Want happier employees? A big new study by four economics professors has some surprising findings on how to make it happen. And, it becomes clear pretty quickly as you read through the results that happier employees are likely to be more loyal employees. 

This isn't a small, "improve happiness by 5 percent" finding. In fact, the employees who reported better life satisfaction displayed a similar increase in reported happiness to what they would have if they'd doubled their household income, according to the study.

Here's the study, the overall finding on how to improve employees' happiness and loyalty, along with some practical strategies for making it happen.

Two questions, 38,000 workers

Writing for the National Bureau of Economic Research in Cambridge, Massachusetts, four economics professors--three from Canada and one from South Korea-- analyzed the responses of 38,000 workers to the Gallup-Healthways Daily Poll, which is a daily survey of hundreds of adults on many different topics.

Among the questions in the daily poll are two that are relevant here: one has to do with people's general overall life satisfaction, and another has to do with their relationships with their supervisor at work.

By combining the answers that thousands of people gave to both of those questions, and correlating them with millions of other data points (responses) that allowed them to control for respondents' personalities and even the days of the week on which they answered the questions, the researchers came up with a surprising but compelling conclusion.

Across the board, people who said they felt like their relationship with their work supervisor was more like that of partners, as opposed to one in which they felt like their supervisor was more of a traditional boss, were likely to report much greater life satisfaction. 

Prime working years

The findings go deeper. Researchers found that the effect was greatest when employees were in their 40s and early 50s. That's intriguing for two reasons. 

First, for most people, if you chart their life satisfaction, you'll see it forms a rough "U" shape.

They have relatively high life satisfaction up until their 20s and 30s, and then it drops during middle age as they are likely to be dealing with competing demands between work and family. Then, it rises again as children grow up and they can start to see a future beyond work.

That means that for middle-aged workers, the benefit of the partner boss relationship came right when they needed it most.

Second, workers are largely at the apex of their productivity and expertise at right around this stage. That means they can benefit most from this "boss as partner" paradigm right at the point when they have the most to offer at work. 

Prime loyalty

Another compelling finding within this part of the report: Fully two-thirds of workers reported that they had a good situation, in that they said they worked for partners, rather than bosses

Now, one explanation might just be that two-thirds of bosses already follow this "partner" paradigm.

But another explanation makes more sense. It's that workers gravitated toward the work situations and bosses that had the most positive effect on their overall life satisfaction.

Put differently, if they had partner bosses, they stayed. But if they had boss bosses, they didn't just suffer in silence.

Instead, they tried to move on. And by and large, you can imagine that it was the most successful and useful employees who found it easiest to find new homes.

Partner strategies

The paper, by economists John F. Helliwell and Max B. Norton of the University of British Columbia, Haifang Huang of the University of Alberta, and Shun Wang of KDI School of Public Policy and Management in Korea, doesn't offer prescriptions.

But, it's fairly easy to determine whether a boss is likely to be perceived as a partner or a traditional boss.

Of course, employee satisfaction isn't the only goal at a company. The trick here is to act authentically in such a way that drives home appreciation for employees' contributions, while also communicating that their satisfaction is at least one thing that bosses are striving for.

Here are 7 of the key areas in which people who lead employees can demonstrate this. Partner bosses who are also effective leaders are more likely to:

1. Share their vision, and ensure that workers understand how their daily work fits into an overall plan. This also means celebrating wins.

2. Respect other people's time. For starters, no needless meetings without agendas.

3. Set priorities and make decisions. Because if everything is a priority, nothing is.

4. Share information liberally. Yes, there are times when a boss has to keep confidences. But the bias should be toward sharing.

5. Demonstrate empathy. This includes offering sincere thanks.

6. Accept blame and sharing credit.

7. Model ethical behavior. Clearly.

Published on: Oct 26, 2018
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