Updated: Aug 16, 2019
In my study of an urban high school in Atlanta, I sought to identify common habits and behaviors adolescents named as indicative of a teacher’s care for them. The rationale is that students who feel authentically cared for (care rooted in empathy) are more likely to have positive short- and long-term goal attainment, more meaningful engagement with content, greater demonstration and retention of conceptual understanding, are less likely to engage in self-harming behaviors and early pregnancy, and the list goes on. Positive relationships matter. There is a significant body of research that supports the impact of authentic care not just on students, but on children in parent/child relationships, workers in manager/employee relationships, adults in coach/protogee relationships, and most anyone in a relationship with a power differential. The key takeaway in the applicability of authentic/empathy-based care in the impact across lots of different kinds of relationships is that when someone being asked to do something feels cared for in a way that is rooted in empathy and authenticity, they are more apt to attain the goals set for them, engage, and benefit from long-term positive outcomes that may not even be part of the relationship.
The focus of my study was not the impact empathy has on students (other researchers have made that case), but on what the conditions are that students perceive as indicative of care. Authentic Care, as Nel Noddings describes it, requires the one cared-for (in this case, students) to perceive and receive the care. If the one-caring (in this case, teachers) insists she cares for the other, but the one cared-for (students) doesn’t believe it, it doesn’t have the same impact or yield the same results. Think about that: Caring only yields the range of possible positive effects when the person being cared for believes they are cared for. So an important outcome of my study was the identification of the habits and conditions students perceived as indicative of care so they can be replicated and promoted to facilitate the impact of authentic care. Perhaps one of the most exciting findings from this study was the idea that adolescents perceive care in many of the same ways as adults. Students perceived care from their teachers in the same ways workers have identified care from managers, athletes have identified care from coaches, patients have identified in care from health care professionals, and organizational members have identified care from leaders. So the lessons learned from students can also be applied to an array of organizational settings where the engagement and satisfaction of a team member is more beneficial than the disengagement. And it turns out, that is every organizational setting.
Students in my study named a number of different behaviors and habits, but the five most prevalent indicators of authentic care were authenticity, cultural responsiveness, fairness in assignment of expectations and consequences, access to informal connection, and positive demeanor/joy. (It is worth pausing here to think of the value these five indicators have to you in your own workplace and job satisfaction). Although all five of these indicators have been supported by other research and literature about students and across research in workplaces, it is the role of positive demeanor and joy that is most often named in the research of effective workplaces as a critical ingredient.
Forbes has published a number of articles on the importance of happiness in the workplace, citing statistics like “happy” workers are 20% more productive than those who aren’t happy; and, in sales, those who identify as “happy” boast 37% higher sales. Companies that have been ranked in the “100 best companies to work for” see greater increases in stock prices, on average, than those companies who don’t. Harvard Business Review, Fortune, Fast Company—all of these sources have published stories and statistics on the impact of joyful employees on a company’s bottom line. And although some naysayers may look at the statistics and insist that those who attain greater sales averages are going to be more happy and those companies highlighted as being great places to work are going to leverage that title in investment worth, the truth is, the psychology shows this is no chicken and egg. Happier people are more productive, physically healthier, more successful…an entire field of study has been devoted to understanding happiness as a result of this. Harvard offers a major in it. Penn State has a new Masters of Science program in happiness. It has become an indisputable fact that happiness is worth studying because its impact is so significant in measurable ways.
It is interesting, then, to note how often organizations see joy in the workplace as something that cannot be manufactured or leader do not see the happiness of their teams as their responsibility. My area of greatest experience is schools, and I have lots of experience with school leaders who expect teachers to be overworked and demoralized because, “it is the work.” In a recent conversation with a teacher at my child’s school, I noted what a tough year the teachers seemed to be having. She talked about how burned out everyone was, two months into the school year, because “that is the nature of the job.” I have countless other examples of entire school districts who bank on high turnover and low morale because it’s teaching. Although the administration at my kids’ school plans get-togethers for staff and parents send in tokens of appreciation, none of these are initiated with the idea they will incite joy in the workplace; rather, they are consolation prizes for people we know are overworked and potentially unhappy.
