11. Feb, 2018

Is happiness the new workplace performance indicator?


by Neil Senturia

When people ask me “how are you doing?” my standard response is “I’m happy.” Now let’s be really clear here – I am not always happy. As a matter of fact, I am usually in a modified “Larry David” mode, but I say I’m happy. It is a structured response designed to do two things – put the other person at ease and maybe to fool myself into thinking I actually am happy.


And now comes proof that maybe you can “monetize happiness,” courtesy of Professor Ethan Bernstein, Harvard Business School. Bernstein has some interesting statistics. According to the annual United Nations World Happiness Report, Norway is the happiest place on the planet. (So, it is nice that Trump would like them to come to America, but why would they leave Norway where they’re happy?)


There is actually a World Happiness Day, March 20. Bernstein says, “happiness is the new key performance indicator and perhaps, the next big idea in business.” He did his case study at Hitachi, where he focused on workplace transparency, productivity, leadership and organization.


The protagonist in the case is Dr. Kazuo Yano, chief corporate scientist. He studies the “physics of someone being happy.” Yano thinks you can measure happiness and if you can increase it, your company will do better. Hitachi actually has a “happiness unit,” with the goal being to quantify happiness and then to try to improve it.



But the key to the puzzle is fascinating because people don’t always tell the truth (me, being case in point), but if you could take all the “analog interactions (like facial cues, voice, body motion) and make them digital and then run it through an algorithm, then Yano posits that perhaps you could “sense happiness in a more physics oriented way.”


In layman’s terms, if you can know and measure what people are doing when they really are happy, then perhaps you could provide more of those activities that prompt happiness, essentially creating a self-fulfilling prophecy loop. This field of study is called “people analytics.”


I am not a big fan of happiness as the main goal and end result of living. It is nice as an idea, but imagine a world where there were only smiles. Yikes. But if we take the idea of happiness and apply it to “people-related decision making,” then as we quantify behaviors, we could give people “nudges and some coaching” to improve their business outcomes.


Companies have used people analytics in their hiring, diversity inclusion, performance management and succession planning etc., but with the advent of “big data,” that decision making process becomes more scientific, with a higher chance of success. But the underlying data needs to come from a person with a wearable device. So, the problem is to get your employees to wear the device, (privacy issue), not only to track their happiness (or steps or blood pressure), but also to encourage the employee to act in his own best self-interest .


Now let’s get real. Beethoven was miserable, so was Vincent Willem Van Gogh and Jackson Pollock. So the question is does happiness help creativity? We all know the image of the “brooding scientist” or the “mad genius in the basement” or the “tortured soul.” The next piece of the puzzle is this -- I don’t mind being miserable, but I don’t want to inflict my misery on others. In other words, one of the things that makes me personally happy is making other people happy -- but not necessarily myself.


Next up – millennials. How do they think about happiness and how important is that component in attracting the talent? Is it foosball and free lunches or is it something else, more like relevance and connection to the purpose? In the final analysis is happiness really a worthwhile goal. If you consider certain coaches (Belichick and Saban come to mind), I do not think they are preaching happiness over defense.


I like the Bernstein report and I believe there is something to it. I do believe you can influence people and improve their lives and in that way, increase their happiness. But I grew up in the Midwest and I remember well my father’s words, “If the snow is not above your knees, then you can walk to school – like always.”

So as you can see, happiness is not necessarily overrated – it is just that now it is being rated.


Neil Senturia, a serial entrepreneur who invests in early-stage technology companies, writes weekly about entrepreneurship in San Diego. Please email ideas to Neil at neil@blackbirdv.com.