How to Keep Employees Happy and Motivated

jumping with joy

Six months after I started my first job out of college as a software engineer, I was “invited” to my first ever performance review. My boss told me it was an opportunity to get 360 feedback from him and a few colleagues about my strengths and the areas of my performance I could improve. As I sat down in the meeting room with members of my team, I was nervous to say the least.

Verbatim, here is what they said: I was “a positive person that brightened their days,” “diligent and hardworking,” and a “valued member of the team.” I was given a 4 out of 5 for performance. One colleague said that I sometimes “talked too loud on the phone in the open office,” and my boss said I needed to “review the code I wrote more carefully before submitting because I left out two semicolons in the last draft.” (Oh my!)

If my son–who is now only two years old–gets a review like this at his first job, I’ll be a proud mom taking him out to dinner to celebrate! Unfortunately, for myself, my brain had the all-too-common response. I ignored the positive and focused squarely on the negative, feeling discouraged. Why did I only get a 4??

Now as a positive psychology researcher, I better understand the brain response that lead to this reaction. Our brain’s negativity bias is so strong that negative thoughts significantly outweigh the positive. A number of studies have found that negative thoughts are three times more powerful than positive ones. So, if you find yourself ruminating on something negative someone said or did, know that you’re very normal. But this brain response harms performance.

Common wisdom seems to suggest that the best path to success is to identify all that is broken and fix it. We are now seeing there is a significantly stronger path that is better at fueling performance and business outcomes. Identify what’s working and leverage those strengths and skills to create greater success. The reason is that when we consciously focus on successes and solutions, we prime the brain to be in a positive state. Studies show when our brain is optimistic, it fuels business outcomes including increasing sales by 37%, productive energy by 31%, and chances of promotion by 40%. At no point do I advocate ignoring the negative, but a concerted effort to reorient the brain to the good often pays dividends in business and beyond.

This research has implications far beyond the performance review. My research colleague (and husband) Shawn Achor and I have now worked with more than half of the Fortune 100 companies, as well as schools and other organizations building positive organizations. In our research, the teams that experience high levels of success are also those that consistently focus on strengths, successes and solutions, big and small.

And the impact is measurable: A manager began focusing his team on all that they were doing right by praising one new person each day in a small way, and this practice increased the entire team’s productivity by 31% in three weeks. Celebrating success breeds success.

Whether you’re a manager or in an entry level position, focusing other people’s attention on the meaning embedded in the work, the things you’re grateful for, and the ways people have been good to you does good for those around you.

The Positive Ripple Effect

Research shows positive information spreads further and faster. In an outstanding research study, Jonah Berger, professor of marketing at Wharton School of Business, and Katherine Milkman from the University of Pennsylvania used a computer program that scanned 7,000 articles from The New York Times over a three-month period to distill what characteristics led to certain articles being included in the “most-emailed” list on the newspaper’s website.

The researchers controlled the study for variables including article placement, author gender and popularity, and the length and complexity of pieces, and found that the articles that evoked emotion were shared more often than those that evoked none—but even more importantly, the arousing, activating positive pieces were more viral than anything else.

They found that the ones that were most shared were stories that made you feel high levels of positivity, including emotions such as happiness, joy, elation, and awe.

What that means is that if we start talking about the positive, in a way that makes others feel good, that can tip the culture at work from negative to positive in a meaningful and lasting way.

Get Others Involved in the Practice

One of the best examples I know is the story of a judge from Nebraska, who said
her colleagues were disconnected and grumpy. They were always complaining about the work and each other. She secretly posted a gratitude board at the office and provided markers and Post-it notes.

Later, she told me she watched as colleagues stood in front of the board, sipped their
coffees, and talked about the gratitudes that had been posted. She secretly snapped some pictures of people bonding in front of the wall and posted them on the board the next day with a note that simply said, “The bonding I see all around me today is my gratitude.”

The story of the gratitude board spread to other government buildings, and three additional departments made them too.

Beyond a gratitude board, there are lots of ways to operationalize gratitude to create an active cycle of positive behavior and reinforcement. Here are some examples:

  1. Ask people to post their gratitudes on the board.
  2. Have them snap pictures of themselves holding index cards with their gratitudes written on them.
  3. Encourage them to post the photos on social media.
  4. Have a different employee each day share his or her gratitude with the team during the morning meeting.
  5. Showcase some of the “praise” gratitudes during team meetings.
  6. Have a volunteer from the design team create an infographic, with the organization’s logo, that focuses on the scientific value of practicing gratitude to share with the company.
  7. Tweet out one gratitude from the wall each day to the wider network.
  8. Make a video to share the story of the creation of the gratitude wall and its impact to present at an organization-wide gathering.
  9. Ask a few marketing associates to record reactions on camera from people after seeing their names and contributions mentioned on the gratitude board. Put together a short video to share.
  10. Feature the story of the gratitude board in the company newsletter.
  11. Start each month with a fresh board and a new theme, such as “my coworkers” or “the difference we make together.”

By taking even just a handful of steps like these, you have the power to shift the culture at your office to more optimistic, empowered territory. You could change the board’s theme from time to time. For instance, next month it could feature “how your colleagues have made your workday easier recently” for people to share those stories.

As for performance reviews, based on the research, a number of our clients, including Facebook, got rid of these annual traditions, and instead focused on creating a more steady stream of feedback–anchored in positive, meaningful information. This helps fuel employee performance, instead of leaving them stuck at “4” (whatever that means!), and lessens the detrimental impact of inevitable negative information. It’s the kind of work environment I hope for my son, when he is old enough (and off the family payroll!)

For more research and ideas to start your day off on a positive note, Shawn and I invite you to join us for our Wake Up & Inspire Happiness Video Workshop, based on our new PBS program INSPIRE HAPPINESS airing nationwide.

About the Author

Michelle Gielan, national CBS News anchor turned positive psychology researcher, is the best-selling author of Broadcasting Happiness. She is the Founder of the Institute for Applied Positive Research and is partnered with Arianna Huffington to study how transformative stories fuel success. She holds a Master of Applied Positive Psychology from the University of Pennsylvania and is an Executive Producer of “The Happiness Advantage” Special on PBS and a featured professor in Oprah’s Happiness course.