Make your organization happy

Hal Rosenbluth had made a provocative decision: As CEO of Rosenbluth International, a corporate travel agency employing 6.000 people, he decided that his company would put the employees first. Where other companies aim first to satisfy customers or investors, Rosenbluth made it their first priority to make their employees happy.

The results were fantastic. Record growth, record profits and, most importantly, customers raved about the service they got from Rosenbluth’s happy employees. Hal Rosenbluth explained the company’s approach in a book whose title elegantly sums up his philosophy: “Put The Customer Second – Put Your People First And Watch’em Kick Butt”.

A company’s commitment to its values is most thoroughly tested in adversity and Rosenbluth hit its share of adversity right after 9/11. Overnight, corporate travel was reduced to a fraction of its former level and it recovered more slowly than anyone predicted.

Rosenbluth tried everything in their power to avoid layoffs. They cut expenses. Staff took pay cuts and so did managers and executives. But in the end they had to face it: Layoffs were inevitable and they decided to fire 1.000 out their 6.000 employees. How do you handle this situation in a company that puts its people first?

In his book’s most moving chapter, an epilogue written after 9/11, Hal Rosenbluth explains that though layoffs don’t make employees happy, not doing the layoffs and then going bankrupt at a later date would have made even more people even more unhappy.

Hal Rosenbluth recounts how he wrote a letter to the organization explaining the decision and the thinking behind it in detail. The result was amazing: People who’d been fired streamed into Hal’s office, many in tears, telling him they understood and thanking him for their time at the company.

Rosenbluth’s letter also contained a pledge: That those remaining at the company would do everything they could to bring the company back on track so they could rehire those who’d been fired. Six months later, they’d hired back 500 out of the 1.000 and the company was solidly on its way to recovery.

Choose happiness

Once you’ve made yourself happy at work, it’s time to spread that good mood inside the organization and make more people there happy at work. This is obviously a bigger job but it is entirely possible and while some companies are born happy, many more are made happy somewhere along the way.

The next few chapters are for leaders at different levels, who want to spread some happiness in their team, department, division or, heck, clear across the entire business.

To give the process some structure, we’ll reuse the model for positive change presented in chapter X and take it in three steps:

  1. Positive attention – notice what’s already good and what has worked previously
  2. Positive intention – make a positive intention that focuses on what you want more off, not what you want to avoid
  3. Positive action- do something positive to fulfill your intention

First, attention.

How happy is your organization?

Start by taking stock of the current situation. The question of “How happy are people in our business” is typically handed over to HR who can then distribute a job satisfaction survey that results in a lot of statistics which can then be sliced and diced in any nubmer of way to produce any number of results. You know – “lies, damned lies and statistics”.

I’m going to provoke you here and state that any leader worth her salt knows how happy her people are. This is a leaders most basic responsibility. You shouldn’t need to see a bar chart – you should know already. In fact – I challenge you to a simple exercise. It goes like this:

  1. Make a list of all the people who report to you. Also add other people you work very closely with. Finally add your boss to the list.
  2. Next to each person, put a number from 0-10, based on that person’s happiness at work. 0=desperately unhappy, 10=ecstatic.
  3. Next to each number write what made you choose that score. What have you observed that person doing/saying/not saying that led you to that particular score.

Here’s an example of such a chart:
Alice Smith – 8 – Always sounds positive at meetings, continually praises co-workers, greets everyone with a loud, cheerful “good morning” every day
John Wallace – 4 – Very quiet in meetings, looked sad at lunch last week, has called in sick often last three months
Mia Jensen – ? – Good question. Never complains but never looks particularly happy.
Mike Wagner – 9 – Always cheerful, arranged that great picnic a month ago. Customers rave about him.

Can you do it? Can you do it for all of your people or only for some? If you’re not reasonably confident of all your scores or if you’re unable to rate som of your people’s work-happiness add step 3b:
3b: Observe your people for a few days to gather more data. Don’t tell them what you’re doing, just observe them. Don’t be weird about it or anything, but take a closer look at your people to find out how happy each of them is. Once you have more data, update your chart.

Then comes the last step: Verify your scores. Have a fifteen-minute chat with each of your people to find out how happy they are. Ask them to rate themselves from 0-10. Also ask them what makes them happy at work and what could make them happier. And don’t forget to ask them what they think of how you’re doing your job!

