The six practices of happy, succesful workplaces

This chapter is not yet finished – but I really need your help, so I’m posting it now.

Am I on the right track? It kinda feels like the advice here is either too simple or too complex to be useful. I want people to read this chapter and be inspired by what other great companies are doing. To get ideas they can implement themselves.

Is it working? What do you think?

How to make your business happy – in practice

What can a workplace do to make its people want to be happy there? Given that raises, bonuses and perks don’t work what are the things that do? We could start from scratch and invent some methods and tools, but it makes much more sense to learn from the best practices already out there. What is it that the best, happiest and most successful companies do to reach high levels of happiness, excellence and profits? What makes their people consistently choose to be happy at work and lets employees and leaders work together to create great workplaces?

And let’s not just look at what they do, let’s look at what they do that can readily be stolen implented in your workplace. Let’s focus on practices that are:

  • Generic – so they apply to almost any workplace, big or small, private or government
  • Effective – so they make a real difference
  • Fun – so they make people happy
  • Good for business – so they’ll get you more results

There are six practices that can be found in all happy organizations. It never fails – happy organizations do these, unhappy organizations omit or neglect one or more of them. The best, happiest and most successful businesses:

  1. Are positive
  2. Learn
  3. Are open
  4. Share decisions
  5. Care
  6. Think and act long-term

This chapter presents each of these six practices in detail and how some of the greatest organizations around the world implement them. As you read this chapter, try to evaluate your own organization against each of these six practices. Which practices are you already great at? Which could you do more or better? That’s where you must focus to make your organization a little happier and this chapter has plenty of practical, real-life ideas for you to consider.

1: Be positive

…a senior [Southwest Airlines] executive spent a day working at the ticket counter and with the ground crew to have a better understanding of their roles.

While she was helping direct a plane to the gate using those long orange directional devices, one of the seasoned ground crew members told her to rotate her wrists in a circular manner.

When she did this, the plane did a 360 degree turn! She began to scream thinking she had sent a confusing signal to the pilot.

In reality, the ground crew had contacted the pilot and told them they had a “greeny” directing the plane and that they wanted to have some fun with her. The pilot enthusiastically agreed to play along.

Source: Ronald Culberson’s newsletter, June 2004 (

You can approach business as a deadly serious, dog-eat-dog, the-winner-takes-all world of war. This view of the business world is why one Jack Welch book is called “Winning” and why we have business advice like “Nice guys finish last” and “Never be satisified”.

But the interesting thing is that this approach is self-fulfilling – if that’s how you view business, that is how it will be for you, because you will make it so. Also your employees, customers, competitors will pick up on this attitude and will treat you accordingly.

A positive outlook is equally self-fulfilling. When you see the business world as a place of intense cooperation, of untapped business potential just waiting for a good idea, of nice people wanting to good work, it is likely to become so for you.

I’m not saying that either outlook is more true than the other – whatever you believe will be true for you. What I’m saying is this: A positive business outlook is much more likely to make people happy at work, which as we saw in chapter X will bring a busines huge benefits. Conversely, a negative outlook makes people unhappy at work – to its cost.

Most people like being positive. They like to help, to contribute, to make a difference to co-workers and customers. They like to be in an environment of trust, mutual assistance and teamwork. Few people are happy in an atmosphere of distrust, suspicion and internal competition.

And this is not a question of positive thinking or of shutting your eyes to problems. No, quite the contrary – a positive outlook make people more able to spot problems and deal constructively with them.

You may think that not all workplacess can support this attitude, How can you be positive working in a hospital, an abortion clinic, a police station. Or a funeral parlor. This is deadly serious stuff and people want you to be serious. Not all business situations can be approached with hilarity but they can all be approached with an appropriate levity.

The St. Lukas foundation in outside of Copenhagen is a hospital for dying people. Nobody comes here to get better – they come here to die. And yet, the place is not somber. It is in fact a place of happiness, mutual respect and even occasional celebration.

The staff all recognize the seriousness of the patients’ situations, but argue that it is hardly improved by too much seriousness. That’s why they make sure to create at atmosphere of happiness, of true contact between people, of fun. All of which is a great boon to both the patients and to their families.

