Study shows that happy employees are more productive than those who are not. In this episode, Alexander Kjerulf, founder and Chief Happiness Officer of Woohoo, explains why leaders should create more happiness at work and how to do that. Alexander trains himself to be positive and happier at what he does, and taking this approach awakens him to a new journey. Companies should define happiness in their workplace, and Alexander shares how they define happiness in Woohoo Inc. Furthermore, he wants leaders to start finding happiness within themselves to affect their teams. Tune in to this episode and find value in spreading happiness in your workplace today!
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Arbejdsglaede: How To Create More Happiness At Work With Alexander Kjerulf
Our guest is 4,000 miles away and calling in from Denmark. Alexander Kjerulf is the Founder and Chief Happiness Officer of Woohoo inc, and one of the world’s leading experts on happiness at work. He is an author and speaker presenting and conducting workshops on happiness at work, at businesses, and conferences in over 50 countries.
Tune in as we learn a new word only spoken in Scandinavian countries and define what happiness looks like and doesn’t in the workplace. We jump into examples where negative or even big cultures drive unnecessary treatment or layoffs and why that is bad for people and companies. Take in the simple messages from Alex that he has boiled down from his extensive research to help you connect with your own happiness and how to bring this out in others at work and in your community. Enjoy.
Alex, it’s great to see you again. We met in Copenhagen in 2018 at this amazing conference that you hosted from Woohoo inc, and it was called Happiness at Work. How about that? I’m so glad to have you on the show.
My absolute pleasure.
I learned a new word when I was out there and I believe it goes something like Arbejdsglæde. How did I do pronouncing that and what does it mean?
Danish is one of the hardest languages in the world to pronounce. It goes Arbejdsglæde. Arbejde in Danish means work like the German arbeiten. Glæde is happiness like gladness. Arbejdsglæde is happiness at work and the interesting thing here, it’s beyond how difficult to pronounce. Only the Scandinavian languages have this word for being happy at work, for loving what you do. There’s no word for that in English, French, Russian, or Chinese.
Is it enunciated the same way in the different Scandinavian countries?
No. Swedish and Norwegian are more logical in their pronunciation. Their languages make more sense than ours does. Ours is weird.
How fun to bring that word out to the world? I know it’s one of your goals. Meeting you in Copenhagen, I took that away and I have been practicing (saying the word and creating happiness at work) ever since. It took me a while to get that down. I’m still working on it as I got to tighten the language a little bit, it sounds like. It’s good for you to be practicing happiness at work. You are bringing this out to the world. Where are you at these days and what are you focused on? What are you seeing?
Do we have to mention the C word? COVID has had a huge effect on a lot of people at work. That’s one thing that’s going on. We can go into that a little bit on what’s going on. The other thing that’s going on is the Great Resignation, which I’m incredibly encouraged by. I would love to see way more people quit their jobs. We have declared March 31st to be International Quick Your Crappy Job Day.
We created a website called InternationalQuitYourCrappyJobDay.com to help more people make the leap if they have bad jobs. That’s something we are focused on. Something else that’s interesting that’s going on is looking at all of the job layoffs in the US and shaking my head and wondering, “What are they thinking? This is never going to work.” If you think it can lay off your way to success and profits, you have no idea what you are doing. The worst example right now is Elon Musk on Twitter and that’s something we are keeping an eye on right now and seeing how bad those things are going.
Tell us a little bit more. Those are a couple of interesting topics and how does this tie into your point around happiness at work? Let’s start with Elon Musk and I’d love to know a little bit more about the tech companies too.
When Elon Musk took over Twitter, the first thing he did was lay off 50% of the staff, and now it’s up to 75% of the staff that has been let go as he desperately tries to make the company profitable. As we know from the research because this has been researched, layoffs make an organization less profitable. There are so many hidden costs associated with the layoff that they are not profitable and especially not when the layoffs of 75% of the staff, we can see Twitter is crumbling both as a technology platform and as an organization. Elon Musk turned out to be alienated from both the best of his employees and a good 40% of the advertisers that he relies on for revenue.
This is interesting because right after Elon took over Twitter, he instituted these massive layoffs. A lot of other tech CEOs were like, “That’s the way to do it. I’m going to emulate Elon.” I haven’t heard from those people lately because Twitter is a dumpster fire now in so many ways. Again, if you wanted to see the silver lining here, Twitter will be taught in business schools as a classic example of what happens when you put the wrong person in charge of a big company, and Elon’s example will be taught as a warning story for future generations of leaders.
That’s one thing that’s going on. You see something like Salesforce which has had two rounds of layoffs and they are looking at their third. This is interesting because Marc Benioff, their Founder, has sold the Salesforce culture as a family culture. What is the Hawaiian word used? Is it Ohana or something? I forget exactly what it is, but you are like, “Here’s what you say, and here’s what you do. Here’s how those two things are not connected at all,” so he’s also been revealed as one of the fakers.
On the other hand, you have the companies that should that use these times to say, “This is when we double down on happiness at work. This is when we double down on our commitment to our employees to preserve their good jobs, and those companies are interesting to follow.”
