Never ask employees what would make them happy. Here’s why.

Most managers have realized by now that happy workplaces are more productive, more creative, attract better talent and make more money.

So if you were a well-meaning manager or HR person looking to capitalize on this and create a happier workplace, you might be tempted to start by asking your employees some version of this question:

“What would make you happier at work?”

It seems like a great place to start. To make people happier, ask them what they want and them give them that. Right?

Wrong.

Here’s why: We know from the research that people are notoriously bad at predicting what will make them happy.

Stop random people on the street and ask them what would make their lives happier and a lot of them will reply “Winning the lottery.” But studies of lottery winners show that they are actually only marginally happier than all of us non-lottery millionaires.

Similarly if you ask employees what will make them happier at work you will most likely get responses like:

  • A raise
  • A promotion
  • A bonus
  • A gym in the office
  • Free fruit
  • Free lunches

But while all of this sounds perfectly reasonable (indeed, you might give some of the same answers if asked the same question), we know from the research that these factors don’t make employees any happier at work. Just to be clear: We cannot ignore them when making workplaces better, because these factors can absolutely make people unhappy when they’re unfair. But once they are fair, increasing them further does not increase happiness at all.

This explains why many organizations spend a ton of time and money on every perk imaginable and employees are still not happy.

Quite simply: giving employees what they ask for is doomed to fail, if they don’t know what to ask for. And they don’t.

What we need to do instead, is help people discover for themselves what really makes them happy at work and there’s a much better question for that:

Tell me about a recent good experience at work that made you happy.

This may look like essentially the same question as the one above so why is this one better? With the previous question (What would make you happy at work) we only get at the things people think will make them happy.

With the latter question, we ask about specific previous experiences that caused happiness. This means that we get directly at what really works.

I have used this question in hundreds of speeches all over the world and never once has anyone told a story of getting a raise, a promotion or a perk. Never once has anyone said “I was really happy last Thursday because I got a free apple.”

The one exception was when I did a workshop at Lego and an employee shared this example:

Every week our team gets a new box of fruit and there’s always only one banana in it. If I get there in time to get that one banana, it makes me really happy!

I’m 98% sure he was kidding!

Invariably, when people reflect on this question their stories fall into two categories.

They either talk about doing good work, achieving great results or making a positive difference for others. This includes things like:

I had a complicated problem on a project and found a really creative solution for it.

A customer liked my work so much they sent me an email with tons of positive feedback.

I helped a coworker by sharing advice and knowledge.

Or they talk about moments of personal connection at work, like:

I came back to the office from parental leave last week and so many people on my team welcomed me back with smiles and hugs.

I had a bad day and my manager noticed and did her best to help me.

We celebrated a team member’s birthday last week with cake and coffee and had a great time together.

Very often their stories contain both elements. That’s why we talk about results and relationships being the two main sources of happiness at work.

The upshot

Don’t ask your employees what will make them happy – because they probably have completely the wrong idea and giving them what they ask for won’t work. Instead, help them connect to past positive experiences because those are a much more reliable predictor of future happiness. And then work on doing simple daily actions that promote a feeling of results and relationships.

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5 reasons why Danish workers are the happiest in the world

You will often see Denmark listed as one of the “happiest countries on the planet.” Interestingly Danes are not only happy at home, they’re also happy at work and according to most studies of worker satisfaction among nations, the happiest employees in the world are in Denmark.

Here’s just one data point: Gallup found that 18% of American workers are actively disengaged, meaning they are “emotionally disconnected from their workplaces and less likely to be productive.” The same number for Danish workers is only 10%.

But why are Danish workers so much happier than their counterparts around the world? Here are five fundamental differences that explain what’s going on.

1: REASONABLE WORKING HOURS

I once talked to an American who had gotten a job as a manager at a Danish company. Wanting to prove his worth, he did what he had always done and put in 60 to 70 hours a week. After a month, his manager invited him to a meeting. He was fully expecting to be praised for his hard work, but instead he was asked “Why do you work so much? Is something wrong? Do you have a problem delegating? What can we do to fix this?”

Some non-Danes wonder if Danes ever work. Not only do Danes tend to leave work at a reasonable hour most days, but they also get five to six weeks of vacation per year, several national holidays and up to a year of paid maternity/paternity leave. While the average American works 1,780 hours and the average South Korean 2,024 hours per year, the average Dane only works 1,408, according to Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) statistics. Danes also have more leisure hours than any other OECD workers and the link between sufficient leisure and happiness is well established in the research.

The difference to other countries is stark. Many companies around the world celebrate overwork as a sign of commitment. “You have to put in the hours” is the message in the mistaken belief that the more hours you work, the more work you get done. We call this “The Cult of Overwork.” Danish companies, on the other hand, recognize that employees also have a life outside of work and that working 80 hours a week is bad for both employees and the bottom line.

2: LOW POWER DISTANCE

In many countries, if your boss gives you an order, you pretty much do what you’re told. In a Danish workplace, extremely few direct orders are ever given and employees are more likely to view them as suggestions.

