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Positivity (Happiness) in the Workplace and Organizational Change

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The notion that employees who are happy in their work – or as Archor (2009) describes it are motivated by the fact they are able to pursue their life goals and reach for their potential through their work – is a fairly recent and primarily Western phenomenon. Prior to the mid 20th century, work served primarily as a way of “paying the bills” – not to suggest that this is not an aspect of work today for many people, (indeed becoming more urgent during difficult economic times such as we are living in over the past few years of the “Great Recession”). However, in the past sixty years or so there has been a significant shift in the degree to which people place importance on gaining life meaning and purpose from work versus simply making a living. In Merit’s Engage-to-ChangeSM research referenced earlier, a remarkable 34% of respondents indicate that, given the opportunity, they would work for less money for another company that cared about and engaged its employees more effectively. A remarkable 66% of respondents either plan to look for opportunities elsewhere in their companies (29.8%) or plan to actively seek employment with other companies (36.5%) as the economy improves. Overall, this is not a good vote of confidence for employee happiness and motivation for many of the companies represented in this study.

Despite a large body of research, as well as experiential evidence, that reward and recognition programs do not work in the long term to motivate organizational change and performance, companies today still use them (Marciano, 2010). While there are some situations – like motivating short term changes in behavior – that may be suitable for the use of reward and recognition programs, most that I have experienced have failed to achieve their intended results, namely enhanced employee performance, commitment and motivation. The primary reason for this, as described by Marciano, is that “programs don’t fundamentally change employees’ beliefs or commitment to their jobs; they just change their behavior during the course of the program”. Based on this statement, one could argue:simply don’t make it a program that ends. Keep it going forever!! Unfortunately, research and experience suggest that this does not work either. For example, most companies that I have worked for or with have had some form on ongoing, annual performance salary increase and bonus system. In no case have I felt motivated by these programs and my anecdotal experience is that employees have not either. Indeed, incentive and reward programs often create greater negativity. The reason is that employees are disconnected from the program – in other words they do not have the notion that they really impact on the outcome. Secondly, they begin to view the program as simply an annual event that becomes part of the company’s compensation system versus being a motivator. Marciano comments that these kinds of programs are de-motivators and negative when employees do not get a big enough increase or bonus. These approaches are barriers to positivity and inhibit change and innovation.

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