If the St. Lukas foundation can find fun and happiness in their circumstances, I’m sure your company can too. Here are some ways to do it.

Happy hiring

If you want a happy organization, it makes sense to hire happy people – and not to hire people who make others unhappy. Southwest Airlines get this, and are rightly famous for their approach to recruiting which is “hire for attitude, train for skill??. Though I certainly hope that skill also counts for at least a little when they’re hiring, say, pilots, they generally tend to value personality over previous job experience.

For example, when they’re hiring flight attendants applicants are flown in from all over the US, naturally on Southwest flights. On the boarding pass they get it says “Job applicant?? and if the flight attendants on that flight notice an applicant behaving rudely they tell the recruting staff and the interview is over before it even begins. At the job interview itself you get points for showing pluck, energy, humour and a nice personality. Jerks need not apply.

Companies that value skill over personality tend to go the other way, saying things like “well, he may not be easy to work with, but he’s very good”. But in a networked business of knowledge sharing and teamwork, it’s just not enough to be good, clever and skilled. You must also be a good person to function optimally in these conditions. And that’s why hiring nice people (and not hiring difficult people) is a great idea.

Semco have gone a step further: Their hiring process normally takes months, maybe even a year or two. They want to be very sure that you’re going to like working there and that you and Semco are right for each other. They take huge pains to build a relationship before applicants are ever hired.

Rosenbluth International would agree:

CEO Hal Rosenbluth was once about to hire an executive with all the right skills, the right personality and the perfect CV. His interviews went swimmingly and he’d said all the right things, but something about him still made Rosenbluth nervous, though he couldn’t put his finger on just what it was.

Hal’s solution was simple: He invited the applicant to a company softball game, and here he showed his true colors. He was competitive to the point of being manic. He abused and yelled at both the opponents and his own team. He cursed the referees and kicked up dirt like a major league player.

And he did not get the job.

(From Hal Rosenbluth’s excellent book The Customer Comes Second).

It’s simple really: Let a nice, outgoing, happy personality count when hiring new people. Remember: Happy people are great learners which makes it much easier to teach them the skills they need to do a great job. Therefore it’s a better bet to hire people with great personalities and lesser skills than vice versa.

Fun office events

Fun also matters at work – though it’s crucial never to force fun on people who’re not in the mood for it. This will only give fun a bad name.

Still, there are about a million things you can do to make work more fun. Here are some examples.
Call center disco
Working in a call center may not be the most exciting job in the world, but one company did something to make the graveyard shift (the middle of the night) less boring: They put up a stereo, a mirror ball and some disco lights and at irregular intervals troughout the night the lights would dim, the disco lights came up and music played for a few minutes. That was a chance to get up from behind your desk and boogie.

Southwest Airlines make their parties less official or fance and much more fun. In a busy year they’re not above having their christmas party (with trees and a Santa) in July. It can be themed or not – the important thing is that it is a fun celebration of the people in the organization, not a stiff formal event.


The value of praise can not be exaggerated. Praise is such a simple thing to do and yet amazingly effective. There are many ways to praise people and the efficiency of “catch people doing something right and then praise them” has been proven again and again. It certainly makes people a lot happier at work than “catch wrongdoers and punish them” and it also allows people to learn faster.

The simplest way to praise people will always be in person. Make your praise:

  • Timely – Praise as soon as there’s a reason
  • Specific – Praise for something specific
  • Targeted – Target your praise to that person. Praise them for something that matters to them.

The elephant order of Kjaer Group and the elephant used in the H4 children’s ward are great examples of this.

Positive first

Here’s a simple rule to introduce at meetings and during the work-day: Take the positive first. Whenever somebody says something, suggests an idea or contributes their thoughts you have to respond with something positive first. This helps people remember that while they may disagree on 10% of an issue, they still agree on 90%.

2: Learn

It doesn’t matter how much you enjoy what you do today. If you do the same tasks in the same way for a long time, sooner or later you will stop enjoying it. Learning is also important, so employees have the right skills – not just to do their job adequately, but to actively shine!

