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How To Create Happy Employees — And Why It’s Even More Vital Now


by Deb Boelkes, author of “Heartfelt Leadership: How to Capture the Top Spot and Keep on Soaring

Happy employees are the best kind. They work hard, keep customers loyal, and stick around to help your organization accomplish its mission. You definitely want them on your team. This is true in the best of times, yes, but also in the worst of times. And right now — just a few months into a deeply disrupted work environment, in the midst of a shaky economy, with anxiety running rampant — is not the time to slack off on making your people happy.

Some leaders may think building a happiness-generating culture isn’t a priority now. After all, a lot of companies are in survival mode. They’re just trying to keep the doors open and meet payroll. This could tempt leaders to think that employees are lucky to have a job at all.

If so, this is short-sighted thinking. It’s more important than ever for employees to know you care about their happiness. It won’t just happen. You need to get intentional about it.

First, the May jobs report showed that the unemployment rate fell to 13.3 percent, and the economy gained 2.5 million jobs. Employees may have more options than we thought. On the other hand, we’re officially in a recession. Many companies are not out of the woods yet. They need super-motivated, super-engaged employees to ensure that they survive this rocky period.

The craziness of the current situation should cue leaders to double-down on their efforts to make employees happy. People are still anxious. They are also paying attention to how leaders behave right now. When you focus on building an environment where employees feel safe, comfortable, and empowered — happy, in other words — they’ll do a great job for you. And you’ll be able to retain them when things pick up again.

Making a happy workplace environment is just one aspect of what the best leaders do. In my book “Heartfelt Leadership” I laid out the path to heartfelt leadership. Full of real stories and lessons from top heartfelt executives, it will help you transform from a person people follow because they have to, to one they want to follow.

Read on for some tactics to keep employees happy and motivated.

Be especially present for employees in times of trouble.

Garry Ridge, chairman and CEO of the WD-40 Company, says, “When we were going through the global financial crisis in 2008, I observed people in the company as I’d wander around this office or any of our other offices around the world. People were asking me more often, ‘How are you?’ It dawned on me — they weren’t asking me how I was; they were asking me how they were, through me.

Now my answer to them could have been, ‘Oh, things are…ugh,’ or, ‘Hey, let’s not waste a good crisis. We’re going to get through this. This, too, will end.’ I realized they were looking to me, in their time of uncertainty and fear, to give them that little bit of security to carry them through. Leaders need to make sure in times of war, and in times of trouble, they are visible.”

Add to their positive. (Certainly don’t make things worse.)

Treat your team with respect at all times. This means no bullying, humiliating, threatening, or other toxic behavior. Garry Ridge put it this way: “The Dalai Lama says, ‘Our purpose in life is to make people happy. If we can’t make them happy, at least don’t hurt them.’ Our purpose as a leader is to help people engage and enable, NOT to hurt them. We want to apply to their positive, not to their negative.”

Find what makes them each tick.

Make it part of your job to have a clear understanding of where employees are in their lives. Talk with them about their families, their desires, and their personal goals. Ask them what they love best about their current job and what they would like to change, if anything. This is the most important job any manager has to do: to understand what your organization needs to accomplish and then find a way to do it in a way that aligns with each team member’s personal motivations and desires.

Donald Stamets, general manager for the Flagship Solage, an Auberge resort, agrees. “You can’t do blanket leadership. Take the 1,100 employees I have. I can’t treat them all the same…Sometimes people are excited and motivated by money. Sometimes they’re competitive. Sometimes it’s strong discipline. People are motivated by different things, so an individualized approach is how I’ve become so successful.”

Show them you care by helping them perform.

Reinhold Preik, retired founder and CEO emeritus of Chemcraft International, says people care about paychecks, but what they most want is a workplace that supports them and helps them feel good about their work. “Pay is important, but it’s not that important in the sense that people will leave you to go somewhere else,” he says.

“They will realize, wherever they go, it still comes down to their performance. If you, as a leader, help them perform, then they are going to be happy themselves. Their self-worth is going to be there. If people have self-worth, they are going to be happy. If they are working in a place where they don’t feel self-worth, they don’t feel the company really cares who they are…’they don’t really care what I am doing, I’m just punching the clock, I’m going home and nobody even knows I’m here’…then their attitude is going to be completely different.”

Do all you can to help “problem” employees.

Sometimes a problem employee just needs some extra guidance. Meet with them and explore the issues they’re having.

Find out what they do not like about their current role. Ask them what they liked about the jobs they had before. If they could do anything else, what would that be? Where do they hope to be in the future? When you show them you sincerely care about their well-being, they will usually be very honest with you. You may be able to find them a role within your company that’s a better fit. Or you may need to put an underperforming employee on a developmental program. Or you may need to manage the employee out of the business. If this is the case, do your best to help them identify something better outside of the organization.

Leverage your company’s values as a protective shield.

Make sure the values in the organization are put around people as a protective shield,” says Garry Ridge. “Values are there to protect the people within it and enable them to make decisions. Our #1 value at WD-40 is we value doing the right thing. Now immediately, that puts a protective shield around people because they can freely ask a question: ‘Is that the right thing to do?’

The #2 value is we value creating positive, lasting memories in all of our relationships. So, if we’re in a meeting where there is depressive, aggressive behavior that’s uncalled for, instead of saying, ‘You’re acting like a jerk,’ I can say, ‘I’m not sure whether that’s going to be a really positive, lasting memory when we leave here. Maybe we can approach that a different way.’ When you get a set of values that puts this ‘playground’ or this ‘shield’ around people, it says, ‘I can play here and I can be safe’ because they want to be safe.”

Say “thank you” regularly.

One of the best ways to motivate anyone is to express gratitude. It’s amazing what the simple act of saying thank you can do to get people aligned and make incredible things happen. When you, as a manager or teammate, appreciate hard work and you express gratitude when it’s due, you will likely have a far greater impact on those around you. The recipients of your appreciation will most likely be inspired to put forth an even greater effort to ensure they will be thanked again.

Make team members feel like they belong.

“We all know how terrible it feels when we don’t think we belong anywhere, when we feel lost, lonely,” says Garry Ridge. “Think of all those words that are really bad, about bad feelings: lost, lonely, unappreciated, all of that. That’s how people feel when they don’t belong. But when you belong — hey, you are welcome here; hey, you make a difference here; hey, we can help you be better here—people want to come to work.”

I advise encouraging healthy interactions and camaraderie between team members at work. Organize team-building activities, set goals that everyone can reach for together, and hold celebrations when your team has a big win. Order fun company tee shirts and wear them on the same day.

When employees feel safe and appreciated, they want to do a great job for you. It’s that simple. Lead with your heart and they will feel that you care about them. That’s when the magic — and, yes, the happiness — happens.


Deb Boelkes is not just a role model heartfelt leader; she’s the ultimate authority on creating best places to work, with 25+ years in Fortune 150 high-tech firms, leading superstar business development and professional services teams. As an entrepreneur, she has accelerated advancement for women to senior leadership. Deb has delighted and inspired over 1,000 audiences across North America. She is author of “The WOW Factor Workplace: How to Create a Best Place to Work Culture” and “Heartfelt Leadership: How to Capture the Top Spot and Keep on Soaring