My favorite example is a tech company that I work with in Serbia called Vega IT. They are amazing. They have grown from 0 to 500 employees. They are on their way to like thousands of employees. When COVID hit and they lost huge amounts of revenue from their clients, they are like, “We are not laying off a single solitary person.” This turned out to be the right decision because now the customers are back and the company is growing again. If they lost 20% of their staff then, they would miss them now.
Also, it would have hurt their culture, which is very much people-first and all about happiness at work. Now we have those two examples. We have Salesforce, Twitter, and Meta on one side, and then we have the companies that showed that they do care about their staff even in tough times, and those companies are worth following.Companies that care about their staff even in tough times are worth following. Click To Tweet
There are some of these reactive situations where leaders are trying to survive in the moment. What do you think the causes are? There are some benefits to waiting it out. We have seen some companies. We even have a mutual friend with Garry Ridge. He did something similar at WD-40 where he focused on his employees first. What do you think is causing this and what are some of the good examples? What are they seeing coming out of it?
From where I’m sitting, there is massive pressure on top leadership to follow business orthodoxy. Business orthodoxy says cut costs. If you can lay off people, do that. That pressure exists at all times, but it becomes especially tough in tough times when the company is losing money. If you have an activist investor demanding that you cut costs, if you have board members or stockholders, it becomes incredibly hard to say, “That’s a bad idea. I’m not going to do it.” You will also have the financial press clamoring for layoffs. I have never seen a single financial analyst ever commend a company for not laying people off. Every time they do a 5% or 10% layoff, they are like, “This is management making the tough call and showing decisiveness and this is going to work.”
There is a lot of pressure on top leadership to do these kinds of things and also it is virtually a risk-free decision. If you lay staff off and the company improves, you will be hailed as a hero. If you lay staff off and it doesn’t help the company, which in most cases it doesn’t, you can use that as evidence. Times were super tough. Those layoffs were necessary. In fact, we are probably going to need to do more layoffs. No CEO ever got fired for doing a layoff ever in the history of business. It’s a cowardly decision, but it’s safe.
It’s self-preservation at its best. Protect oneself versus others, and we both know where we get a lot of joy from is helping out other people. Some of the leaders that we have seen have success here believe they have put it out to their teams and say, “How do you want to best solve this?” It’s not just that individual leader making that decision. It’s a collective group decision. I don’t know if there are a couple of examples that come to mind that resonate with you.
My favorite example of that is Xilinx. Have you heard of them at all?
No, I haven’t.
I talked to their former CEO Wim Roelandts who’s a Belgian man. I met him at a conference where I was speaking and he was speaking as well. This was in 2009 just when the financial crisis had hit seriously. He started his talk with, “I know we have a financial crisis but this is my eighth recession. I’m not worried.” He talked about his time at Xilinx which is a tech company in Silicon Valley, and they were hard hit by the 2001 dot-com crash.
He decided not to lay off a single person. They instituted voluntary pay cuts for everybody. You could take an educational leave of absence. You could work on internal projects instead of working on client projects. They went to their employees and say, “What are your ideas for handling this situation?” The cool thing is that every single one of their employees decided to take the voluntary pay cut, which by the way, was graded. The lowest paid employees, the factory workers had no pay cut, and the more money you made, the bigger percentage of your salary was cut. (Link to article of story here).
The results were that they came out of this with an increased market share, increased level of happiness at work, and increased trust between employees and management. They were able to hold onto that increase by a fifteen-point increased market share. They were able to hold onto that after the market recovered and they could recover faster than all of the other tech companies that had laid off 10%, 15%, or 20% of their staff. Involving employees directly in solving this problem instead of saying, “We are going to let 10% of you go,” was amazing. There are so many examples that we don’t hear about them because they don’t fit into traditional thinking.
I like that you are putting articles and messages out there. It’s great like Southwest. I know Garry Ridge over at WD-40. They put it out to the teams too. When we trust our teams, the team is going to pick us up. That’s what happens. Ridge shared and said it with Menlo Innovations and his team picked him up and the team picked each other up. That’s what we do. We have cultures that are thinking about joy at work where we have trust. There’s another software company (Softway Solutions) that went through a layoff and they deployed a whole new strategy. It’s called Love as a Business Strategy. They have a whole program on that and they have a book on it. They are in tech too.
I appreciate where you are coming from. You have a background in technology and IT. This isn’t foreign to you. You are right in the middle of it. You have been involved. You are aware of it. You work with people all around the world, which is fabulous. You’re speaking around the world too. We have talked about the world’s happiness report and the Scandinavian country seems to always be at the top. Tell me what’s going on over there.
It’s great but I’m a little bummed because Denmark used to be number one. Now for the last few years running, we have been number two, beaten by Finland.
I didn’t want to say that. I was trying to be nice.
Ha, this is not okay. Seriously, it’s great. What’s working well in the Scandinavian countries is that we have this basic level of societal welfare. We take good care of people. What’s interesting is that if look at happiness by income in the Scandinavian countries compared to the US, you will see that the richest Scandinavians and the richest Americans have about the same level of happiness, but in the US, it drops off quickly.
