Are happy workers more productive? My debate with Jan Kristensen.

Last week I had a debate on whether happiness at work increases productivity or not against Jan Kristensen who is Lean Director at Novo Nordisk.

It was a lively and at times contentious debate in front of an engaged audience and we filmed the whole thing and have put it online. There are three videos: My initial presentation (above), Jan’s presentation and then a discussion.

I applaud Jan for his willingness to do this debate and I admire his clearly heartfelt dedication to creating more efficient and productive workplaces.

You can download our slides here and see pictures from the event here.

In my (admittedly biased) opinion, after having read Jan’s phd thesis and done the debate, it’s clear that there is ample evidence that happiness makes us more productive in the workplace and very little evidence against this.

As best I can tell, Jan offered 3 specific arguments for his assertion that happy workers are no more productive than unhappy ones.

1: 14 original studies
Jan claims there are 14 original studies, which everyone in this field cites as proof that happy workers are more productive but that those 14 studies in fact show the exact opposite.

He only mentions one of those 14 studies (hawthorne) so it’s hard to evaluate his claim. But let’s say we grant him this. It still doesn’t support his position. Even if every single one of those 14 studies could be invalidated, it would not serve at all to disprove all the studies that have come since them. I quote several of those studies in my presentation.

2: Low correlation
Jan states that the best correlation found in meta-studies shows a correlation between happiness and productivity of 0.25, which is too low for his liking.

But a low correlation is still a correlation, so at the very least we can say that happiness and productivity are connected. And as I showed in my presentation, there are also studies showing causation, i.e. showing that happiness causes productivity.

3: Difficult to implement
Jan’s final argument is that he and his HR colleagues have tried to implement happiness in Novo and that it has failed every time.

The logical flaw in this argument is clear: People’s ability or inability to implement it has no bearing on whether or not the theory is true.

As best I can tell, Jan offers no further arguments in support of his position.

Your take

What’s your take on this – are happy people more productive? Are happy workplaces more profitable? What evidence have you seen that supports your position? Please write a comment, I’d love to know your take.

4 thoughts on “Are happy workers more productive? My debate with Jan Kristensen.”

  1. It is a great way to show both sides. It takes courage to debate in the open and allow critics to your point of view – Kudos Alex!
    I personally think that the truth is in the middle.
    Without strong emphasis on the human factor, Lean process can become “Lean and Mean” and have human casualties along the way, losing top talent. On the other-hand, happiness at work can be empty and disconnected from productivity without dealing with the inherent problems that block the productivity.

    The solution is to take the best of both worlds and make it “Lean and Meaningful”

  2. Great talk Alex – really enjoyed how you highlighted some studies, both laboratory and real workplace placed, which clearly provide evidence to your argument.
    Good counter points to Jan’s arguments – especially for nr 3. Many companies fall into a trap with this, yet a simple answer could be that they simply don’t have the right tools/environment/people in place to create happiness in the workplace.

    Also loved the quote on we go to work to work but when we’re happy, we do better work. I’ll definitely be quoting you on my blog & with some organisational clients here in the UK – brilliant!

    Keep up the good work! :)

  3. In my experience there is a direct correlation between happiness at work and productivity. Think places like Google and start ups where people are offered incentives at work like yoga, free refreshments, and other goodies. Even if employees opt not to participate, knowing your org cares enough to even offer means a lot.

    It’s true even on jobs I’ve had. No matter how much I liked the work itself, it was the org that made the experience great or awful.

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