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Written by Henry Stewart      Jul 15, 2015



Our principle at Happy is that people work best when they feel good about themselves. We find that most people agree with this statement. Do you?
If you do agree, what then should be the main focus of management in an organisation? If the principle is true, then it is simple common sense that the key focus of management should be making people feel good.


Nandos, the chain of chicken restaurants, decided some years ago to analyse what made the difference between their most successful and least successful branches. With over 250 sites, they were able to do a pretty thorough analysis.


They found one factor correlated most closely with growth and profits. That factor was how happy staff said they were in the annual staff survey. It was clear that getting branch managers to focus on that was the route to success and, for a while, Nandos made half the managers’ bonus be based solely on how happy staff said they were. As well as continued success Nandos went on to be rated the best place to work in the UK.


When speaking at conferences I like to ask the audience to raise their hands if the main focus of management in their organisation is creating the environment for people to feel good. Normally one or two in a hundred raise their hands. But recently I was sitting on a panel next to the chair of a 90,000 strong British retail organisation and he raised his hand to that question.


That man was Charlie Mayhew and the company, as you may have guessed, was John Lewis. Principle 1 of the constitution of John Lewis states that “The Partnership’s ultimate purpose is the happiness of all its members, through their worthwhile and satisfying employment in a successful business.”


As a result the happiness of tis members is a key element in any decisions. Charlie explained that, in their last board meeting, they spent 30 minutes discussing the numbers and 3 hours discussing people – how to value them, how to motivate them, how to make them happy.


On that basis John Lewis has become one of our most admired companies and our biggest general retailer – overtaking Marks and Spencer last year.


Think about it. How would your organisation be different if the main focus of management was making your people feel good about themselves?


It is a question I often ask at conferences and when working with organisations. The responses are uniformly positive: “It would be more collaborative”, “there would be less politics”, “we’d get more done”, “less absenteeism”, “more creativity and ideas” are typical conclusions.


Indeed virtually everybody I speak to agrees that it would be a better place to work in, more innovative and more productive. So does it make sense to have that focus? Of course it does.


The research evidence backs this up. Alex Edmans, at Wharton Business School, decided to compare the performance of the companies who reached the Fortune US Great Workplaces lists – over 25 years – with other companies.


He chose only the stock market listed companies and worked out what would be the effect of investing in the companies in the great workplace list each year, as opposed to investing in the US Standard & Poor general index.


He found that the great workplace stocks did, on average, 3.5% a year better. That means that if you had a pension fund and, after 25 years, it was worth £100,000 if invested in the general stock market then it would have reached £231,000 if invested in the great workplaces.


That is the hard financial evidence that great workplaces perform better.


But making people feel good isn’t all about having fun. One of our clients tasked a colleague with increasing happiness. They brought in games and hula hopes and arranged lots of fun activities. They measured happiness among the staff before and afterwards. And happiness went down.


Making people feel good is about deeper stuff. They are now focused on ensuring people have meaning in their work, that they have control over what they do and that they are doing things they are good at and which they enjoy. And staff happiness is rising.

feelgood_2ingThink back over your career and identify a time that you are especially proud of. It could be a specific project, a company or a short period. Now, having asked many thousands of people about such a time, I can say that for only 1 in 10 has it been a time when they’ve been particularly well paid and for about 1 in 3 its been a time when communication from management was strong.


But for about 4 in 5 it is a time when they were challenged and for even more it tends to be a time when they were trusted and given the freedom to do the job the way they wanted to. That is what gives people the potential for real satisfaction: doing something you are good at, and having the trust and autonomy to do it well.


If you are a manager, let me give you a simple step to giving people that freedom. It is likely that, as part of your job, you task people to solve a problem or come up with a new idea and bring it back to you for approval. Ok, here’s the new approach: cut out that list bit, the approval. Approve the solution before they have come up with it.


One of our trainers sent me an email with a list of three things that had been changed and that made it easier to help the customer. I looked at the list. I didn’t know these three things had happened, because they hadn’t come across my desk for approval. But, more worryingly, I realised that – if they had come across my desk – I would have rejected two of the three ideas.


I set things up at Happy. I used my best thinking, which I reckon is pretty good thinking. I am a natural barrier to change. Just like most managers. So I realised that the way to stop me getting in the way of innovation was to make sure that new ideas never came across my desk.


Take the Happy web site. For years I had been involved, because it is crucially important and I think I know a bit about internet marketing. So I would always give lots for advice and suggestions, asking for changes here and changes there. The result was that the person who was in charge of the web site, never felt really in charge.


So we decided to “pre approve” our new web site. That doesn’t mean that Jonny – who was put in charge – was given complete freedom. We had a branding exercise first, so the look and feel was clear. We sent Jonny on the best search engine optimisation training, to build his skills. We agreed clear metrics to judge success by – how many people visited the web site and how much income it generated. And Jonny had to carry out usability testing. What I thought did not matter but what our clients thought did.


I got to see the new web site the night before it launched. It wasn’t what I expected. Looking at the home page I wasn’t too happy with one or two elements and certainly wouldn’t have designed it like that myself. But if you truly delegate then you won’t get what you would have produced. You get what they produce.


The site was completely within the guidelines we had agreed and so up it went. Within a month the visitors had tripled and the income generated from the site had doubled. That is the effect of giving somebody true trust and freedom and full ownership of their job.


How can you change your organisation to make it more focused on making people feel good? How can you give people more trust and freedom over their jobs? And, if you are not a manager, how can you secure the trust and freedom you need to both enjoy your work and do it well?


In 2011, Henry was listed as one of the top 50 most influential business thinkers in the world by the Guru Radar of thinkers. To know more abour him, click here.


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