Dutch sociologist Geert Hofstede has quantified the culture in more than 100 countries on several parameters, one of which is “power distance.” A high power distance means that bosses are undisputed kings whose every word is law. Danish workplaces–with a score of 18-have the lowest power distance in the world. Just for comparison,  Belgium has a power distance of 65, China clocks in at 80 and Malaysia holds the world record at 100.

By law, any Danish workplace with more than 35 employees must open up seats on the board for employees. This means that Danish employees experience more autonomy and are more empowered at work. Here’s just one example: By law, any Danish workplace with more than 35 employees must open up seats on the board for employees, who are elected to the board by their peers and serve on an equal footing and with same voting powers as all other board members.

3: GENEROUS UNEMPLOYMENT BENEFITS

In Denmark, losing your job is not the end of the world. In fact, unemployment insurance seems too good to be true, giving workers up to 90% of their original salary for two years. In the U.S., for instance, losing your job can easily lead to financial disaster and loss of health insurance. This leads to job lock i.e. staying in a job you hate because you can’t afford to leave.

Simply put: If you’re a Dane and you don’t like your job, you can quit that job without risking serious financial problems, forcing companies to treat their employees well or risk losing them.

4: CONSTANT TRAINING AND DEVELOPMENT

Since the mid-1800s, Denmark has focused on life-long education of its workers. This policy continues to this day, with an extremely elaborate set of government, union, and corporate policies that allow almost any employee who so desires to attend paid training and pick up new skills. It’s called an “active labor market policy,” and Denmark spends more on these types of programs than any other country in the OECD.

This lets Danish workers constantly grow and develop and helps them stay relevant (not to mention stay employed) even in a changing work environment. It also makes their jobs richer and more interesting.

5: A FOCUS ON HAPPINESS

Here’s a word that exists only in the Scandinavian languages: Arbejdsglæde. Arbejde means work and glæde means happiness, so arbejdsglæde is “happiness at work.” This word is not in common use in any other language on the planet.

Many people around the world hate their jobs and consider this to be perfectly normal.

For instance, where we Scandinavians have arbejdsglæde, the Japanese instead have karoshi, which means “Death from overwork.” And this is no coincidence; there is a word for it in Danish because Danish workplaces have a long-standing tradition of wanting to make their employees happy. To most Danes, a job isn’t just a way to get paid; we fully expect to enjoy ourselves at work.

In other countries, the attitude towards work is often very different. A few years ago I gave a speech in Chicago, and an audience member told me that “Of course I hate my job, that’s why they pay me to do it!” Many people around the world hate their jobs and consider this to be perfectly normal. Similarly, many workplaces around the world do little or nothing to create happiness among employees, sticking to the philosophy that “If you’re enjoying yourself, you’re not working hard enough.”

THE UPSHOT

I’m not trying to paint Danish companies as utopias for workers and their international counterparts as tyrannical hellholes. There are bad Danish workplaces and stellar non-Danish ones–Zappos and Google are two that I’ve personally visited and studied.

But studies have uncovered a number of systemic and cultural differences between Denmark and the rest of the world that serve to explain why Danish workers are on average so much happier.

This goes far beyond happiness. We know from any number of studies that happy workers are more productive and innovative and that consequently, happy companies have happier customers and make more money. This may help explain why Danish workers are among the most productive in the OECD and why the Danish economy continues to do so well.

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10 steps to build a strategy for happiness

If you want to build a happy workplace, you have to take happiness seriously – paradoxical as that may sound. You must make sure to include happiness in every aspect of the company.

In this presentation from our latest Conference on Happiness At Work, I share 10 ways that some of the world’s best and most successful workplaces have built happiness into their DNA by making it one of their top strategic priorities, including things like:

  • Hire for happiness
  • Appoint a CHO (Chief Happiness Officer)
  • Plan for happiness
  • Measure and promote happiness – not satisfaction
  • Promote and train managers for happiness

Our next  conference is in May in Copenhagen. See the full program and get your tickets here.

51 COUNTRIES!!!

My awesome coworker Arlette Bentzen is speaking at a conference in Azerbaijan’s capital city Baku today. This is the 51st country we’ve worked in.  It’s great to see, that happiness at work is gaining traction all over the world.

Here are all the countries we’ve worked in so far:

Antigua, Australia, Azerbaijan, Bahamas, Belgium, Bulgaria, Canada, Chile, China, Croatia, Curacao, Czech Republic, Denmark, Dominican Republic, Estonia, Finland, France, Germany, Greenland, Guatemala. Hungary, Iceland, India, Ireland, Israel, Italy, Japan, Kuwait, Lebanon, Luxembourg, Netherlands, Norway, Poland, Portugal, Romania, Russia, Serbia, Slovakia, Slovenia, South Africa, Spain, Sri Lanka, Suriname, Sweden, Switzerland, Turkey, Ukraine, United Arab Emirates, United Kingdom, USA, Vietnam