In fact, a lot of leadership in education kind of accepts the idea that being a public school teacher, or a leader anywhere in the public education food chain, is somewhere on the scale of martyrdom near self-flagellation. Like a lack of happiness in the role is just unchangeable and potentially a badge of merit. In a recent car share with some district leaders, they were outdoing each other by listing the gaps in their personal lives: Pets? No, I would never have time! Kids? No way, I could never be a present parent with our schedules. Hobbies? Please, there is no free time in this role. Had anyone in the car suggested an inkling of joy or personal satisfaction, they would have been shamed. They were one-upping each other on stress-induced ailments, lack of down time to decompress, absence from their families, and general work-induced malaise.
This is not just the grim reality for the education sector. We see the statistics and know that retention and productivity are higher in joyful workplaces and/or places where workers report they are happy; yet, most of us know plenty of people in workplaces that are systemically unhappy and where leadership seem to accept that as “the work.” Perhaps worse are those workplaces where it is believed that those who are happy aren’t doing it right—if you aren’t burned out, overworked, missing time with your family and friends to stay late, and slightly miserable, you are probably not working hard enough. You could definitely be doing more. But this wholly flies in the face of the facts.
The research of affective neuroscientists like Damasio and Immordino-Yang are showing us, conclusively, that emotions are critical to new learning, engagement, and performance, as well as physical and emotional health. Happy people live longer, have fewer persistent health problems, sleep better, have greater focus…the list of benefits of happiness is seemingly endless. And the use of MRIs to examine brain activity in research participants has visually demonstrated how people use wholly different areas of their brain to process information when they are happy. Certainly psychology (shout out to Abraham Maslow) definitively identified the role emotion plays in self-actualization. But it is the current science behind the role of emotion that drives the case home. Your students and employees retain more and engage longer when in a positive emotional state, your happy salespeople sell nearly double that of their less happy colleagues, and your joyous staff meet the goals set for them at a rate of 20% higher than that of their peers who report they are not joyous. Their brains are lighting up in different places to affirm that a different kind of thinking happens when happy. And when we engage positively in a team dynamic, we are more willing to try new ideas, innovate, and empathize—all related ideas that are critical skills to success.
So if happier people innovate more, sell more, learn more, are less likely to miss work, live longer, are sick less frequently, are more likely to be retained-- why isn’t every organization out there leveraging this research? Why aren’t all organizations actively investing in strategy to make their teams happier?
A critical factor in change is locus of control and self-efficacy. In order for me to be able to effectively lead a change in behavior or culture, I need to first believe it is important (utility value—believe the action advances my goal), but I must also believe it is something I have the power to change (locus of control and self-efficacy). If the research makes it clear that there is utility value in cultivating joy in the workplace and in actively engaging in the facilitation of a positive emotional state for my team, but leaders still aren’t making it a priority, perhaps they don’t see it as within their control.
In my study at the high school, teachers who had an external locus of control about relationships with their students believed that only students could decide to have a positive relationship with their teachers. These teachers believed they were powerless to change this. They recited the old adage, “you can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make him drink.” But the problem with this is that those who believed they could make the horse drink did. If you believe the control in the change is not yours, you are not going to engage in making a change. Thus, the teachers with an external locus had largely less positive relationships with their students and fewer students perceived them as caring. (They also had lower average performance across their classrooms, a larger percentage of students with lower grades and/or a higher percentage of students who felt grades were assigned arbitrarily and not earned). Conversely, teachers with an internal locus of control and who believed they had the power to create positive relationships with their students had a higher percentage of positive relationships and more joy in their classrooms. Their students felt they worked harder in their classes, and they were observably more engaged and on-task. Across the board, even students who reported they didn’t like the teachers who had internal locus of control over student relationships had higher performance in those teachers’ rooms and were more engaged. Because the teachers with internal locus of control believed it was within their power to form and maintain positive relationships, they put forth effort and executed on strategies in ways those with an external locus did not. The teachers who perceived it as outside their locus of control and impossible to change got less out of their kids. The teachers who believed they could lead the horse and make him drink did. Without exception.
