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On Happiness and Leadership: A Discussion with Arthur C. Brooks

On Happiness and Leadership: A Discussion with Arthur C. Brooks

A Harvard professor, social scientist, and best-selling author, Brooks shares his take on leadership and how to build a culture of workplace happiness.

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On Happiness and Leadership: A Discussion with Arthur C. Brooks

As the Parker Gilbert Montgomery Professor of the Practice of Public and Nonprofit Leadership at the Harvard Kennedy School, and Professor of Management Practice at the Harvard Business School, Arthur Brooks is an influential thinker on the connections between behavioral science, neuroscience, and philosophy.

A prolific writer—his thirteenth book, Build the Life You Want: The Art and Science of Getting Happier, coauthored with Oprah Winfrey, goes on sale in September—Brooks has a focus on purposeful work, leadership, and the connection between employee happiness and profits that parallels much of our work at Bain, and that as the leader of Bain’s People & Organization practice I am especially focused on.

After following him for years, in June I spent time with Brooks at his inaugural Leadership & Happiness Symposium at the Kennedy school, and was thrilled to recently have the opportunity to ask him a series of questions.

I think you’ll find his answers as insightful and inspiring as I do.

Sarah Elk: I have heard you mention that the most important role of a leader is to teach. Why? 

Arthur Brooks: Leadership comes in many styles, but management science indicates that the most effective leaders are also excellent teachers. The psychologist Daniel Goleman has written a lot about this: Generally, the best executives embody a blend of “authoritative” and “coaching” leadership. You can think of the former as teaching by example—the authoritative leader has vibrant enthusiasm and a clear vision and motivates employees by teaching them how their work syncs with the broader mission. Meanwhile, coaching leaders are on the constant lookout for employee strengths and spend time counseling employees on how to improve. In essence, if you blend these styles you become both a passive and active teacher. When your employees feel as though they are passively taught by your example, and then actively taught through your experience and expertise, they will have significantly more buy-in to your company’s mission. 

How can leaders teach their employees to be happier?

This question lies at the heart of the Leadership & Happiness Laboratory, my new institute at the Harvard Kennedy School. We find that deep personal happiness—a complex mixture of enjoyment, satisfaction, and meaning—are developed through four pillars in life: faith, family, friends, and work. Corporate leaders will have difficulty actively bolstering the first three pillars (faith, family, and friends), so my first piece of advice is to develop workplace policies that allow your employees time and space to strengthen these pillars on their own time. For example, allow for plenty of time off during religious holidays, do not be hawkish when your employees request time off to be with family, and develop a strong workplace culture that allows for friendships to naturally flourish. This latter suggestion is especially pertinent: A 2018 CNBC poll found that “70 percent of employees say friends at work are the most crucial element to a happy working life, and 58 percent of men would refuse a higher-paying job if it meant not getting along with co-workers.” Put another way, if your employees have great friends at work, they will be more loyal to your company. 

My second piece of advice oscillates around work itself, the fourth pillar of happiness. My lab finds that work becomes meaningful for employees when (1) they feel their work serves others, and (2) they earn success. Corporate leaders should therefore teach every employee—from the C-suite to the custodians—how their specific job is serving other people. Moreover, your company should offer in-house promotions and rewards for a job well-done. These factors lead to the feeling of earned success.

How do leaders get it wrong most often?

I have seen leader after leader inadvertently crumble “the four pillars” (faith, family, friends, work). Overworking employees in the long run leads to less time with their faith, family, and friends, which in turn increases levels of burnout and turnover intention—high costs to a company. Worst of all, when employees do not clearly see how their work serves others, they increasingly view their job as a paycheck to get by, rather than an integral part of helping society. This is only made worse when employees feel stuck in their roles as promotions are given to outside hires, time and again. 

Are profitable growth and employee happiness competing goals?

Thankfully not. In fact, a growing body of research indicates that these two goals move positively with one another. In the last 10 or so years, management science has studied this question in detail, and a recent working paper between Oxford and Harvard scholars is very convincing. Using large-scale data of 1,600 companies from Indeed, the scholars compared employee well-being measures (self-reported job satisfaction, purpose, happiness, and stress) with firm performance measures. The paper found that higher well-being indicators predict higher firm valuation, higher return on assets, higher gross profits, and better stock market performance. The evidence suggests that happier employees help a company’s bottom line. 

You were a CEO at the American Enterprise Institute for over a decade. In what ways did you think about increasing happiness as part of your role? Or put another way, knowing what you know now, how would you have approached the CEO role differently?

As the CEO of a large think tank, the subject matter of happiness was not the central focus. But as a behavioral economist, I have thought about happiness for almost 30 years. In my CEO days, I had a firm belief that the public policies we researched and advocated for—which at their core aimed at human flourishing—would help people get happier. I think this gave my employees a lot of personal fulfillment. Again, this comes back to showing your workforce that their work serves others. Happiness is not about putting in a nice cafeteria or better office chairs (although these things can’t hurt!). It’s about demonstrating the deep importance of everyone’s work.

But I wasn’t perfect. I was a classic “pacesetting” CEO, a style of leadership that is quite different from authoritative or coaching. As you might guess, a pacesetter is a relentless worker who always pitches in and sets an example for how hard others should work. This sounds good on paper, but it turns out that pacesetting leaders tend to put undue pressure on employees to keep up. Here’s the bottom line: It’s great to work hard as a CEO, but don’t sacrifice your friend and family time to send urgent emails to your employees at 10 p.m. This is a poor practice for your personal happiness and the well-being of your employees. 

Besides reading your books, how should a leader get started?

Developing a workplace culture of happiness requires putting on your own oxygen mask first. If the C-suite preaches happiness principles to middle management and then does not follow through in their own lives, the message will appear hollow. My advice to leaders: Deliberately carve out family time. Spend more time with your “real” friends, not your “deal” friends. Start your day with prayer, or, if you’re not religious, read an essay by your favorite philosopher. And if you’re hungry for more of the science, I write a weekly column in The Atlantic that spans many of these topics. Moreover, my team at the Leadership & Happiness Laboratory at Harvard publish a biweekly newsletter, The Happiness Abstract, that is a zero-cost quick read for anyone interested in learning more.

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