Learning gives people a chance to grow and stretch their wings. Learning on company time shows that the company invests in its people

I’ve sometimes heard the objection that “If we train our people, a competitor will just snatch them away”. This amounts to saying that you’d prefer to only employ people so unskilled, that no competitor would want to hire them away. It makes more sense to train your people well, and to simultaneously make them so happy at work, that it becomes very difficult for other companies to lure them away. Here’s how some worldclass companies are doing it.

Train with the best employees

Rosenbluth International trained new employees by pairing each new hire with one of their best and most experienced employees for several days. Of course this gave their top employees less time to work and thus lowered productivity in the short run. But the upside more than made up for it, since new employees quickly learned not from manuals but from real experiences and felt included and supported from day one.

Learn english

Kjaer Group is a Danish company operating almost solely outside of Denmark and have consequently made english their corporate language. All emails and internal communication is in english. This is not a problem for most employees, as all Danes start learning english in school at a fairly early age. But one group ended up feeling left out: The car mechanics who work at the Danish headquarters, detailing cars before they’re shipped out. They haven’t received as much schooling as other Kjaer employees, and consequently missed much of what was going on.

The company could’ve said “well, they’re only mechanics, they don’t really need to know much about the rest of the organization as long as they can work on the cars” but that’s not how a happy company does things. Instead, the company hired a retired school teacher to come in once a week and spend two hours with the mechanics teaching them english. The result: The mechanics are now more involved in the organization and best of all, they feel appreciated and valued.

Swap jobs

At Southwest Airlines, employees regularly swap jobs. And no, the baggage handlers don’t get to fly the planes, but they may get to follow a pilot for a day, just to see what their job is like. And pilots get to be counter staff, executives try working as ground staff and flight attendants get to be executives.

In one case a baggage handler explained how he’d always enied the pilots. He was down on the tarmac in the sun and hot weather loading and unloading luggage and from where he was standing he could see the pilot sitting in the cockpit eating an ice cream. The lucky bastard! But after following a pilot at work, he gained a new understanding if the pilots. That pilot has probably been up since 4:30 in the morning and flying almost non-stop since then. He’s eating an ice cream because he doesn’t have time for a real lunch – the plane is taking off again in ten minutes.

It also works the other way – if a plane is late Southwest pilots often leave their cockpit to help the ground crew load or unload bags. That’s the attitude of mutual respect and assistance a company gets when different groups of employees have some insight into each others worlds. And that is why swapping jobs regularly is such a great idea.


As we sat there [on the JetBlue flight], buckling our seat belts and checking out the televisions in front of us, a middle-aged man with slightly graying hair stood up in the front of the plane. He had on the long apron that JetBlue flight attendants wear, with his name stitched into it. “Hi,?? he said, “my name is Dave Neeleman, and I’m the CEO of JetBlue. I’m here to serve you this evening, and I’m looking forward to meeting each of you before we land.??

Neeleman even has “snack-boy” embroidered on his apron – how great is that. This a great example of learning, in which an executive gets to learn what customers think, what employees think and how things really are in his company.

Pixar U

Most movie companies rely on contract labour and the vast majority of movie people, from grips and gaffers to high-paid actors, are in essence self-employed and are hired for one movie at a time. Pixar goes against this trend, by focusing on people.

Contracts allow you to be irresponsible as a company. You don’t need to worry about keeping people happy and fulfilled. What we have created here – an incredible workspace, opportunities to learn and grow, and, most of all, great co-workers – is better than any contract.

We’ve made the leap from an idea-centered business to a people-centered business. Instead of developing ideas, we develop people. Instead of investing in ideas, we invest in people. We’re trying to create a culture of learning, filled with lifelong learners. It’s no trick for talented people to be interesting, but it’s a gift to be interested. We want an organization filled with interested people.
– Randy S. Nelson, the dean of Pixar University.

Pixar strongly believes that happy people make better movies and that learning is a key component in making them happy. That’s why Pixar University allows all their employees to learn. About moviemaking, sure, but also pottery, improvisational theatre, sculpture, drawing and much more.

It doesn’t matter what they’re learning, as long as they’re learning, growing and developing. And having fun doing it. Which reminds me of this anecdote told to me by Canadian consultant Chris Corrigan:

When I worked for the federal government here [in Canada] I tried suggesting that all the training allowances be used like that. Spend your $700 (!) a year on woodworking, as long as it keeps you learning.

