Before we get to the secret sauce for happy employees, let's first talk about happiness at work. It's tricky to focus on happiness at work. It's subjective, and too often leaders focus on making employees happy. This is the wrong focus.

Where leaders need to focus in terms of workplace happiness, is creating an environment that encourages the positive emotion. Ultimately, employees choose to find happiness in their work.

So, how does a leader create an environment that helps employees find happiness? A central element to this is purpose.

The Role of Purpose at Work

Author and Chief Envisioner of Canada's TELUS Transformation Office Dan Pontefract explains purpose this way in his latest book, The Purpose Effect:

  • Personal purpose: a person's "why."
  • Organizational purpose: the reason an organization exists.
  • Role purpose: why roles exist in an organization.

Pontefract writess that when the three come together it forms the purpose effect. This "results in a higher calling where individuals and organizations seek to improve society to benefit all stakeholders."

The nuance that makes purpose so powerful is that it taps into our higher human need to make a difference. What's more, it connects with another human need to be part of something bigger than ourselves. Notice Pontefract doesn't say the role of purpose is to make a profit. It's to improve society. Through the guidance purpose provides, profit is an outcome.

Purpose and Happiness

Positive psychologist Shawn Achor explains in The Happiness Advantage that happiness is the realization that we can change ourselves. In my book, The Optimistic Workplace, I define happiness as the pursuit of your best self through self-awareness, meaning, and growth. An outcome of such a pursuit is a deeper sense of happiness. Purpose, therefore, is both a spark and an outcome linked to happiness.

If you want happy employees, you need to help employees work and live with purpose.

Identifying Your Purpose

Aaron Hurst of Imperative believes that more people need a purpose-orientation. In partnership with New York University, Hurst found that purpose-oriented employees are considered the most valuable to a company. These employees have a 20 percent longer tenure, are 50 percent more likely to be in a formal leadership role, 47 percent are advocates of their direct reports, and 64 percent experience higher levels of fulfillment in their work. Yet, Hurst and NYU found that a meager 28 percent of the workforce knows their purpose. It's clear we have work to do.

Let's return to Pontefract's work on purpose. He explains that defining it is an ongoing inquiry: You must be willing to examine your life and the events that shape who you are for clues about your purpose.

Pontefract writes that these three questions can help with the personal inquiry:

  • What am I doing to evolve myself?
  • Who am I in life and at work?
  • How will I operate and be perceived by others?

Look for themes in your answers to the above questions. Here are some additional questions to help you examine your answers:

  • What continually attracts you to want to grow as a human being? Or what sort of development opportunities do you like best?
  • What sort of work and interests energize you?
  • If you could volunteer for anything, what would it be? What would you do? Who benefits?
  • What events in life and at work have influenced you? These could be high and low points in your life.
  • What personal values do you hold important? How do these guide your behaviors, your interactions with others?

Purpose and High Performance

Some leaders may scoff because purpose to them is "soft" and has no place at work. The pursuit of purpose may seem "soft," a term I despise because of its dismissive nature, but it fuels people's performance. Performance can be measured by outcomes.

In their research, Hurst and NYU learned that the following ultimately inspire people to bring their A-game to their work:

  • 77 percent of purpose-oriented workers believed their performance had an impact on the business.
  • 68 percent reported having meaningful relationships with coworkers and customers

Finally, today's workforce is weary of employers who build the company on their backs. There needs to be more to work than "doing 9-5." Purpose quickens the pulse of employees. It serves as a unifier. It answers the question, "Why am I doing this?" It sparks creativity.

Purpose is the secret sauce to happy employees. It's an intrinsic source of motivation with unlimited positive influence on people, performance, and the company.