IMA Analysis

Tuesday June 23, 2015

In Pursuit of Happiness At Work

The ultimate aim of any human being, whatever the route one takes to get there, and no matter how hard-fought or tenuous it proves, is happiness. Recognising the elusive nature of happiness, Thomas Jefferson stated, in the US Declaration of Independence, that individuals are endowed with an inalienable right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. This tells us that while life and liberty are both absolute – one either has them, or does not – happiness is not, and can vary in degree along a continuum. Given that work defines a person in so many ways, and impacts the lives of so many others, being happy at work is critically important. According to Bertrand Russell, having something meaningful to do with one’s life is a source of joy. Work allows people to express their unique talents, producing an inner sense of fulfilment and happiness. It offers sustenance, but additionally, work can lend meaning to a person’s day, and can be an opportunity to make friends. On the other hand, boredom, including from lack of work, causes fatigue and unhappiness. For all these reasons, it is important to find a way to stay interested in work, if not to convert an interest into work – which is true of many people in creative or sporting fields.

NS Rajan, Member of the Group Executive Council and Group CHRO at Tata Sons, epitomises happiness in the way he lives and works, and has researched the subject closely. At a CHRO Forum session in Mumbai, he highlighted how it can be achieved and sustained, and how who we really are defines how we engage at work. As custodians of talent, CHROs can be ‘champions’ of happiness, and must strive to build avenues for it at the workplace. In doing so, however, they must step beyond standard measures of employee satisfaction and engagement. Indeed, studies find that people increasingly seek ‘happiness’, as opposed to ‘satisfaction’ or ‘engagement’, in their work environment. ‘Happy’ employees are also more productive and innovative, likelier to stay on, and tend to contribute more to company growth.

What drives happiness?

Adequate pay is necessary, but not sufficient in itself, to create happiness at work. Tellingly, data proves that country-level GDP and ‘mean levels of happiness’ are not strongly correlated. At an individual level, more money can be a positive factor, but not if, for instance, the person is not treated well or respected within the organisation. Further, incremental changes in pay, or the increased probability of recognition are unlikely to alter a person’s state of happiness in a meaningful sense. In the longer-term, in fact, people tend to settle down at some ‘mean’ level of happiness. A key question, then, is: What determines this level?

Ultimately, people must ‘choose’ to be happy and stay committed to their search for happiness. This has much to do with their attitude to life – are for that reason, many organisations pay so much attention to ‘attitude’ in their hiring decisions. Partly, happiness is also about not having to choose between too many alternatives. Contrary to common perception, having a lot of choices makes decision-making more difficult without adding much value to the final outcome. The ideal is to have no more than two or three choices for any given decision. The context also matters: people tend to be happier when surrounded by happy people. Clearly, though, this depends on close these people are to each other. At the workplace, enthusiastic people with a ‘zest for life’ spread cheer and create a ‘zone of happiness’ around themselves.

Happiness is also driven by affection, and people with a happy personal life tend to do better everywhere, including at work. According to a Harvard University study, the ability to love and to receive love from others is perhaps the single biggest source of happiness. A mother selflessly looks after her children, without any expectation of some quid pro quo. The delight that children feel and express when their parents return home at the end of the day can be uplifting. Families are therefore crucial: they love and stand by each other through thick and thin, and accept each other for who they are. Although one cannot, of course, greatly influence someone else’s personal life, it is important to at least recognise this link. What leaders can do, however, is to truly care for and be compassionate towards their colleagues.

Finding nobility of purpose at work – and equally, finding meaning and long-lasting fulfilment outside one’s job, such as in volunteer work – can drive happiness, and therefore performance. The Tata Group epitomises consistency in values, and it exists for a higher-order purpose. (Underscoring this fact, two-thirds of its profits are channelled into not-for-profit activities that drive social development.) This is universally understood across the organisation, and it not only creates a sense of belonging, but also encourages people to regard the Group’s purpose as their own. Also crucial to happiness is having – or, on the other side of the fence, providing – the right avenues for growth. This is important, because people have an inherent drive to learn and grow. A big pay package and good working conditions only go so far, and people tend to eventually leave if they are not given learning opportunities. (Sometimes, this might even mean teaching people transferable skills, which might prove useful at another organisation, because the alternative – not teaching anything – would mean losing the person anyway.) Unlike money, knowledge, once acquired, multiplies and remains intrinsic to a person, which is why it is prized so highly.

