All managers would like their teams to be more productive. Yet most companies are using the same old methods: strategic plans, goal-setting, streamlining operations, reducing inefficiency. Others are offering employee perks, such as on-site food, daycare, or gyms. Others are offering bigger bonuses or flexible schedules.
Kim Cameron and his colleagues at the University of Michigan, however, have discovered a way to improve performance that has nothing to do with dishing out benefits or deploying new processes. In a research article published in the Journal of Applied Behavioral Science Cameron and his coauthors found that a workplace characterized by positive and virtuous practices excels in a number of domains.
Positive and virtuous practices include:
- Caring for, being interested in, and maintaining responsibility for colleagues as friends.
- Providing support for one another, including offering kindness and compassion when others are struggling.
- Avoiding blame and forgive mistakes.
- Inspiring one another at work.
- Emphasizing the meaningfulness of the work.
- Treating one another with respect, gratitude, trust & integrity.
Cameron and his colleagues explain that there are three reasons these practices benefit the company. Positive practices:
- Increase positive emotions which broaden employees’ resources and abilities by improving people’s relationships with each other and amplifying their creativity and ability to think creatively.
- Buffer against negative events like stress, improving employees ability to bounce back from challenges and difficulties.
- Attract and bolster employees, making them more loyal and bringing out the best in them.
There are bottom-line benefits as well. Summarizing the findings, Cameron explains that: “When organizations institute positive, virtuous practices they achieve significantly higher levels of organizational effectiveness — including financial performance, customer satisfaction, and productivity … The more the virtuousness, the higher the performance in profitability, productivity, customer satisfaction, and employee engagement.”
So how do you implement positive practices in your company? The research team found four main ways:
- Leadership: Needless to say, it is difficult to implement positive practices without support from the top. A leader must stand by and exemplify the values he preaches. Steve Schroeder, founder and CEO of Creative Werks, a packaging company based in Chicago that has repeatedly appeared on Crain Chicago’s “50 Fastest Growing Companies” list, attributes much of his company’s success to a positive culture. In addition to providing the usual perks (bonuses and professional development opportunities), Steve makes sure his employees are happy. As a longtime student of the Dalai Lama, Steve often quotes the Dalai Lama’s saying that “everybody wants to be happy.” He ensures that his company’s culture is both positive and supportive. “Caring” is a quality he looks for when he interviews new employees. “Caring people never let their colleagues or the clients down,” says Schroeder. Creative Werks’ core values are not just client and product-focused. They also include also include “balance” referring to employee well-being and illustrating the importance of a positive and supportive workplace.
- Culture: Because culture trumps strategy in predicting performance, culture change initiatives are also important. Jim Mallozzi, CEO of Prudential Real Estate and Relocation, consulted with Cameron during a difficult merger of two companies and during a time when his company was undergoing severe financial loss. He found that implementing positive practices shifted the company culture and helped turn these challenging times into great successes. He mentions one exercise in particular: “Select three people, one at a time, and tell those people three things you value about them. In corporate America, and in most places in life, people usually tell you, ‘Here are the three things that you need to change.’ Rarely do they tell you, ‘Here are the three things that you’re fabulous at.’ When you do that, the energy just goes up. So that was the start. Okay, we’re off the beach. Nobody’s dying any more. The body parts have been buried. We’re now saying, ‘Okay, let’s start with what we have, because we have some fabulous attributes.'”
- Small steps: Small changes can produce large effects. Some firms that consulted Cameron have simply asked all employees to keep gratitude journals each day, or to positively embarrass someone each day, or spend 30 minutes per day making a contribution to someone in need. Within weeks and months, the companies have noticed visible improvements in performance. Shubhra Bhatnagar is a former successful investment banker who became a social entrepreneur. She founded KarmaLize.Me, a health food distribution company which donates over 50% of profits to charities. In the intense field of investment banking, she had found that employee well-being was neglected. For this reason, despite the equivalent pressures of running a startup, she makes sure that her staff engage in well-being activities such as meditation: “We make sure that the stress of a startup business does not hamper the happiness quotient of our team or impacts our core business values. We use a meditation app (Sattva) to help us reconnect with ourselves and each other and to create a more positive atmosphere in our office.”
- Retreats and workshops: Changes and improvements can occur as a result of retreats, executive programs, or workshops where employees have a chance to think deeply and strategically about positive leadership and positive practices. Corporate workshops is what Audible’s Chief Product and Marketing Officer, Louis Gagnon, opted for. The two-day TLEX retreat in upstate New York started with an exercise where 18 of Gagnon’s leaders split into groups to define “what is leadership.” After collating the results, the group realized that 95% of all attributes referred to “soft,” not “hard” skills. Gagnon reports that this staff was pleased to hear that for 2-days, soft skills is exactly what they would be focusing on – no corporate goals, no strategy, no alignment – but mindfulness, personal mastery, connectedness and collective action. At the heart of the curriculum: breathing exercises. “Our team was engaged, opened and excited to have the rare luxury to focus on themselves as individuals — individuals as a conduit and lever to ourselves as a team. We all felt deeply rejuvenated and at peace with each other. That, ultimately, built trust – the ultimate ingredient to teamwork.“
Emma Seppala, Ph.D., is the Science Director of Stanford University’s Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education and author of The Happiness Track. She is also founder of Fulfillment Daily. Follow her on Twitter @emmaseppala or her website www.emmaseppala.com.