The Key to Employee Happiness Is Not What You Think

July 13, 2017

A must-read to anyone in HR: Psychological safety is a huge part of corporate culture, and we should definitely make it a part of the conversation

Psychological Safety at work

Feeling safe with your co-workers is the key to a better company culture

Anyone dealing with the issue of trying to improve office morale knows that it is easier said than done. Based on mounting evidence, it appears that the key to finding happiness at the workplace doesn’t lie with pool tables and beer taps, but rather on what’s called psychological safety.

Exploding Creativity: What Makes the World’s Happiest Teams?

According to Amy Edmondson, a Harvard Business professor,  who has researched this question,  psychological safety was the number one factor in determining team satisfaction and productivity. The meaning of the term psychological safety for your team is that people will be rewarded (and not shamed) for initiating and bringing up new ideas, questions, concerns, or mistakes. In the average workplace with low psychological safety, we risk embarrassment if we ask questions or admit our mistakes.

In order for happiness to thrive, there is a simple solution. Simply encourage and reward asking questions, admitting weakness, offering new (even far-fetched) ideas, and criticizing the existing status quo. It may take some time for people to overcome old habits and get used to a new “safe” system, but making the investment in psychological safety is infinitely worthwhile. It will cause creativity and innovation to explode, and people will be free to problem-solve and grow without limits.

Feel Safe: level up your company culture

SO even though it feels wildly counterintuitive, stop obsessing over making people happy, and focus instead on creating a secure environment. Because when you move the focus away from happiness directly, that’s exactly when it will start to flourish in a way that cannot be faked. This will not only be the bedrock of an enviable office culture, but also the building blocks for innovation, creativity, and super efficient dream-teams. Here are the basics of how to build a safer culture, and 3 practical ideas you can try this week.

Improve Employee Engagement

Foosball tables and employee engagement are not the same things


  1. Encourage all the feelings

Alexander Kjerulf, Chief Happiness Officer at Woohoo inc. says “So let’s give negativity it’s central place in the workplace – as a perfectly natural, even helpful, state of mind. And that, ironically, will lead to more happiness at work!”

Practical application: Create a forum for your team to express their anxieties. You can try this anonymously at first, and as trust and safety build over time, you can take it further. Have everyone write down one anxiety they have about work, and then celebrate those things. This gives people the opportunity to take a deep breath, and spend more time avoiding failure than seeking success.

  1. Recognize your own fallibility (as an employee and also as a boss.)

Try kicking off every team meeting by sharing a risk taken in the previous week. Share whether the outcome was a success or a failure, and have everyone applaud either way.

  1. Model curiosity

You may think that your employees feel perfectly free to ask questions… but often times people need a little extra encouragement. Lead by example and start by asking regularly “what do you think?” and genuinely listen to the answers. Be extra supportive if someone wants to voice concerns or ideas for change. Slowly over time, this will lead to people feeling more confident to voice ideas on their own.