Nicole Skibola | November 4, 2010

According to a recent survey of 1,500 chief executives conducted by IBM’s Institute for Business Value, CEOs identify “creativity” as the most important leadership competency for the successful enterprise of the future. The link may initially not be intuitive, but spawning creativity in the workforce comes back to corporate social responsibility. While corporate responsibility is often used in reference to the organization’s interaction with outside communities, it also touches upon how members of the organization are actually treated and valued. How they are treated determines both self-perception and performance within the workplace and is correlated with life happiness in general.

Writers, business leaders and psychologists have long hypothesized about the link between work environments and creativity, and the challenges in harnessing natural human creativity to optimize performance. One scientist, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, explains the optimal state of mind, when creativity is at its highest, as “flow.” Flow is when our minds and bodies are stretched to their limits in a voluntary effort to accomplish something worthwhile and difficult.

The link between happiness and creative “flow” is explained in a Scientific American article that chronicles the results of a study published byProceedings of the National Academy of Sciences USA. The study found that “With positive mood, you actually get more access to things you would normally ignore… Instead of looking through a porthole, you have a landscape or panoramic view of the world.” In other words, the results suggest that happiness makes people more receptive to information of all kinds, and therefore results in greater creative thought processes. (Note: it can also lead to greater distraction, so read the article).

Studies show that positive employees outperform negative employees in terms of productivity, sales, energy levels, turnover rates and healthcare costs. According to Shawn Achor, Harvard researcher and author of “The Happiness Advantage,” optimistic sales people outperform their pessimistic counterparts by up to 37%. People who expressed more positive emotions while negotiating business deals did so more effectively and successfully than those who were more neutral or negative. In fact, the benefits can be seen across industries and job functions. Doctors with a positive mindset are 50% more accurate when making diagnoses than those that are negative.

The same patterns emerge for businesses that have adopted the happiness principles espoused by Achor. Think of Google, Adobe, American Express, and you think of great places to work. You also think of companies that are extremely successful and creative. Not only do these companies understand the importance of social responsibility in the outside world (they are industry leaders), but they embrace it in the context of employee relations – i.e., creating work environments that maximize human potential and happiness.

It is also worth noting that creativity, happiness and performance enable a positive feedback loop. Achor calls this idea the “Pygmalion Effect,” meaning that people act how we expect them to act. Expect them to succeed, encourage and praise them accordingly, and studies show that they will. Similarly, provide them with a creative, “happy” environment, and people will find greater meaning in their jobs (regardless of what the job is – Achor notes that studies find the same results across professions, whether one is a janitor or a CEO). Positive outcomes then reinforce one another – as workers become happier, creativity thrives, performance improves, and so on. As Achor quotes John Milton’s Paradise Lost at the beginning of his book, “The Mind is its own place, and in itself can make a heaven of hell, as hell of heaven,” so can managerial attitudes and overt messages of positivity and happiness do the same. Isn’t it time businesses put the same amount of energy in fostering happiness in their work places as building community and public relations? Achor and his team of researchers certainly would, and I would agree.

Watch this fabulous Chip Conley (CEO of Joie de Vivre hotels) TED talk on employee happiness.


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