The reply was “The Queen does not pay for knitting classes.??

I left soon after!

The Queen does not pay for knitting classes – that’s classic. Well maybe if she did she wouldn’t have lost a valuable employee.

I myself have taken courses in painting, creative writing, improv theatre and singing and while none of this is directly relevant to the work I do, it all helps me to grow and develop. To feel that I’m constantly expanding my horizons. To be happy at work.

3: Be open

What is your company’s default approach to information? is it:

  1. Information is secret. We’ll tell people what they need to know.
  2. Information is open. Only a few things, those that absolutely need to be, are secret.

Most companies lie somewhere in between and a majority tend more towards secrecy which is a mistake happiness-at-work-wise. Sharing important information with people makes them feel trusted and valued and makes them happy. It also makes them more efficient and better able to make good decisions.

Openness also works the other way: Inside-out. Does your company allow people to be open? Can they say what they really think? Can they show how they really feel? Employees who can be themselves and are allowed to be open are much more likely to be happy at work. Conversely, having to always hide their real thoughts and emotions makes people unhappy at work.

Here’s how some great companies “do” openness.

Open todo-list

Motek makes warehouse management software and have implemented opennes in a very interesting way: They have an internal, company-wide to-do-list of all ongoing projects, to which all employees have access. This open sharing of information means that Motek’s employees can make more and better decisions because they can get the information they need, resulting in happier, more motivated people.

In addition, Motek’s customers and supplies also have access to the same list, and it regularly happens that a customer or supplier offers to help with an item on the todo-list.

Any Motek employee can take on any item on the todo-list and set a deadline for it. If the employee completes the task inside the deadline, he gets $100 towards his next vacation. If he does not complete the task, but says so and asks for help inside the deadline, he still gets the $100. This is a great way of stimulating the right behavior – meaning that it’s OK not to meet your deadlines, as long as you take responsiblity for this and ask for help.

Open salaries

One consultancy tried something interesting: They made all salaries public knowledge inside the company.

Open books

Semco want their employees to know as much as possible about the company so they publish their financial statements for all employees to read along with a guide to the numbers. This gives employees a deep insight into the company’s present situation.

The result: Employees make better, more responsible decisions because they know how those decisions affect the company’s health.

Invite dissent

4: Share decisions

A financial analyst once asked me if I was afraid of losing control of our organization. I told him I’ve never had control and I never wanted it. If you create an environment where the people truly participate, you don’t need control. They know what needs to be done, and they do it. And the more that people will devote themselves to your cause on a voluntary basis, a willing basis, the fewer hierarchs and control mechanisms you need.
– Herb Kelleher, ex-CEO of Southwest Airlines

The more decisions that can be made by employees themselves, the better. The department store chain Nordstrom’s famously give their employees only one rule to live by:

Rule #1: In all situations, use your good judgment.
There will be no additional rules.

Abolish the org chart

GEGeneral Electrics employs well over 100.000 people in a wide variety of industries. Their top performing production plant, the one in Durham in North Carolina, is organized according to this principle. Their organization consists of 1 CEO, 15 self-managing production teams and various support functions (IT, finance, HR, etc).

There are no vice-presidents, middle managers, controllers, etc., leaving the production teams themselves responsible for quality, training, production planning, maintenance and more. The employees have shown themselves to be more then capable of that challenge, and new GE production plants will be organized according to this model.

Let people plan their own work time

Who is better able to plan their time than the employees themselves? This approach has been working for a log of business.

At Motek, every employee has a designated backup available to provide cover while they’re out of the office. Employees can leave for the day or for a week whenever they want, the only requirement is to check with the backup to make sure he or she is around before the employee leaves.

