You want your people to be happy at work. Of course you do. Not only are you a nice person, you also know that happy employees are productive employees. So how do you go about encouraging joy?

The go-to answer for many leaders is a flurry of explicitly happiness-boosting initiatives. Maybe you tell your people endlessly that you want your company to be an upbeat place to work, maybe you send not mandatory (but maybe not really) invites to cheering Friday happy hour get togethers, maybe you encourage wacky desk decorations and other office shenanigans.

That all sounds like nice boss behavior, but I have had news for you -- according to psychology, all your efforts to push your people towards happiness are probably backfiring. Making people self-conscious about their mood just makes them stressed and distracted.

Worrying about being happy is stressing your team out.

That's according to a must-read recent article for bosses by the New Yorker's Maria Konnikova. The lengthy piece lays out the scientific case against jabbering on about happiness in detail and suggests what approach is more likely to work instead. It's well worth a read in full, but here's the basic idea if you're in a rush -- monitoring their emotions for a boss who seems desperate to preside over a happy team sucks up energy your people would rather use, you know, actually doing their jobs.

Here's the money paragraph:

Worrying about whether or not you're in violation of a feel-good policy and constantly monitoring yourself for slipups takes a mental toll. More than two decades of research suggests that thought suppression, or trying to stifle your initial impulses in favor of something else, can result in mental strain and may also impair other types of thinking--memory, self-control, problem solving, motivation, perceptiveness. When we are actively monitoring ourselves, our mental energy for other things suffers. The result is not only a less-than-positive work environment but also workers who are less-than-optimally productive. In other words, it's bad business.

So what should you do instead?

It's helpful to know that pro-happiness initiatives are likely to backfire, of course, but that doesn't invalidate your initial impulse. You still want to promote happiness. It's just that you now know you can't do it directly. So is there anything that actually has been shown by science to make employees happier at work?

Yup, but it has nothing to do with additional foosball tables or cheering birthday celebrations. Instead, the magic formula for happiness at work seems to be all about getting workplace rules right. Workers are at their most cheerful when they know what they're supposed to do and the hard limits of their employer, but don't feel burdened by one more regulation than is strictly necessary.

As Konnikova explains, recent studies of retail workers and salespeople found that,

The highest performers of all were those in a moderately regulated environment who also felt a high degree of autonomy, as determined by their responses to a single statement: "My job permits me to decide on my own how to go about doing the work." In other words, people want to feel in control. They want to be afforded respect and to determine on their own how to act; it is this autonomy that helps foster emotional positivity.

The bottom line: If you want your people to be happy, respect them enough not to tell them how to feel. Instead, offer them clear goals and guidelines and let them have at it with nary a mood-boosting poster or not-really-optional social event to be seen.

Published on: Aug 30, 2016
The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.