Sandra Wiley
Keep smiling

Happiness should be part of your culture. Here’s how and why.

October 22, 2012
by Sandra Wiley

My son and his family just announced some big news; they will be moving to Muscat, the capital of Oman, a country in the Middle East that borders Saudi Arabia, Yemen, and the United Arab Emirates. After he told me that Muscat was safe, progressive, and beautiful, I did some research of my own and discovered that he was right. I also found out that they have a few customs that I think will be a challenge for his family and him. For instance, smiling at a stranger is considered to be disrespectful. That’s tough for a family from Kansas, where we smile at everyone.

Why bring this up in a column for CPAs? Because sensitivity to smiling in Oman started me thinking about the firms I have been visiting recently and how it seems like increased economic pressures and intense work schedules have sapped much of the happiness from these offices. Smiles are seldom seen, laughter rarely heard.

Here is a question for you to ponder: Are we a profession that is so “professional” that we have eliminated the happiness factor in our firms? Think about some of the companies today that are attracting and retaining employees by the truckload. Zappos, Southwest Airlines, LEGO, Google, and Apple all have a very high happiness factor built into their culture. They are still intense in their work, driven to produce at a high level and committed to generating great profits. However, they also are becoming famous for being happy, enthusiastic, and fun-loving.

Would your firm dare to take on the challenge of a happiness factor in your culture? An even better question might be, are YOU willing to take on the challenge to be the driver of happiness in your firm? If your firm engaged in a 360-degree survey today and asked your team if you had a high happiness grade, what would your score be? Are you walking the halls of your firm with a smile on your face, a cheerful outlook, and an unflagging faith in the future? Or have you, like so many other leaders, bound yourself to an identity that requires a professional, cold, serious, disparaging, and businesslike appearance?

Happiness pays off. Happiness at work is catching—and when leaders are happy, it’s downright infectious. If you seem unhappy, you dampen the mood of everyone else in the firm. This leads to more sick days, more stress, higher staff turnover, and lower efficiency. On the other hand, when you radiate energy, curiosity, and enthusiasm, you inevitably pass on your attitude to your team members. They grow happier and more creative, and they’ll ultimately end up providing better service to your clients.

Happy managers also gain a natural rapport with their team, and people are much more eager to go the extra mile for a happy manager than for an unhappy one.

However, there’s one downside to being happy that you should be aware of: You may be regarded as less competent. In an interesting psychological study, participants were asked to read an article and subsequently assess the intelligence of its author. Half of the participants received an article with a negative, critical attitude toward a certain topic—the other half received an article on the same topic, but worded in a much more positive way. The study showed that the author of the negative article was perceived as the more intelligent of the two.

That’s frankly strange, because many other studies prove that happy people do a much better job. But apparently, many people also think that happy people aren’t all that serious. Happy people are seen as kind of happy-go-lucky and maybe a bit gullible, too. Think about how some of your colleagues think about the companies I mentioned earlier. At least a few of them probably are asking whether businesses such as Zappos and Google will last. I suppose time will tell, but it appears to me that they certainly have the right formula today.

On the whole, however, the advantages of being a happy manager far outweigh the disadvantages. So what can you do to bring some more happiness into your management style? Here are three concrete and dead simple suggestions.

1. Smile: Look happy when you’re at work. Smiles are infectious and build good relationships. Don’t be fake, though. It has to be a genuine smile. 

2. Look at the bright spots: Many managers spend all of their time on problems and all the stuff that doesn’t work. Change tack and spend much more of your time praising good work and finding and cherishing the heroes of your organization.

3. Cultivate optimism: Some firm leaders believe that creating an environment of constant chaos and intense stress will net a higher work ethic and ultimately positive results. They continually warn their team about threats and dangers to create a culture that screams “head down and butt up” for the best results. That’s a mistake. If you convey calm, optimism, and faith in the future, you create a much more efficient and adaptable firm. Optimism is not an excuse to sit around doing nothing—it’s the most important driver of change there is.

Studies show that leaders on average are happier at work than employees, but you wouldn’t usually think so to look at them, because many people believe that leaders should be serious rather than happy. They forget that it’s possible to be both.

Smiling and being happy is no substitute for being good at your job, of course. You still need to be professionally competent, efficient, and a good manager. But a culture of happiness will increase the productivity, retention, and profitability in your firm. It works at Southwest Airlines and Apple, and it can work in your office.

I hope that brings a smile to your face.

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Sandra Wiley is chief operating officer of Boomer Consulting in Manhattan, Kan., and a popular speaker who addresses topics such as team building, talent development, and performance improvement.