Great Belt, who operate one of the world’s longest bridges have a staff group who operate the toll booths. Their shift planning can get quite complicated, because the need to staff a variable number of the booths depending on time of day, day of the week and holiday seasons. For a long time managers did the planning, resulting in many problems when employees started swapping shifts to accomodate their personal lives, when employees called in sick or when they went on vacations. The solution: Let the employees do the planning themselves. That way they can take all of that into account and the result has been:

  • Increased happiness at work
  • Much less time spent finding replacements at short notice
  • Lower absenteeism
  • Less money spent on overtime for employees called in on short notice

Semco lets each and every employee choose their own working hours. Some prefer to get in really early to avoid the hideous rush-hour traffic in Sao Paulo. Some are late risers and are more efficient if they get in shortly before lunch. Each employee gets to decide for herself. When they introduced this, some people worried what this would mean in their factories. A factory line can only operate when all the people are present. What f some decided to get in early and some late?

What happened was this: The people in the factory line looked at each other and went “Wanna start at 6.30?”. “Yeah, that sounds good”. Problem solved.

Finally, if you visit Patagonia’s headquarters in Southern California, very close to the beach, you may wonder why there are surf boards lined up in the hallways. Founder Yvon Chouinard explains why:

I’m a businessman, but I’m still going to do things on my own terms. I’m going to break a lot of rules, and we’re going to blur the distinction between work and play. So we have a policy here – it’s called “Let My People Go Surfing.?? A policy which is, when the surf comes up, anybody can just go surfing. Any time of the day, you just take off and go surfing… That attitude changes your whole life. If your life is set up so that you can drop anything when the surf comes up, it changes the whole way you do your life. And it has changed this whole company here.

Who is best set to decide an employee’s working time? The employee!

Firing people together

Schaefer Systems had a problem. They had a 120 employees but times were rough and they needed to get down to 100. Their dilemma: They were an employee-owned business, the employees having bought out the previous owner five years back. How do you decide who to fire in a democratic organization? You can’t possibly decide on this together, can you?

It turns out you can. The company started by having a discussion about what a good employee is. Then each employee got to decide who should be fired. Each employee could make a list of as few or as many co-workers who that person felt didn’t belong in the company. The 20 people who got the most votes were then let go.

This can sound like a barbaric process, but according to Victor Aspengren who was the company’s CEO at the time it was still the best thing to do. While having these discussion was certainly tough and a strain on people, it meant that everyone at the company had a say in the process and a deep insight into who got fired and why. The practical result was that the company was very quick to pick itself up and get back in gear after the layoffs.

This is of course an extreme model of employee participation and I include here to show that an organizations capacity for making decisions together, rather than have decisions mandated from the top, is much larger than most people think.

Lose the dress code

Think about it: Who is best placed to decide what attire is apropriate for any given employee on any given day? If your company has done an even half-way decent job of hiring responsible people, then the answer is clear: The employee him- or herself.

With a few exceptions where dresscodes are mandated for reasons of safety or hygiene, telling people what to wear at work is an insult to their own ability to decide for themselves. Drop the dress codes. No more casual fridays. Trust your people to choose for themselves.

Then do what ice cream manufcaturer Ben&Jerry’s did. The company was founded in the 70’s by two hippies, so they obviously have no formal, corporate dress code. Rather than “casual fridays?? they sponsor “clash dressing day?? where employees put on their worst matching outfits. One time they even did a “corporate day??, where everybody came to work in suits, ties, dresses, etc… and loved it. Employees have been begging for a repeat of that event. (Source: Managing to have fun by Matt Weinstein).

St. Lukes

Open meetings

Have you ever been trapped in a two-hour meeting where you learned nothing new and had nothing really to contribute? That doesn’t happen at Semco where they have what I think may be the single most brilliant and effective policy to share decisions in a company. This is it: All meetings are voluntary and all meetings are open to anyone who wants to participate. Yes, this includes board meetings.

Meetings are announced on the company intranet, and people can participate in as much or as little of each meeting as they want. Here’s how it works according to themselves:

You go to the system and you advertise [the meeting]. Then on a given day – say, Wednesday at 4 o’clock, meeting room 11 – you say we’re going to discuss this, whoever’s interested.

Because of the fundamental tenet that we don’t want anyone involved in anything that they really don’t want to do, all of our meetings are on a voluntary basis, meaning that the meetings are known, and then whoever is interested can and will show up, and should also leave the moment they become uninterested.