If you are in the US, if you are lower middle class or worse off, you face a lot of challenges. I saw a study that said that 60% of Americans live paycheck to paycheck. If you get fired, you are one month away from maybe losing your home. Whereas, there is the lowest quintile by income in the Scandinavian countries is a little less happy than the rest.
Regardless of how rich you are in the Scandinavian countries, you can live a happy, fulfilling, and safe life. You don’t have to worry about healthcare costs, hospital costs, and education costs, because all of that is covered by our taxes. That’s one thing that works well in the Scandinavian countries, and the other thing that works well is that we have a very high level of trust, and that goes both between people and between people and various institutions.Regardless of how rich you are in the Scandinavian countries, you can live a happy, fulfilling, and safe life. The taxes cover healthcare and education costs, so you don't have to worry about them. Click To Tweet
If you ask the average Dane, “Do you trust in the government, police, and court system?” The answer is overwhelmingly yes. We are a functioning society, overall safe, it works, and it takes care of you. That’s the main part. I can tell you it’s not the weather. It’s not that. It’s raining right now and it’s not the taxes because those are high, but it’s worth every penny in my opinion. When you ask the researchers, those are some of the main things they point at.
That’s fair. You are in Copenhagen, Denmark. I was there visiting when we met. You were jumping around the stage and around the whole facility for the two days, which was fabulous. Your energy is unbelievable and infectious, and all the amazing things you are. The thing is I always find what was amazing is the interactions with people in Copenhagen, yourself, and others.
I remember Mikael Kamber said, “There are no A-holes in this place.” What I recognized when I was at the conference was that everybody was pretty amazing. People wanted good in the world. People shared love, hope, and happiness. There was that bond. I felt like I understood the Danish way a little bit, all the bicycles flying by, and it felt like there was a different level of respect for each other.
It didn’t matter where you came from. It didn’t matter what you looked like. It didn’t matter what job you had or how rich or wealthy you might be. I feel like it’s an underpinning component of our joy in society is whether we treat each other respectfully and understand that we all contribute in a meaningful way to the world.
That is a thing in Scandinavia in general and the Nordic countries. We have a more egalitarian approach. You will not impress a lot of people in Scandinavia by being a billionaire. People will be like, “It’s cool. That’s nice.” If, on the other hand, you are a billionaire, a workaholic, on your third divorce, and on a second heart attack, you are not going to impress anybody at all. People here focus way more on quality of life than on how much is in your bank account.
I remember talking to an American venture capitalist who came here to invest in some Danish tech companies and couldn’t understand why all the offices were empty at 4:00 PM. People go home. They pick up their kids from kindergarten or school and they go home. He was like, “Is nobody here working?”
Yeah. There is a different focus here and for the average person in Scandinavia, a successful life is not the one where you have the flashiest car, the biggest house, or the most money. It’s the one where you have a good quality of life, time for yourself, for your hobbies, where you enjoy your work, and time for your family and your kids. You can see them grow up.
Now I read an interview with a Danish CEO, who refuses to work more than 40 hours a week and he’s built a big successful business on a 40-hour work week because that’s plenty. That’s all he needs. That’s what we consider a success story here. The whole Elon Musk who’s clearly not happy and brags about his 120-hour work weeks and brags about sleeping in the office at the Twitter HQ and who’s clearly unwell and unhealthy physically as well, nobody here would look at him and go, “I want to be like Elon.”
I would say that here, too. Here’s the thing. Why are we giving up 80 hours of our lives to something we are not even happy at? Maybe we love it. Maybe Elon loves what he is doing. I give him that. At the same time, as a leader, we got to walk to talk. If we want the best for our people, we want people to go home to their families and enjoy a quality of life. That is something that is not as well received here in the States as you know.
It’s hard because I have been struggling with this probably over my whole career. I started my career having to get 80-90 hours in a week and at one point, I said, “Any time after 5:00 is my family time.” If I take away from that, I’m taking away from my family. It’s made me think about my quality of life during work.
I need to enjoy the work and the people I’m working with, making a meaningful impact. All of the things that are important to some of your teachings in your book and what I heard you say on stage. I have employed that in the way I live and work. I am a lot happier. I’m still working on it. It’s one of those things. I will have the computer out at 10:00 at night getting ready for a show, but I’m having fun doing that.
First of all, that’s amazing. I wish way more people thought as you do. Secondly, don’t you also find that this approach makes you better at what you do?
Yes. I feel like I am more of my authentic self. I feel like I don’t have to come in as the finance person being all serious about the numbers. That’s what I was. I feel like I’m more authentic, inclusive, and open-minded. I’m more creative and all the things that we have talked about with happiness. I’m more productive. I work on things that are most important.
Sometimes we are asked to do things that maybe we don’t want to do yet we got to do it because it’s going to allow us to get to the next thing that we want to do. It’s that balance. It’s a keyword that I learned a long time ago, which is balance. Understanding when you cross the line, putting the boundaries out there, making sure that we are going to kick ourselves back in, and it’s about being my authentic self. It’s a lot easier being me versus someone else.
