Happy employees are productive employees. So what makes people happy at work?

A new survey, designed by a consulting group led by Zappos' co-founder Tony Hsieh, may have the answers:

Small Companies

The survey of some 11,000 employees found the happiest employees work in companies with fewer than 100 employees. This didn't surprise me and probably doesn't surprise you. In small companies, everyone knows that they make an impact, that they matter.


Supervisors are 27% happier than supervisees. This may be because we are inherently status-seeking creatures; it may also be because supervisors have more autonomy than those they supervise. Truly great bosses of course share that autonomy widely; the bad ones hoard it.


Employees involved in providing service or care are 75% more likely to be happy than those who lack any kind of customer relationship. This speaks to the inherently social nature of work but it also suggests that we do, fundamentally, like to feel we are helping others.

Many of us who run small businesses won't be surprised by these statistics. We know firsthand that what we offer our employees is a community where they make a difference, places where they can be responsible.

But the data pose a hard question too: If your company is bigger than 100 people, how do you create the same level of engagement and happiness that the smaller businesses do?

Much of the answer lies in giving power away. In smaller businesses, employees are trusted because they have to be--there's no spare capacity for too much oversight. That freedom is incredibly productive and, in my experience, very rarely abused. Instead of competing for bonuses, incentives, or recognition, people work because seeing the immediate impact of their contribution is reward enough. Nothing motivates people more than the developing sense of their own value and capacity.

In bigger companies, this internal motivation is often distracted or drowned out by process, procedure, targets, and incentives. The individual starts to feel insignificant, compliant rather than creative. But this is not inevitable if they're given freedom and trusted to use it well. Interestingly, the hallmark of a great big business is how small you can make it feel.

Published on: Oct 26, 2012
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