The same principle can be applied to leaders and members of organizations around the procurement of joy in the workplace. If I do not believe it is my purview to make a workplace more joyous, or I do not believe it is important, it is not going to happen. In fact, if leaders determine the locus of control over the j-factor in their organizations is either immutable or external, the amount of joy in their organization is going to be less than in an organization where the leader does see it as within her control. Ask Google (the company, not the search engine). Ask Turner. Ask Zappos. We have a solidly growing number of companies who are responding to the research and really investing in their teams’ happiness. And they are making results because they are getting headlines. This is not sponsoring a happy hour or springing for the highest tier of karaoke DJ for the holiday party. This is a daily investment is assessing what their employees want and making it happen. We may have plenty of organizations who are doing just fine with miserable employees, but the research is unwavering: they could perform better with happier employees. And sometimes the most critical factor in making that happen is a leader who believes it is possible and within their control.
Which brings me back to schools. Is it really “the work?” Is it impossible to get it all done and still find happiness, balance, joy? I have a number of good friends who are educators I respect who believe, in their heart of hearts, that teaching is not sustainable. That a joyous workplace that meets teachers where they are and gives them what they need cannot serve kids. And they will not get their horses to drink. And I have a handful of schools I respect and adore who are proving the possible. I have friends across a diverse array of industries and organizations who dislike their jobs, whose workplaces are toxic, and who are counting down the days until they can move on. I do not doubt at least some of those friends are capable, successful, persistent team members who are doing the best they can with what they have. And who would be immeasurably more effective in a setting where joy was a priority.
So what do we do with this? The theory of emotional contagion would suggest that the emotions of those in power are “caught” by those who report to them. So if the leaders, named or unofficial, are prioritizing joy, it can be caught. Modeling joy, expecting joy, naming joy as a priority—if we set goals around happiness and hold ourselves accountable to them, we position this as something that matters.
But committing to joy takes more than modeling. If leaders learn enough about their teams to determine what they value, they can invest in those things. A leader of a network of schools in New Orleans opened a daycare for his staff in response to the fact that childcare was the challenge that worried his teachers most. The response to this was powerful—it was the act of responding to their needs as much as the service itself that so moved his teachers. At another school, it was allowing teachers to bring their dogs. In my husband’s industry, it’s always having the best food. Snacks, caterers, reimbursed meals. It’s not the thing, it’s knowing what your organization’s things are. Not every workplace needs a ping pong table. But if it’s what you need and the leadership hears you and invests in it. Well, being heard is a powerful thing. Especially when you are being heard about what makes you happy.
Happiness matters for more reasons than I can list here. And dismissing happiness in the workplace also matters. It is possible to build happiness in a work place. But it takes a visible commitment, responsiveness to the desires of the team, and a belief that it can happen. There are no shortage of emotionally draining, hard jobs with not enough resources. But the research, and practice, shows that these challenges do not prevent joy. Only the leaders of those organizations do.
 Bono, J. E., Foldes, H. J., Vinson, G., & Muros, J. P. (2007). Workplace emotions: The role of supervision and leadership. Journal of Applied Psychology, 92(5), 1357.
 Reinboth, M., Duda, J. L., & Ntoumanis, N. (2004). Dimensions of coaching behavior, need satisfaction, and the psychological and physical welfare of young athletes. Motivation and emotion, 28(3), 297-313.
 Hibbard, J. H., & Greene, J. (2013). What the evidence shows about patient activation: better health outcomes and care experiences; fewer data on costs. Health affairs, 32(2), 207-214.
 Sosik, J. J., & Megerian, L. E. (1999). Understanding leader emotional intelligence and performance: The role of self-other agreement on transformational leadership perceptions. Group & organization management, 24(3), 367-390.
 Leonard, T. C. (2008). Richard H. Thaler, Cass R. Sunstein, Nudge: Improving decisions about health, wealth, and happiness.
Frey, B. S. (2008). Happiness: A revolution in economics. MIT press.