What’s so important here to know and you know this. For the readers, it also turns out that when you, as a leader or even as a regular employee, when you like what you do, you do a better job. As you said, people who are happy at work are more productive and creative. They work better with others. They communicate better. They are more helpful towards others. People are more helpful towards them. Instead, if you are a miserable bastard, nobody wants to help you.
That’s one thing. There’s a personal benefit. It also turns out that if the leader is happy at work, the employees are also more productive. It has an effect on them. The other thing is the work-life balance that you are talking about. It turns out that when the leader overworks themselves, it has a terrible effect on the employees. One study showed that if a leader had slept poorly at night, they were more likely to abuse their employees the following day. That’s one example.
We know that overworked leaders’ behaviors towards their employees are worse. They’re more likely to abuse them and make them unhappy and stressed because they are stressed themselves. I know you can’t tell them this because all of the people who work and all of those leaders who work 80-hour weeks are so proud of it. Elon Musk, 100+ a week.
We know from research that they overestimate their own productivity, which is interesting. They demand the same from their employees, which is super dumb because people get less work done in an 80-hour week than they do in 40. It’s not that your productivity is lower, which most people get. It’s your total output that is lower. We have known this since the first systematic productivity studies that were conducted during World War I in British ammunition factories.
In 1917, they found out that if you increase the working hours for this team that is making bombs, they produce fewer bombs, and that is super interesting. One more thing that I find amazing was that the managers who overwork want their employees to do the same but they can’t tell the difference between an employee who works 80 hours a week and an employee who fakes working 80 hours a week.
People are just saying, “We work 80 hours.”
You can set up your email programs to send emails at night even if you are not there to make it look like you are working late, and your boss can’t tell. They can’t tell the difference between somebody who’s working hours a week and somebody who’s pretending to. This whole area is rife with misunderstandings and beliefs that are actively damaging both to people and to the productivity of the company. That’s one area where we need to break out of that belief.
I have even heard global conversations in progress around encouraging four-day work weeks and there’s a lot of good research on that. To your point about productivity back to the 1917 days, it’s very similar. By being able to enjoy life a little bit, you are going to come back more upbeat, more positive, and more energetic.
There are some studies I have seen too here in the States where when companies are focusing on employee experience, they are like four times more profitable. How about that? The companies that focus a little bit on happiness recognize that happier employers do better work. They are 20% more productive. It makes sense. When you are going to a hospital or on a call with a call center for a complaint, do you want to talk to the unhappy person? We always joke about that. It’s common sense.
It is common sense. Somebody said there’s nothing as uncommon as common sense. May have been Mark Twain or somebody.
That’s what it feels like. We are too busy to slow down, pause, and reflect on what’s happening and to see what’s there, because when we do that, we could see what’s in front of us.
Also, there’s a little bit of cost fallacy here because a lot of the business leaders driving the old-school thinking, they have invested. They have spent so much time and energy on that approach. To suddenly turn around and say, “Maybe I could have achieved even better results if I had worked 40 hours a week and seen my kids growing up,” would be a major admission of defeat for a lot of these people, and their entire ego is tied up in this approach. The Jack Ma and the 996, did you hear about him?
Jack Ma, the Chinese tech billionaire was promoting the 996 principle. He says, “The only way to be successful is to work from 9:00 to 9:00, six days a week. That’s a 72-hour work week. How even?
To make it mandatory, this is difficult to put this on anybody. Even putting requirements on people to work the hours. The other side of it is, I don’t think we are asking or forcing people to be happy either. We are asking people to consider what’s important in the role. Before we get into your book and happiness at work and what it looks like, and how to help leaders think about this, leaders talk about the employee experience. 80% recognize it’s important, but only 20% are recognized and that they are doing anything about it.
Going on the other side of happiness too, people are more productive, energetic, loving, and creative, yet only 30% of people are happy in their job in different studies I have seen. Before we get into that, I’d love to go into a personal direction with you. Have you always been happy? Where does this come from for you? How did you get here?
I’m not a naturally happy person. My background is in engineering in tech, which is very much about finding flaws and errors and everything, and I’m very good at that. I have had to train myself in these methods that we teach others as well. I try to train myself to be more positive and happier in what I do. It’s always been a personal life goal of mine to have a job that I enjoy. This is from way back when I was in high school and you wanted to go to a university, but I was like, “What should I study?” My main goal was to find something that I enjoy where I can have a job that I like. It’s always been a personal life goal for me.
I got a couple of jobs. The first job I got made me desperately miserable. It did not fit in. It was not a bad workplace. It wasn’t the right place for me. I got a job in a small consulting company and that was nice, and I quit that and I cofounded a tech company here in Copenhagen in 1997. When we did that, our main goal was to make it a happy workplace. We sold the company in 2002.
This happiness at work is great. Somebody should do something about it. That’s when I started doing talks and workshops for clients around the world. That’s how I got into this field. I’m not a natural speaker. I had to learn how to give a good presentation and I’m not a naturally happy person. I have had to learn this myself.
I’d love to understand how you got there too. Did you have some elements in your childhood that you were thinking, “I need to find a job that I enjoy?” Was there something you had learned or you had seen?
