Positivity & Productivity; the Smile Factor

First published in Edge magazine March 1, 2013


New ILM research shows that being happy and positive has a direct impact on productivity. Alison Coleman looks at the report’s main findings and explores how managers can accentuate the positive and eliminate the negative

It’s a fundamental principle of work: when you feel upbeat and positive about what you’re doing, you’re more likely to raise your performance and ultimately be more productive.

But four years of global recession have created huge challenges for organisations. Efforts by the government and other bodies to measure workplace happiness have often been met with cynicism and cries that ‘surely we have more important things to think about?’.

But positivity should not be dismissed out of hand. It’s a key driver of employee motivation and engagement, and as we know from the 2009 MacLeod report,  engagement is a major driver of organisational performance, innovation and productivity. It’s more important than ever for management and leadership to understand the connection between positivity and performance.

A new ILM report, The pursuit of happiness: positivity and performance among UK managers, sheds some light on the factors that affect happiness in the workplace and ultimately how they can impact on performance and the success of the organisation.

ILM chief executive Charles Elvin says: “If you want to get the best out of an organisation, you need a positive ‘can do’ attitude. With recession and the uncertainty over jobs and the future that often brings, a culture of negativity can start to creep in, and this is something that leaders and managers at all levels need to be aware of and equipped to deal with.

“The call to action is to think positively and communicate the good things that the organisation and its people are doing. This requires everyone, from line managers right up to senior management, to be more emotionally aware of themselves and of other people, and to create a listening culture where people’s views are heard and their ideas encouraged, which in itself will generate positivity.”

This approach is borne out by the ILM research. ILM found that not only do happier managers perform to a higher standard, but those who thought their reports were happy also performed better compared with those who thought their reports were ambivalent or unhappy.

This provides a clear illustration that happiness flows both up and down an organisation. It also highlights the need for managers to recognise the signs of unhappiness within teams that may be underperforming, and more importantly to identify the factors that can affect happiness.

“People who are happy in their role can often be described as thriving. Not only are they satisfied and productive, but they are also actively engaged in creating their own future as well as that of the organisation,” says David Riley, senior consultant at business consultants DPA.

“There are a few key mechanisms for creating the conditions in which employees thrive: providing decision-making discretion and a degree of autonomy that allows them to solve problems on their own; sharing information across the whole organisation to keep employees informed; maximising civility between employees; increasing the depth and frequency of organisational citizenship behaviours; and providing regular performance feedback and assessment versus goals so that employees have clarity as to where they stand,” he says.

People who are happy in their role can often be described as thriving. Not only are they satisfied and productive, but they are also actively engaged in creating their own future as well as that of the organisation.David Riley, senior consultant, business consultants DPA

Identifying the factors that influence happiness is more difficult, he says; it is subjective in that positive thoughts may come naturally to some people more than others. Nevertheless, adds Riley, managers at all levels can learn to increase their levels of positivity. “They can craft their own work to be more meaningful and look for opportunities to innovate and learn,” he says.

Access to training

One of the key findings of the ILM report was the impact that training and development have on managers’ performance and positivity. Those who are clear on how to access training and development are more likely to be happy and perform at a higher level. Those who aren’t are more likely to feel disillusioned and inclined to underperform.

Naysan Firoozmand, managing consultant at workplace performance consultancy ASK Europe, says: “An absence of development is an effective route to a lack of performance improvement. However, the relationship between development and positivity is more subtle, and rooted mainly in the factors that drive individual motivation and engagement.

“Most employees, at all levels, are motivated to seek opportunities either to learn and develop or to demonstrate skills and capabilities they feel they have been given little opportunity to deploy. Being more able or capable increases a sense of self-worth, which in turn increases positivity and performance.”

Management development, when aligned with business objectives, serves to enhance confidence, self-awareness and emotional intelligence (EI). It also engenders a greater appreciation of the impact of different leadership and management styles and behaviours on others.

This is an area in which occupational psychologists JCA have been doing a lot of work with organisations. Managing director Jo Hennessey says: “It is important to equip managers with the skill sets they need to manage people, and that includes developing better self-awareness and awareness of others. It is something that can be learnt and, as a result, managers who develop a better understanding of their own feelings find they can reduce their level of defensiveness.”

First-line managers, working at the front line of the organisation and managing people who deal directly with customers, goods and services, are vital to the organisation’s performance, and arguably are the managers most in need of this type of development. Yet according to the ILM report, they have the least access to training and development compared with those in higher levels of management.

Hennessey says: “Because of the front-line pressures they are facing, line managers’ emotional developmental needs are high. They often feel they are under the greatest pressure and experience a sense of being trapped, frustrated and without any choices, which can be reflected in their management style.

“After they receive EI training, however, it’s a different story. For example, if they have to discipline someone, they will realise they do have a choice; they can be positive and try to get the best out of that individual, instead of allowing their frustration to lead them to approach the task in a negative way. A manager who brings out the best in people is a happier manager, one who is viewed as tough but fair, and is trusted by his or her team.”

Another issue highlighted by the ILM study was the ‘danger zone’ of the two-year milestone that managers reach in their career within an organisation. While the research revealed that managers who have been working at a company for between one and two years are the best performers overall, it also showed that without the right development, enthusiasm for their role beyond this point often starts to wane and feelings of negativity can creep in.

The importance of coaching and mentoring at this crucial stage cannot be underestimated, says Elvin, particularly if the manager is preparing for career progression: “People need to be clear about their role, as well as the organisation’s cultural values and relevance. Organisations really need to understand this ‘two-year itch’ and provide the training and development that will help managers to be successful. This is a basic desire that creates a sense of employee wellbeing.”

Stress points

The effects of the current economic climate have led to an increase in pressure and stress levels within many organisations. It is important to recognise the signs of stress in the workplace and have measures in place to avoid excessive stress and deal with it if it occurs.

However, evidence from the ILM report suggests that a bit of stress has more of a motivational effect than no stress. The question is, how much is just enough to enhance positivity and performance?

James Brook, director of management consultancy Strengths Partnership, says: “Professional athletes need regular practice and must feel constantly stretched in order to build their physical and psychological strengths. Similarly employees, particularly those with strong aspirations and potential to advance, need regular opportunities to test their limits and see what they are capable of achieving.”

However, he adds, being over-stretched at work can lead to feelings of incompetence and frustration, with levels of confidence and performance being adversely affected as a result. Getting the balance right is absolutely key.

The ILM research highlights the value of investing in training and development to help managers tackle these challenging workloads. This training should focus on practical skills, such as planning and time management, as well as softer skills such as goal setting, delegation and motivation, while also developing their emotional resilience to handle the potentially damaging psychological impact of expanding workloads.

Happiness matters

So how happy, positive and productive are workplaces in the UK? Overall, concludes the ILM report, managers feel they are performing well and that their teams are too, which has to be seen as encouraging in these tough economic times.

“What this report really shows is that happiness at all levels is key to managerial performance,” says Elvin. “And those who are happy and enjoy going to work exude that positivity to others. Combining that with the empowerment of people to have an input and share a vision will create a motivated, engaged and productive organisation.”

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