It is a bit unnerving to watch these things, because people come in, plunk their things down, and then 15 minutes later somebody else says “Bye bye, see you.?? But the fact is that whoever is left there has a stake in the decision being made, and the decision is final in the sense that it’s going to be implemented after the meeting.


5: Think and act long-term

It’s difficult to be happy at work when you know that the work you do is not sustainable. When you do lasting work however, when you know that the work you do is not only good today, it will be good 5 and 10 and 50 years from today you can be proud of it.

That is why companies that can think and act long-term are much more likely to make their employees happy. Imagine building a house and doing it so badly that you know that house is coming down inside the next 10 years. That makes it hard to be happy and take pride in your work. But imagine building that house just right, using good materials, having the right skills and resources at your disposal, and therefore knowing that that house could easily still be standing 500 years from now. That can make people happy at work.

Many publicly held companies today, face huge pressure to “make the numbers” and meet the budget every single quarter. The stock market is very quick to punish even small negative deviations from a company’s stated goals. This means that executives are forced to focus mostly on decisions that pay off this quarter, rather than decisions that pay off years from now.

Several companies are bucking this trend, and are de-listing from the stock exchange, buying back their own stock so they regain their freedom to plan for a wider horizon.

The fact is that companies with a quarter-to-quarter outlook have a very difficult time making their employees happy because:

  • The next round of layoffs may be no further away than the next disappointing quarter
  • It can be difficult to justify to investors that the company wants to spend significant resources on making employees happy
  • Short-term business planning makes no sense and employees will pick up on this and wonder why the company is being run so shoddily

Google to investors: Treat our people right or go away

When Google announced their IPO founders Sergey Brinn and Larry Page made it very clear that they would continue to run the company their way. They promised to go on treating their employees extremely well and making long-term decisions rather than living from quarter to quarter.

If investors didn’t care for that, they were kindly requested to take their money elsewhere. As we all know, investors flocked to buy the stock anyway and Google is doing great, in large part by making their employees happy.

20% innovation at 3M

3M famously encourages employees to spend 20% of their working time tinkering on projects they choose for themselves. This may not pay off here and now, and most if the projects never will at al, but in the long run it leads to happier employees who get to spend time on projects that interest them and maybe to 3M’s next big hit product.

Fire bad customers

One danish company, IT service provider ServiceGruppen, even puts their employees above their customers. In one case, an employee was treated badly and insulted by a customer, following which management promptly terminated the contract with that customer.

Applying these six practices in your organization will lead to a happier workplace, and to the resulting benefits mentioned earlier. Not to mention the fact that you and others will be able to enjoy work more. Not bad, huh?

This is also why Hal Rosenbluth, the CEO of Rosenbluth Internation, called one of his books “Put The Customer Second – Put Your Employees First And Watch’em Kick Butt”.

6: Care

Companies that care about their people are much more likely to make them happy at work. Also, companies want their employees to care about the company and it’s goals, but when people don’t feel that the company cares about them, then why should they care about the company?

Commitment has to go both ways or it’s not viable in the long run.

The old saw that “The busines of business is business”, ie. that businesses should focus exclusively on doing business, sadly lacks one fundamental understanding: Caring for more than just your business is good for business! And doing good feels good.

Caring about others comes naturally to people. Empathy is a genetic trait in humans and means that we can’t really be happy if others around us are unhappy. Therefore, a company that cares about it’s people, it’s community, it’s customers and people elsewhere is much more likely to be a happy workplace.

Care for the world

Great Harvest are a freedom-based bakery franchise who state their goals as “Be loose and have fun, Bake phenomenal bread, Run fast to help customers, Create strong, exciting bakeries and give generously to others”. They tell this story on their website:

When the devastating tsunami struck Southeast Asia in December of 2004, Great Harvest Bread Co. owners Dee and Bernie O’Connor (Lansing, Michigan) decided they needed to do something to help. In less than one week, the O’Connors organized a benefit to aid the survivors of the tsunami, enlisting the help of their crew, their community, and neighbor Drew Kloven, owner of the downtown Lansing Great Harvest Bread Co.

They didn’t know what to expect. While word of their fundraiser had spread and the holiday spirit was still strong, the weather was unpredictable and people’s pocketbooks drained from the holidays. So when six inches of heavy snow fell on the morning of their event, the O’Connors worried no one would show up.