Two things probably drove me. One was my dad who was miserable at work and a terrible manager. A lot of it was looking at how he approaches work life and saying, “I’m going to do the opposite of that.” The other thing was after I had graduated from university, I had the first job that I didn’t like in a small consulting company and tech company for a couple of years. I was miserable. I had lost sight of what made me happy.
I’d moved to a new city. I didn’t know anybody there so I had no friends. My days were to work, come home, eat a pizza, watch TV, go to sleep, and repeat the next day. I made a buttload of money. I had a lot of overtime hours but I was miserable. At some point, I was like, “This is not working. I need to find a new way to approach this.” That was my personal awakening in my own work life. That was something that I took with you when we cofounded our own tech company. That was probably the main thing that drove me.
It’s fabulous that you went and listened. You listened to your dad and what he went through. Sometimes our best lessons are learning what we don’t want to do, and unfortunately, your dad had to deal with and cope with some of those components of not enjoying what he was doing. Sometimes learning what not to do or to do it better or differently, that’s what evolution is all about.
You took the step of, “I’m going to quit. I’m going to go do this differently because I have a life to live. I want to be happy. I want to bring out the best in the world or whatever that might be,” and you did it. Let’s talk about that. How did you do it? What you developed and you wrote books. Wherever you’d like to go because I’d love for the readers to learn, “There’s something I want to do as a leader. I don’t lead over people yet I have a voice to be able to step in differently.” Maybe there are some ideas you could take us down a path or 2 and maybe some of the things you did along the way that you learned. Maybe it didn’t work but you had to do differently.
My personal journey was like this. I got the idea I want to promote happiness at work, and the next question was awesome, “How?” Here’s how I approach it. The first was research because I came from engineering, a completely different background. I started researching this. I read a couple of hundred books on happiness, psychology, organizational theory, management, case studies, and all that stuff.
I was like, “Now with some things.” I went out into my network with interesting people and I talked to people. What is happiness work to you? What do you think makes you happy at work? What do you think makes other people happy at work? Why do you think happiness work is important? I talked to them and said, “Who else should I talk to and spread out through there?” That introduced me to a lot of cool people.
At some point, I was like, “I could design this forever. I need to try it out. I’m going to design some workshops and some speeches. I will create the company, put up the website, and see what happens,” and I got my first client. It was amazing. One client leads to the next one to the next one, and suddenly, it’s taking shape in spring. At first, it was very much in Denmark and I started getting international clients as well. What’s worked for me is this focus on always being willing to share what we know. We have a YouTube channel, blog, and social media. We put a lot of stuff out there.
We don’t keep our trade secrets close to our chest. You can find so many videos out there of me giving a keynote somewhere or giving a speech somewhere. I have no problem with that. If somebody wants to watch that instead of booking me, go for it. What I find is that when you are open with your content, when you are out there sharing what you know because you hope it helps people, people like you and they want what’s best for you as well and they are willing to help you.
That’s very much been our approach and figuring out how we get as much of our stuff out there where it can help people instead of feeling like I can’t share any secrets without charging you for it. Those are some of the things that have worked for us, and this constant willingness to follow the evidence and the research is very important.
Let’s face it. There is a lot of nonsense in this field. When you have something like happiness, there are a lot of “gurus and experts.” They have one tool they want to sell you and you know what they say. If all you have is a hammer, every problem looks like a nail. One of my favorite examples is color theory. There are people who say that if you want to make your employees happier, you need to pave the walls in different colors. I’m like, “This is not going to make any difference.” It’s nice to look at. It’s not going to matter. Just one example.
Follow the research. Whatever field you are in, there’s probably science in it. Can you find that science and follow it to find out what works instead of doing what you think works? It’s been many years that I have been doing this now and our message has changed a lot as we are realizing. We thought this was true but new research says it’s this way, and we follow that. Those are some of the pointers that have helped us, and beyond that, we have been incredibly lucky and fortunate that we have a message that resonates with a lot of people.
It does. It’s infectious and energizing. One of the things that’s important for the readers is that you have done all the research for happiness at work. Take advantage of this. Don’t feel like you need to go out there. I have read a bunch and went to see you in Copenhagen for that very reason. I recognize ideas to be there and I belonged.
I felt like I belonged at that conference. It’s one of those moments. I have been in a couple and that’s one of them where you fit in. You are like, “This is it. This is what it’s about,” and I appreciate everything you are doing. I’m glad you have started this path and I’d love to hear a little bit more about what happiness at work looks like.
That’s a great question and it can look very different because we are all different people and we all look different when we are happy. I remember the first workshop on Happiness at Work that I did for a client. There was this group of people from a major car brand from their administrative office in Copenhagen. We do this workshop and at the end of it, I ask them to share, “What did you get out of it?”
This very distinguished gentleman in a suit and tie, gray hair and glasses, stands up and addresses his coworkers, and says, “I want you all to know that I’m not as unhappy as I look.” Also, he was very serious, stone-faced. That’s how he looked when he was happy. It’s very important to recognize that happiness at work doesn’t have to be running around with your arms out going, “Isn’t this amazing?”