An important aspect of creating happiness at the workplace is to have meaningful conversations, such as with regard to performance. Regrettably, though, the average performance appraisal lasts just 15-20 minutes. One way to ensure a fruitful conversation is for the manager to record instances of both strong and weak performance by a person, which enables an evidence-based dialogue. To the employee, this signals not only that the manager is paying attention, but also that he is grateful to the person for his or her efforts. Fairness and consistency are crucial aspects of a credible assessment, and it is important to be clear about what constitutes performance.

…and what causes unhappiness

Blocking out unhappiness is as important as creating happiness. Of all the various things that cause misery, envy ranks among the highest. People who compare different aspects of their lives with others – whether it is their accomplishments, their families, or their jobs – find it harder to be happy. To get past this, they must know what they want, be aware of their own strengths and weaknesses, and focus only on their own achievements. They must look to others only as a source of inspiration, or in admiration. Desiring what others have without realising what this comes with – or what one actually deserves – is pointless. A promotion, for instance, might come with increased responsibilities, and it is impossible to have one without the other. Another major source of unhappiness is self-centricity. More often than not, a person’s actions are underpinned by the question, ‘What’s in it for me?’ Yet, spiritual texts such as the Upanishads speak of the opposite extreme: a state of bliss where a person has no desires for him- or herself, but finds joy in the happiness of others. Clearly, this is an ideal – and not always practical – but it is important to pay attention to the interests of those that can influence, or are influenced by, one’s everyday actions, both at the workplace and at home. A third source of unhappiness, interlinked with the other two, is allowing oneself to be overly influenced by what others think.

On a related note, envious or self-centred people tend to feel guilt, even if subliminally. For instance, there are some who might not have spoken to a parent or a sibling for years because of a past disagreement. Regardless of who was ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ in the dispute, this gives rise to deep feelings of guilt. A failure to show appreciation to people who have helped one progress in life – whether one’s spouse, a friend, a teacher, or a colleague – can also be a big emotional burden. Fortunately, the solutions are fairly easy. Reaching out to an estranged family member, irrespective of how they respond or reciprocate, and expressing gratitude to those that helped one along the way, is uplifting. Not only does it make the other person happy, but it also enhance one’s own happiness.

Building a Tata ‘quality of life’

Happiness is largely an individual pursuit, but HR can set in place policies and practices that help enable it at the workspace. To that end, Mr Rajan – with active support across the organisation, including from the Chairman, the Group Executive Council, and individual Directors and CEOs – is working to develop a Tata ‘quality of life’. Currently in the pilot stage, the project will take another 6-9 months to have a visible impact. Based on in-depth research, the aim is to define key variables that might serve as indicators of happiness. At the same time, a set of 300-400 actionable points, including everything from simple measures like getting people to smile, to providing facilities such as marriage counselling, crèches, and other conveniences that support female employees, are being formulated. (At the Tata Group, the foundations for this run deep: even the earliest mills it set up offered schooling, crèches and maternity leave, at a time when no law required it.) The intent, without being overly intrusive, is to define a way of life and provide policy support that aids individuals – and eventually, departments, functions, and the organisation as a whole – to be happier. The focus is not on metrics like a ‘happiness quotient’, and nor is there any attempt to make a ‘perfect science’ of it. It is uncertain jus how happy these measures will make people, but the effort is ‘directional’: an attempt to move the needle, however little, in the right direction.

Questions and answers

On the Tata Code of Conduct:

Integrity is a non-negotiable at the Tata Group. Since tracking integrity at the individual level is not always feasible, the focus is on what actions the organisation takes when transgressions occur. Indeed, there have been instances of senior leaders being punished severely for crossing the line, and this sends a clear message to the larger workforce. The Group asks all new entrants to sign a formal code of conduct, which goes beyond legal stipulations and establishes a wider set of standards for the organisation. In setting such standards, it is important to first articulate the governing philosophy – which could be based, for example, on the owner’s or promoters’ vision. The organisation must also frame policies that actually uphold that philosophy. Finally, execution must do justice to both the philosophy and the policies.

Enabling positivity during an organisational restructuring:

When layoffs become necessary owing to a business slowdown, it is important to clearly communicate the reasons behind this – or else risk having employees constantly worry about their jobs, which can adversely affect performance. At the Tata Group, those who are asked to leave for business-related reasons are offered substantial compensation. Also, Group companies are encouraged to offer individuals a ‘reasonable’ amount of time – as long as 8-9 months – in addition to the standard notice period, to search for another job. The way a separation is handled is crucial, also, because losing a job has an impact on a person’s family, and not just on the individual.


The contents of this paper are based on discussions of The India CHRO Forum in Mumbai with NS Rajan, Member of the Group Executive Council and Group CHRO, Tata Sons, June 2015. The views expressed may not be those of IMA India.