But at 5:30 a.m. that morning, a stranger pulled into the little shopping strip where the bakery is located. In an act of generosity that would set the tone for the day, he plowed the area in front of Great Harvest, just in time for their 6 a.m. opening. Customers poured in and by the end of the day, the two Lansing bakeries ended up raising more than $5,500. Every penny that went into the registers that day—whether for bread, cookies, or coffee—went directly to tsunami relief efforts. “We’re just a small company,” says Dee, “but it sure makes us feel good knowing we can make a difference in other people’s lives.”

The O’Connors credit their crew, who worked for free all day, and their customers for the tremendous show of support. “There was a great camaraderie and sense of significance over this event,” says Bernie. “We couldn’t have done it without them.”

The company could probably just as well have donated the same amount to the tsunami victims, but the approach they chose lets their employees and the local community join in helping and lets everybody make a positive difference.

1 percent for the planet
Patagonia make outdoor wear and have committed themselves to longterm thinking. As an example, in 1996 they converted to using only organically grown cotton, out of concern for the huge amount of chemicals used in traditional cotton production. Organic cotton was then much more expensive and in very short supply, so on the surface this decision had the potential to hurt business. In order to make it work, Patagonia even had to support existing organic cotton farmers financially.

In addition, Patagonia has founded 1 Percent for the Planet, an organization of businesses who donate at least 1% of net sales to environmental organizations. This helps make employees proud of their workplace.

Clean carpets

Making carpets can be a dirty businesss, using lots of water and other resources, including toxic dyes. In the excellent documentary “The Corporation” the CEO of Interface, the world’s largest carpet manufacturer, Ray Anderson explains how he came to the realization that his company could not continue to exploit natural resources:

One day early in this journey it dawned on me that they way I’d been running Interface is the way of the plunderer. Plundering something that is not mine, something that belongs to every creature on earth.

And I said to myself “My goodness, a day must come where this is illegal, where plundering is not allowed. I mean, it must come.??

So I said to myself “My goodness, some day people like me will end up in jail.??

Interface designed and manufactured a new kind of carpet that was environmentally friendly, and while the design and production of this new product was more expensive than their regularly line, it instantly became a bestseller and has made the company a fortune.

This is in fact a pattern often found: A company decides to “go clean” and bear the increased cost inherent in this only to find that the new clean products make them more money than the old polluting ones. Which only goes to show that environmental thinking does not need to hurt the bottom line. Done correctly, it can lead the company to higher profits.

11 thoughts on “The six practices of happy, succesful workplaces”

  1. First thing that strikes me (minor nit-picking alert!!!) is your list of four bullet points. Do you really need this one – “Fun – so they make people happy” – in a chapter (and a book) pretty much devoted to making people happy?

    Oh, and the first section on being positive – I can see what you’re trying to say, but are you being too verbose? Perhaps just something along the lines of “be cut-throat and competetive if you wish, but being encouraging, positive and making your employees happy can also bring business advantages.” Maybe not that brief, but the paragraphs after the opening anecdote jarred a bit for me.

  2. I thoroughly enjoy reading your blog and can’t wait to see more. It is very inspiring and it has helped me a lot in making my final decision about my unhappy job.

    I was earning close to 100k$ as a software developer/project manager/architect (whatever title fit their mood for the day) but was profoundly unhappy. I resigned one month ago and I am now planning a 1 year trip around Europe with my girlfriend and our 2 kids. After that I plan to settle back home in Montreal, but live a *very* different life centered around happiness and not salary or standing.

    I particularly enjoyed your article on the advantages of low-rent living – that’s exactly the times when we were the happiest. The big salary, house and luxury car only make me feel trapped and do not help toward my happiness! Of course, making this decision is very destabilizing, but I can feel I am on the right track.

    Thanks again.

  3. I really like the Share Decisions and Be Open mantras. I think those are the ones that have made me the happiest in the past. At companies where decisions are made behind closed doors, not only are the decisions often terrible because they don’t take into account the realities that the employees face, but they also make employees feel like they are contract laborers, not trusted to be involved in what’s happening to the company. It’s like the employees can be trusted to do their jobs, but not trusted with any other information. And that’s insulting. At least to me.