If you are an introvert or if you are a different person, you can sit quietly at your desk, meticulously doing your job and feeling amazing about it. It’s important to recognize this very basic fact that people are different and we look different when we are happy. Should we talk a little bit about how we define happiness at work?
This is going to be the same for everybody. There are many great definitions so I’m going to give you ours. For us, it’s emotional. It’s about your emotional state in the workplace. What emotions does work cause you? The question is, does work cause mostly positive emotions? You are curious and interested in what you do and learning new things.
Maybe you are proud of the work you do because you do a good job. Maybe you feel accepted and appreciated in the workplace because you work with great people. Maybe you feel like you are contributing. You are proud because your work is making a positive difference for somebody. You have all of these positive emotions you can experience in the workplace.
Maybe you have a lot of negative emotions. Maybe you feel super stressed because you are always behind because your workload is too high. Maybe you feel embarrassed because your boss is always yelling at you because you are not doing a good enough job. Maybe you are close to burnout because you are not being treated well. Maybe you feel neglected and overlooked in the workplace because nobody talks to you.
For us, the question is, “Does work cause mostly positive emotions or mostly negative emotions in you?” No job is perfect. There is no job that will only feel good. There’s going to be crappy tasks that suck but you got to do them. Get it over with and do them. The question is, “Does work mostly make you feel good emotionally or does it mostly make you feel bad?” That is how we look at it. It’s essentially emotional.
This is a crucial distinction because a lot of companies and leaders focus on employee satisfaction, which is a little bit different in that it’s more rational and logical. It’s when you sit down and you weigh all the factors in your employment situation. Your salary is fine but maybe your commute is a little long. Hours are high, but on the other hand, your boss is nice or whatever. You sit there and you rationally evaluate your situation. That determines if you are satisfied or not.
We think that the emotional part is way more important because we know from the research that emotions have a huge effect on how we perform and how we feel in general. It’s about feeling good at work. It’s also going to affect your home life. It’s going to affect your health. It’s going to affect your performance at work and so on. That’s how we define happiness at work and this emotional thing is the same for everybody.Emotions have a huge effect on how we perform and how we feel in general. It's about feeling good at work. It will also affect your home life, health, and work performance. Click To Tweet
Introverts and extroverts, men and women, young people, and old people. It doesn’t matter anywhere in the world. What makes us happy at work is when it makes us feel good. This is a tough pill to swallow for some people because some people believe that emotions don’t belong in the workplace. Leave your emotions at the door. You can be happy or unhappy at home. Come to work and be a robot, and that’s not how we human beings work.
Emotions are an integral part of who we are and we take them with us everywhere. We can’t not. To add to that, the question becomes, “What doesn’t make us happy at work? What causes positive emotions in the workplace?” This is where a lot of companies get it wrong because they are focusing on the satisfaction part.
When they want their employees to be more satisfied, they try with perks. Here’s a pizza party. Here’s a massage. You can go to this room and get a massage. Here’s a spin class in the office. Here are free smoothies, coffee, or whatever. None of those things work. It’s been proven again and again. Those do not make us happy at work.
Happiness at work comes from results and relationships. Results mean that you are good at what you do, you make a difference, you can achieve your goals, and importantly, that your work is meaningful. You can see why your work matters. Relationships are that you are treated well in the workplace. You feel like you belong. You have a good relationship with your coworkers, manager, the people you work with, and maybe even with the clients.
If you look at the research, it’s pretty clear that is not the whole truth but that explains at least 80% to 90% of our happiness at work is a results and relationships or as we put it, doing great work together with great people. That’s where you can focus on yourself. If you are not happy at work, ask yourself, “How can I get more of a feeling of results and relationships?” As a manager, that’s what you need to create for your employees, and as companies that work, that’s what we need. We need to create a culture that fosters this feeling of results and relationships.
What I’m hearing is so much about how people are showing up. They matter. The belonging. There’s so much focus here in the States, I don’t know about Denmark, where we talk about diversity, equity, and inclusion, and now we are talking about belonging and this continues. I’m a believer of as we are setting in at work or we are leading, we are working together. If we matter and belong, doesn’t that solve all that as long as we are open-minded, welcoming, and also providing the right level of work that people are excited about?
That’s essentially it. That’s very much the relationship part. You can come to work and be yourself and be accepted for who you are. If you are gay, trans, or different race, you are accepted for who you are and maybe even appreciated for who you are. Whereas some workplaces are very stiff and you have to hide who you are.
A friend of mine here in Denmark is hugely into Christmas. Starting from December 1st, she’s all about the Christmas sweaters, and Christmas decorations, it’s a whole thing. It’s amazing to watch every single Christmas. A few years ago, she put on Christmas decorations around her desk in the office and her manager came by and said, “Take those down. This is a workplace. It’s not a playground. It’s not a kindergarten. You need to project a serious image. Also, you can’t wear Christmas sweaters.”
Come on. First of all, she’s not even in a customer-facing role. That made no sense, but also, why not let her? That’s one example. There are so many examples of that thing where the company they don’t want you to be yourself. They want you to be like a professional, put on a mask, put on a suit, and hide who you are.
