Several years ago, I was among the first to be hired at a startup that eventually grew to over 400 employees. In the early days, the energy of the place was electric. It was an innovative idea that used technology in a new way, and so we really didn’t have any precedents to follow. The small team was dedicated and inspired, and the challenges we faced were overcome with creative solutions. We felt very much like a cohesive unit working toward common goals, and it was fun going to work every day.

As the company began to evolve, its trajectory skyrocketed, priorities shifted, the business model changed, and one of the founding members was soon at odds with the others. Because the other founders were often in agreement, this one, the outsider, was marginalized and felt alienated and disrespected. Without a contributing voice in the company’s progress, he became increasingly disgruntled, and instead of helping to solve problems, he began to complain about them. Much as I liked him, and as smart and talented as I thought he was, he was increasingly more difficult to work with because he was poisoning the environment, and worse, gathering recruits to join him.

I know that my experience is a common one. As a company grows, it’s hard to maintain cohesiveness and continually foster a happy workforce.

Sadly, the vast majority of employees are disappointed with what they’re doing. In fact, according to Gallup’s 2013 State of the American Workplace, only 22% of all employees consider themselves to be happy and engaged. The rest of the report is troubling.

  • 70% of workers either hate their jobs or are completely disengaged
  • Of those, 52% are lackluster and uninspired while the other 18% are grumbling around the water cooler and actively spreading discontent
  • And perks like games, massages, free meals and beer on tap don’t help

As the CEO of a my own startup, Reaction Commerce, I think a lot about what it takes to build and maintain a company that’s fueled by people who are thriving and engaged by what they’re doing—people who are passionate and enthusiastic, committed to making positive contributions, and emotionally connected to their workmates. I know that engaged, happy workers create companies that are more productive, profitable, and have higher customer satisfaction and less turnover and absenteeism. Additionally, happy people are team players, they fix problems instead of merely complaining about them, they make better decisions, and they learn and adapt quickly.

We hear about companies experimenting with new ways of operating, and it’s been shown that flextime, vacation time, and the ability to work remotely help to increase employee engagement. But while policies and perks can help, there’s something even more important.

The biggest factor in having employees who are engaged in their work is having employees who are engaged in their lives.

So, it goes without saying that the first order of business is to hire happy people. I’ve interviewed and hired hundreds of people in my career, and I have always evaluated a person’s intelligence and skillset along with whether or not they’re “a good fit” for the company. But happiness, I’ve discovered, is something entirely different, and it’s becoming more important for me to evaluate a person’s attitude above and beyond their competency. As I begin my own company, I’m interested in working with people who maintain a good balance between their work life and their home life. I want to find people who are confident and driven, and who also have close friends and a family-like support system. I’m looking for people who smile and laugh easily. And ultimately, I also want to know that they’re forgiving, grateful, accepting, authentic, vulnerable and emotionally mature.

That’s why, along with asking questions about their relevant work experience, I also dig a little deeper. What are they passionate about outside of work? When they talk about memorable work situations and challenges, are they positive or negative ones? Have they ever been unhappy at a job, and what have they done about it? Do they truly want the job that’s available because it excites them or because it’s a means to a different end? What are their dreams and goals, what motivates them, and is their happiness dependant upon their success?

But hiring happy people is only the beginning. Even the happiest of people need to be fostered and reinforced in ways that build a culture of happiness and keep people engaged. In my own experience, I know that the tone of every company is set from the top down. And the primary reason that people disengage from their jobs lies in the way they are managed. People need to feel consistently empowered and supported. And these are some of the ways that can help.

  • Always put employees first and customers second
  • Breed friendships among coworkers
  • Acknowledge what’s working
  • Identify and build people’s strengths instead of focusing on weaknesses
  • Encourage personal career goals
  • Be liberal with recognition and appreciation

Here’s the best news: when things get off track, changing direction can happen in an instant. This is one of the many benefits of practicing Positive Psychology. In an earlier post, I wrote about this exciting new field of study, which, in short, has scientifically proven that we can change our reality by changing the way we think about our reality. Turns out, all those new-age bumper stickers and self-help books were right: it isn’t what happens to us that determines our sense of happiness and success; it’s how we interpret what happens to us. Therefore, happiness isn’t dependent upon circumstances and outcomes; happiness is a decision we commit to making again and again.

Success doesn’t lead to happiness; instead, it’s the reverse. In fact, that’s the foundation of Shawn Achor’s business, GoodThink. As a Positive Psychology advocate, Achor spent 12 years researching happiness at Harvard and has since written 4 books on the topic, all of which center on that one premise. And it’s catching on like wild fire. A TED talk he gave in 2011 has garnered 9 million views and counting. In it, he says,

Most companies and schools follow a formula for success, which is this: If I work harder, I'll be more successful. And if I'm more successful, then I'll be happier. That undergirds most of our parenting styles, our managing styles, and the way that we motivate our behavior.

He goes on to explain that that formula is scientifically broken and backward because when happiness is on the far edge of success, achieving success only moves the goalposts and creates the need for the next success. Additionally, instead of becoming more motivated by our achievements, we often become less inspired. Fortunately, there’s a way to refuel.

If you can raise somebody's level of positivity in the present, then their brain experiences what we now call a happiness advantage, which is your brain at positive performs significantly better than it does at negative, neutral or stressed. Your intelligence rises, your creativity rises, your energy levels rise. In fact, what we've found is that every single business outcome improves. Your brain at positive is 31 percent more productive than your brain at negative, neutral or stressed. So if we can find a way of becoming positive in the present, then our brain becomes more engaged, creative, motivated, energetic, healthier, resilient and productive.

In my personal life, when friends or family members get too enmeshed in negative thinking, I often jokingly blurt out a list of other choices: Puppies! Chocolate! Roses! It’s a fun way to break the tension and get a laugh. But there’s a deeper message, too, that can be instantly transformational...

The greatest power we have is the power to change our mind.