  4. Alex: I so appreciate your information here! When I work with companies, they are always asking for examples of companies and organizations that “do it right.” You give plenty here and I’m grateful! I love your stories and the simple way in which you tell them. I’m reminded of the old adage “They’ll never care how much you know until they know how much you care.” Through your stories and categories, it’s evident that organizations that are led by people who know who they are – not necessarily what they do – are much more likely to have workers who are happy. I think it really does start at the top, and leaders who are authentic and courageous have the best opportunity to allow others on their teams to be the same and that’s where the magic happens.

    I’m also reminded of a conversation I once had with an associate who we both determined worked at what we considered to be a “love-based” workplace. She was new to the job and I asked her what it was like to work at a place where the employees were valued and basically “loved” and she said it was really tough (not the answer I expected). She said at her previous job – a place we determined together to be more “fear-based” than “love-based,” she said she knew what to expect. She did her job “or else” … she knew the consequences of not producing and did her best to do what she was told. At this new job they expected and encouraged her to be creative, to bring her best self – and her whole self – to work. Her previous conditioning at the old job had taught her to be careful, not to try anything untested and certainly not to fail, and here they encouraged that. She was bringing her old fears and her old baggage to the new situation and, in conversations with other newbies at her job, they were afraid it was too good to be true. When would the other shoe drop?

    So when indoctinating seasoned employees into a new, love-based environment – or when creating a huge culture shift from fear to love (or from unhappy to happy) at a workplace, it’s crucial to remember that people have baggage.

    I think one of the main goals of every worker – really every human – is to be happy. But sometimes it’s the pursuit of this happiness that can lead to unhappiness. Be happy where you are with what you have now – work to be grateful for whatever is in your life right now and you’ll start attracting more of that feeling into your life ( is a great documentary that shows the science behind attracting things into your life!).

    OK, I’ve gone on long enough. Thank you again … can’t wait to see the book!

    Speaking of books, you’ll have mine in a couple of weeks, so watch your mail!!

  5. Hi Alex,
    Some feedback, comments and suggestions:

    Overall, I’ve really been enjoying the chapters posted. They’ve been a real boost to my mood at work and my attitude towards my job.

    In the interests of helping you bring this book to publication and providing you with the requested general critique, I thought I’d make some more precise points below:

    You appear to have used the “South West Airline” anecdote about the plane doing a 360 twice.
    You mention Semco many times – and I can tell you are a big fan of Semler, but basing your arguments on one example weakens the power of your argument. You’ll get people mentally thinking this kind of philosophy only works for Semco.
    Systematically examining and refuting some of the arguments against a happy workplace in one chapter would give readers a place to start from when arguing for changes to make a happier workplace. they will face opposition.
    Many of your points are made from an employer/owner perspective. I agree that the most effective change starts from the top, but could you include a few employee tips, to help us cogs in the machine to make our jobs a happier place to be? This also broadens your potential audience.
    I’m really enjoying the anecdotes regarding happier workplaces, and I’d love to read more.
    I think you make this point obliquely, but I think it should be brought out to the fore : employees generally know their job inside out – they’re experts at it. A happier, more communicative workplace lets you use your pool of expert employees to grow and improve business without getting consultants in because your workers can implement or at the least suggest effective changes. Employees are more likely to support a change they suggested. And you get to skip the managerial decisions that come down from on high with no real understanding of the ‘frontline’ processes.

    Hope some of this helps.

  6. Hi
    I am quite excited happy about your site and your writings – I have designated nyself as Hppiness consultant—-

    I found in the middle of all busy work do the following
    Just get out of formal set up walk into street grab a bite or nuts to munch just keep walkinvg
    Hop into movie- eat snakcs – jous gwet inot some unknown
    Look at some children stuff – fun games fun children

    all this once once a fortnight

    good writings great makings and happy landiings


  7. Amy: Thanks you SOOOOO much for your feedback. Constructive, detailed criticism like yours is extremely valuable to me. Thank you!

    Sudhaker: Great tips, thank you! A happiness consultant – eeeexcellent!

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