That’s very much the relationship aspect is very much. If we want to build good relationships in the workplace, we can only do that if people can be themselves. If I’m not myself, if I’m faking and you are faking, the two people building a relationship are not us. They are two other people. It’s never going to be any good. That’s a huge part of it when people can be themselves. That’s relationship.
The other part is the results when we help them do a great job. Importantly when we tell them when they do a great job. It’s in a lot of workplaces. People do amazing work but nobody tells them. How are you going to maintain a feeling of results, a feeling that you matter, a feeling that you make a difference if you never ever hear about your good work but you are only ever punished whenever you make a mistake? That is the sad reality in a lot of workplaces.
We don’t reinforce the good and why would you want to do it again or do it even better? It’s one of those things. As we continue to do it better, we are more productive and happier about the work we do and we only need to work four days a week. At the end of the day, that’s what it needs to have. The examples that you are sharing are bringing back for me, years ago, I had this awakening where I was that person you are talking about. It was very square and very uptight. My emotions are pretty closely aligned anyway, yet there’s no crying at work. No crying in baseball. We used to say over here in the States.
When I had this awakening, I recognized I wasn’t bringing in differences. I wasn’t bringing in joy at work. When I started to reach back out and embrace who I am, my authentic self to your point, that’s what allowed me to connect with differences. It allowed me to connect with love in a different way. It allowed me to cry at work. It allowed me to accept people crying at work. It allowed me to accept all emotions that come with all of that, and guess what happened? Our results went through the roof.
I never would have imagined it had I not gone through tough work, meaning accepting who I am and that everything’s not perfect. I was portraying that everything was perfect, but it was not. I was being vulnerable about what I needed to do better. I’m on that journey now and I wish that as leaders, we could start to embrace people coming in as their full selves or at least the part that they want to bring in. Part of my awakening came from people saying, “I need to show up like somebody else. I can’t wear the hair I want. I can’t wear the clothes I want. I can’t do these things now I’m coming in like what you are telling me to be. I am being a bit robotic and maybe 40% of myself. Guess what we are getting as far as the work?
First of all, it’s fantastic that you do that. That’s amazing. I wish more people would do that thing. There is so much value in that, but beyond that, it’s basic humanity to accept people as they are. Again, one of my favorite examples of that is Zappos in Vegas where they prefer people who are a little weird and different.
I have been there five times and walking around the office is amazing. You see so many piercings, tattoos, tie-dye T-shirts, and weird office decorations because they are being different from everybody else is a good thing because if we are all the same, we all bring the same and we lose out on some perspectives. I could not agree more, and a huge part of happiness work is being able to be who you are.
We lose that out on discoveries and the beauty that people bring or the ideas because there’s so much potential. We will talk about the, “We want to tap into people’s potential.” We got to allow people to be their weird and unique selves. We are all weird and unique. That’s the new normal.
Weird is good. There’s the Hunter S. Thompson quote that goes, “When the going gets weird, the weird turns pro.”
A couple of other questions for you. For a leader out there, where do I start?
You start with yourself as you did. It’s amazing because as a leader, if you are not happy at work yourself, there’s no way your employees are ever going to be happy at work. Emotions are contagious. We know that from a ton of research and the bosses’ emotions are the most contagious. When you are in a position of authority, people look to you.Happiness starts within yourself. As a leader, if you're not happy at work, your employees will never be happy at work because emotions are contagious. Click To Tweet
I can’t tell you how many times I have heard employees say, “When our boss comes to work in the morning, we look at them and we can see if this is going to be a good day or a bad day. If they have that expression on their face like something is wrong, everybody ducks down behind their computer and tries not to be noticed.” Start with yourself. Figure out as you did. If something is not working for you in your own work life, fix it and see if you can get to the point where you are enjoying what you do.
From there, once you are on that path, spread it to your employees and make sure that they have that feeling of results and relationships. For me, it’s not about an annual pizza party. A friend of mine from the US shared an email from her daughter. Her daughter has a job somewhere and the daughter said, “We got a pizza party.” What meant by that was they’d been working hard. What management did was throw three pizzas on a table and be like, “Aren’t you happy now? Don’t you feel appreciated?” Somehow, it’s so weird they did not.
I have a funny story related to that. An insurance company, people would say, “We got another sheet cake.” It’s a different message. It’s not connected and we can’t eat our way to happiness. Happiness, as it relates to eating and consuming things, is fine and fun yet it’s not sustainable and transcendent. The things we are talking about are transcendent about relationships like you said, and the results about helping people do good work, do their best work as a leader, or ourselves stepping in to do meaningful work.
I could promise you, and you have seen it with all of your clients and some of the people I’m working with. It makes a big difference. Results follow. If you put focus on people and you have faith, results will follow. People struggle and will say to me, “How do you measure it?” My other question for you is this. I know you are involved with heartcount. How do you measure these things? What’s a good meaningful way to start and to think about later?
I can tell you how not to measure it. In the annual job satisfaction survey, they suck for many reasons. They have 50 or 75 questions. Often, people are like, “Nobody wants to fill them out.” You get garbage data anyway and the company doesn’t follow up on them. It takes forever. HR has to keep sending out reminder emails. “Please fill out the survey,” and nobody does. Also, it’s once a year. When you get the data, they are already three months old. How’s that relevant? If somebody’s unhappy now, you need to figure that out now.