Do this exercise now and then repeat it periodically. Every three months is great.

As I sit here writing this paragraph, I can almost hear the collective cry going up from the leaders reading this: “I don’t have time for your shenanigans – I have too much on my plate already”. Let’s turn that objection upside down: You don’t have time not to do it. This will cost you fifteen minutes per employee every three months but it will save you enormous amounts of time because you install an early warning system that tells you when things are starting to go badly for your people – instead of when they finally blow up. You make them happier at work and your organization will reap the benefits.

There is one thing you need to be prepared for: You may be told things about your leadership that you didn’t know and which may not sit well with you. Be open to whatever criticism and/or praise you recieve. You can’t possibly act on all the feedback you get, some of which may even conflict, but you need to receive it openly and constructively. Do not get defensive. When criticized ask follow-up questions to make sure you’ve understood the criticism fully and then thank the person for their honest feedback. You also need to act on the feedback, to show people that you’re committed to improving as a leader and that you’re actually receiving their feedback.


Google is known as a great place to work and this helps them attract the best people from the IT world and to lure people away from their competitors. The philosophy that drives this includes:

  • Life is beautiful. Being a part of something that matters and working on products in which you can believe is remarkably fulfilling.
  • Appreciation is the best motivation.
  • Work and play are not mutually exclusive. It is possible to code and pass the puck at the same time.
  • Boldly go where no one has gone before. There are hundreds of challenges yet to solve. Your creative ideas matter here and are worth exploring. You’ll have the opportunity to develop innovative new products that millions of people will find useful.

From a list of Top 10 Reasons to Work at Google found at

So now you know how happy your people are and why. The next question is: Are things fine as they are or do you want to do something? Do you want to form a positive intention to make your organization a little happier? This doesn’t necessarily mean putting happiness at work before everything else, but there are three things you could consider doing:

1: Put happiness at work near the top of your list of priorities
Saying “Our most important goal is to be happy at work. Right after we’ve turned a profit, satisified our investors, grown our market share, created three new divisions, increased overseas sales and …” is hardly going to impress anyone.

Saying “Our most important goal is to be happy at work and nothing beats that priority.” is a bold statement that is much more likely to energize and motivate people. And as shown in chapter X, happy people will help the company reach all its other goals. This is what Rosenbluth International did and it got them amazing results.

2: Announce those priorities to your part of the organization
There’s no reason to keep this intention a secret – quite the contrary. People need to know that this is going on. This also creates accountability ie. people can hold management to it and energy and people can get involved in making the organization happy.

3: Stick to those priorities
This is of course the difficult part but announcing the priorities and then blowing them off when they get too hard to stick to is worse than doing nothing. This results only in cynicism and a sense found in depressingly many companies that “Yeah, the executives announce a lot of fancy new programs but nothing ever comes of it. We just carry on as usual until it blows over.”

Once you’ve formed an intention to make your organization happier, what will help you hang on to that intention? The answer is clear: If you’re convinced that happiness at work will make your people more productive and make your job as a leader easier, then use that conviction to hold fast to your intention to make your people happy.

That’s what Google are saying. They recognize happiness at work as one of the most important success factors. And note this: This is not about sacrificing customer satisfaction, profits, investor returns or market share for happiness. It’s about improving customer satisfaction, profits, investor returns and market share through happiness.

As we saw in chapter X, happy organizations consistently outperform their unhappy competitors. It’s not about happiness or results, it’s about happiness and results. Nevertheless, it’s a bold statement and one that might not sit well with the board or with investors. Well tough. This is where executives need to take charge and show their conviction that happy employees is a great way to better bottom line results. The story of Irma from chapter X shows a CEO who did just that and the outstanding results it got his company.

It’s important that you form a positive intention based on what you want not what you want to avoid. As stated in chapter X you can’t base your future on the things you want to avoid – it just does not work. Good, positive intentions include:

  • I want all my people to be happy at work
  • I want our staff meetings to be fun and creative
  • I want people to balance their work and private lives well
  • I want happy employees who make the customers happy

Make one that is relevant to your business. Once you’ve formed a positive intention to create more happiness at work it’s time to start doing something about it. But first, there’s a simple model you need to know about – one that determines where to focus your efforts to make your organization happy.

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