learn that it is safe to talk openly about problems and that they can do so without fear, their creativity and knowledge are unleashed, driving continuous improvement.

When we feel liked, it has a remarkable impact on our motivation to do a good job, to have very candid discussions with our teammates, to want to work hard for our team/family.

So how does “caring for employees like family” manifest in an organization? In my experience serving as a consultant to a company that cared for its employees like family – a company whose employees genuinely liked each other – was that:

  • Their employees were treated with respect. The owner’s behavior and the behavior of his leadership team made it very obvious that he liked his employees and genuinely cared about their well-being.
  • Their employees felt trusted and informed. Every quarter the owner gave a detailed report to all employees on the company’s finances. They knew exactly where their company stood in terms of profit and loss.
  • They listened to their employees. The owner was rarely in his office. Instead, he was out among his employees, asking them what could be done to make their work more enjoyable.
  • Their employees obviously enjoyed being at work. You could tell by the way they treated each other. You could hear it in their laughter. You could see it in the way they were smiling most of the time. You could tell by the pride they took in doing good work.

When people feel safe and liked, we are happy.

The impact of employee satisfaction on productivity, quality, profitability and more

Is there a direct relationship between happy employees and productivity, quality and profitability? Absolutely. Think about yourself and the times in your life when you were in a group at a company, in the military, in a community service organization, or on a sports team where you felt very happy to be in the group. How did the feeling of happiness impact your performance in the group?

I’m certain you’ll agree that this feeling of happiness energized you. Effort was no longer all about you. It was about the team/family.

Why in the world is it so difficult for so many leaders to understand this? Quoting Chapman again, this “is not some highfalutin management theory — it’s biology.”

All human beings have experienced the joy of being in groups in which they felt safe and knew they were liked. Why is it so difficult to transfer these experiences to the workplace?

I think one of the major barriers to transferring these positive personal experiences to the workplace is primarily a fear of losing control.

The challenge these leaders face is to understand that it is only by sharing control with their employees that they will gain real control – the kind of control that drives the free exchange of information, allows problems to be openly discussed, and makes employees feel safe, respected and trusted. This is referred to as “servant leadership” in the language of Lean manufacturing.

Happy employees create happy communities

Another incentive for organizations to prioritize employee happiness is that organizations don’t exist in a vacuum. Employees are members of communities. They have families. Vibrant communities and healthy families are created by happy people. Angry people can’t build good communities and they can’t build healthy families.

A number of years ago, I heard Chapman give a talk at the Olin School of Washington University in St. Louis. I’ve never forgotten it. In his talk, he described a visit he had made to a factory Barry-Wehmiller had acquired several years prior and where they had started to use some of the tools of Lean manufacturing.

Chapman said that while walking down the factory floor he stopped and asked a worker how the recent changes had impacted him personally.

He said the worker paused for a while before replying, “Now that these changes have been made, when I go home, I talk to my wife.”

To which Chapman replied, “What in the world does that mean?”

The worker replied, “Before these changes were made, almost every day, I went home angry, and angry people aren’t good communicators with anyone, including their wives.”

Ultimately, the health of communities is directly impacted by the health of the families that inhabit these communities.

Employee happiness is everybody’s business

Companies have a moral responsibility to create conditions that result in their employees being happy.

The noted Japanese consultant, Kaoru Ishikawa, put it rather bluntly: “The first concern of the company is the happiness of the people who are connected with it. If the people do not feel happy and cannot be made to feel happy, that company does not deserve to exist.”

Is it important for your employees to be happy? Is it important for you personally to be happy? Nothing could possibly be more important.

About George Friesen

George Friesen serves as Business Practice Leader - Lean Manufacturing for the Workforce Solutions Group of St. Louis Community College. He has led the College's Lean business practice area since 2000. Prior to joining the College, George worked for Maritz Performance Improvement Company. Over the past 35 years, he has served a wide variety of Fortune 500 companies, specializing during the past eleven years in Lean Manufacturing, focusing especially on the 5S System, Lean leadership and thinking processes, Value Stream Mapping, and Lean team building. George is a graduate of Washington University (AB), Webster University (MA), and United States Air Force Flight Training.

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