Executive Education

The Surprising Secret to Employee Happiness

Never in my wildest dreams did I imagine I’d discover the secret to employee happiness in a nondescript and unassuming place: a nursing home.

My story begins with a man named Jason, a worker at one of the skilled nursing facilities I was researching in the small, faraway town of Blanding, Utah.

As I arrived at the facility and headed down the institutional hallway, I saw a worker using a large floor-polishing machine to remove tape residue from the floor. No one else was around, so I paused and began to ask him questions over the roar of the machine. After a few minutes, he turned it off and leaned against the wall to talk. “I didn’t mean to interrupt your work,” I apologized. But he wanted to talk, not with the air of getting out of work, but like nothing else he could be doing was more important than helping me.

His name was Jason. His clothes were dark and clean, his manner diffident but friendly. His primary job was running the floor machine. It was run every day in all the hallways and large rooms, and that’s what he was paid for; that was his entire shift, all day, every day.

But here’s what I learned about Jason from talking to others who work with him: He does more than he’s strictly paid for. He knows every single last resident of the facility. Every day

Jason can be seen pushing wheelchairs to and from dining and activities or carrying blankets to an old lady who caught a chill or filling a water jug for an old man who can’t fill it himself.

None of these tasks are technically his job, but they are part of the job to him.

Jason told me that his friends, who all had similarly low-skilled jobs, lived their lives for the weekend. But for him it was the opposite: the weekend was the space he had to fill before he could get back to work. He looked forward to Mondays the way other people look forward to Friday night, with excitement and anticipation and impatience. This job was his lifeline, his center, how he filled the empty yearning places of his heart.

This is an experience we all long for, isn’t it? A work environment we look forward to going back to with excitement instead of dread is the holy grail of modern life. What leader or manager wouldn’t want their employees to feel gratified? When we’re dissatisfied with work, all the books and bloggers urge us to find another job or devote our time to other tasks, on the assumption that some particular as-yet-unknown activity will enliven us and we just have to find it. But this man doesn’t have a better set of tasks than his friends; he’s not getting fame or riches or even necessarily upward career mobility. He cleans the floors. Specifically, he cleans the floors in a nursing home.

Yet he’s happier and more fulfilled than so many of us. How is this possible?

Jason personifies what I call “the shift”: what happens when you start seeing people as people. With the shift, work isn’t dull and tedious; it’s an opportunity to enrich people’s lives. Workplace conflicts? They change and evolve, too, because you’re able to shift your perspective and see what’s driving the behavior of those around you.

The shift is rooted in the managerial philosophies of the Arbinger Institute, a global organization that helps individuals, teams, and companies move from an inward to outward mindset. Shifting in this way changes everything for the better: between coworkers, colleagues, relatives, and neighbors.

So, how can you spark this shift in yourself, and in others?

  1. Start with “What do you need?”

When we meet someone—a customer, potential client, or employee from a neighboring department—one of our first thoughts is “What do I say?” But when we do this, we’re thinking about ourselves. We’re focusing on what’s comfortable or not embarrassing for us. The staff members I met in the nursing facilities weren’t thinking, “What do I say?” they were thinking, “What do you need?” They were focused on how they could help. They were enriched by it, and their patients received incredible care because of it.

  1. Toil with your people.

If you want your employees to feel important, valued, and inspired, you’re not going to get there by talking about it. You need to get out of your ivory tower and toil with your people. You can’t see your staff as people if you haven’t met them. Or, to put it another way, people aren’t generic, so if your attitude toward someone is generic, you’re not seeing him or her as a person yet.

A leader must know their people—their strengths, weaknesses, and preferences—to be able to make the right decisions for them as workers, and to be able to fully utilize their strengths.

Consider the story of Juan: Juan was the employee of the month when I met him; he works in one of the nursing homes’ kitchens. He told me that the only time the previous administrator talked to him was during the state survey, when the administrator had come in to make the kitchen staff work harder. The new administrator had spent more time with Juan during his first month than the previous administrator had in five years. The new administrator was able to learn and employ Juan’s strengths, which resulted in an efficiently run kitchen and an employee of the month who was happy to be there.

  1. Look through their eyes.

A business culture that sees workers as “human-shaped objects,” instead of people, assumes they need to be yelled at, lectured, micromanaged, or simply fired. What they need is a leader who will find out what structures, policies, and practices are making it hard for them to do their best work. What they need is a leader who will look through their eyes.

In dozens of studies, taking the perspective of another person has been shown to reduce hostility and prejudice, improve moral thinking and negotiation outcomes, and increase empathy and cooperation

Ask yourself: Do you know your staff’s names? What do you know about their lives? If they provide a service that needs to be improved, do you know how they’re handling it now? Have you ever asked, “What makes your job hard for you?” These questions serve as a way to get to know your staff and to identify the crucial issues that create frustration. It also opens up a discussion to solve these issues, which benefits everyone. Can you see how this might change how you view a situation? Or how it might alter how you view your employees? The shift is a powerful tool.

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Kimberly White
Kimberly White is a freelance writer, certified Arbinger Institute presenter, and former research assistant to its founder, Terry Warner. Her new book, The Shift: How Seeing People as People Changes Everything (Berrett-Koehler Publishers, June 2018), is the result of nine months of research that included dozens of hours working alongside nursing home employees in offices, vans, patient rooms, and kitchens. She recently relocated from Harlem to a small farm town in Pawnee, Illinois to focus on writing.