You have to do something right away. You get the data and you don’t do anything anyway.
I have worked with so many clients who did the annual pulse survey or job satisfaction survey or whatever. It doesn’t work. I was like, “How do we do the opposite?” We created something called heart count, which is being used by a lot of clients now. Instead of measuring happiness at work with 75 questions once a year, we measured with three questions once a week.
It’s a super simple process. Every Friday, all the employees get an email, text, Slack message, or whatever they decide to use with three questions. You don’t need to log in or anything. You can reply to the questions directly in the email. It takes fifteen seconds for every employee. First of all, it’s weekly data on how people are doing.
The information goes directly back to the employees. You can, week by week, see how your team is doing. It’s not like HR has to filter the data first and you get it in three months. You get it right away. Monday morning, you can see how your team is doing. You can see individual data, but you can see how your team is doing and if there’s a rise or drop in happiness.
The cool thing about this is that you get weekly data. It’s not a drag on employees. It’s like fifteen seconds and they are done. Also, cool thing. When you fill out the survey, you can also take the opportunity to praise a coworker. You can type in the name of somebody. You can type why you want to give them positive feedback. If you do that, a message goes to them and their boss saying, “This person got positive feedback for this,” which is a great way to promote positive feedback in the organization.
It works so much better than the other approach. It gives the company data they can use and act on, and it gives them data that’s relevant right here now. What makes our system different from all the other systems out there is that a few trusted individuals inside the organization can see individual replies. This might be like the HR director and 1 or 2 other people. Employees know this. That means that they will get a warning like, “This person used to be happy and now they are miserable.” They will get a notification and they can act and go to that person saying, “We are sorry to hear you are unhappy at work. How can we help?”
I talked to the HR manager of a tech company in Poland that is using it and she said that it had been a lifesaver for her, especially during COVID because she used to be able to walk around the office and see how people were doing, and now everybody’s working from home. With this, she could still follow up on every single person very efficiently. That’s heartcount. It’s one option. I’m not going to go on and give you the whole ad spiel.
It’s very important that you measure happiness at work and that you measure it often. If all else fails as a manager, talk to your people. One-on-one, go up, and say, “How is it going? Is something bugging you? Are you happy at work? What’s going on? What’s working well? Is this something I can help you with? Do you have any problems we can solve together?” that type of thing. As a manager, take a basic interest in your people in there and how they are doing. If all else fails, that’s a great way to do it, but I like having data.
Engineer, having numbers on stuff and seeing if those numbers are going up or down. Why did we call it a heartcount? It’s like a heart, like a muscle. Every organization knows its headcount. Do you know where that term comes from? Cattle farmers. How many heads of cattle do you own? That’s your headcount, and now we use that in our workplace. That’s hilarious. We were like, “Your headcount is how many people work there and your heart count is how many of them want to be there.”
Checking the wavelength, the heartbeat, the rhythm, and all the fun things that go with it. It sounds safe, transparent, and easy. At the end of the week, I could go and have my first beer and I’m done by the time I have my first sip. It’s pretty quick and easy.
It doesn’t matter how you measure happiness at work in an organization. Whatever tool you use or methodology, the important thing is that whatever comes up good or bad, you act on it. If you ask employees their opinion and they tell you, “This sucks,” and you do nothing, that’s worse than not asking. Whenever you ask employees about their opinions, their feelings, and their thoughts, you take on an obligation to act on them and you can’t solve every problem. At the very least, you need to tell people, “You pointed out this problem. Here’s why we can’t fix that right now. The best thing is you pointed out this problem. Here’s how we will fix it.”
That is the most important thing. It doesn’t matter how you ask them. It doesn’t matter how you measure happiness at work. Once you have the numbers, act on them and tell people how you acted so they see that you care. Asking them for their opinion and ignoring their opinion is a slap in the face, and so many companies do that once a year with their useless job satisfaction surveys.It doesn't matter how you measure happiness at work in an organization. Whatever tool or methodology you use, whatever good or bad that comes, you should act on it. Click To Tweet
I agree with you. It’s communication, care, and stepping in. As leaders are reading, what can you do? As you said, working with yourself first and reaching back out with genuine interest in care is something that I often will talk about with folks. Ask people what a good day looks like. Is that happening? If it’s not happening, how can you step in to genuinely support that person? If you don’t, you ask the question, “How are you?” and you keep walking. It’s something we do a lot here in the Northeast in the States. We care to say, “How are you?” but we are not listening. We are not slowing down to be present and care enough to do something about it.
Have you seen Office Space the movie? “Hey, Peter, what’s happening?” He goes right on. The boss Lumbergh comes out. Every boss in the company goes, “Hey, Peter, what’s happening?” They go right on talking. It’s a fantastic workplace satire. It’s such a great movie.
What else is coming to mind for you before we close out here? I appreciate you and everything you are doing in the world and how you are connecting with people, making it safe for people to enjoy, create, develop, and foster happiness at work. Is there anything else that you want to share before we close out?
I am incredibly optimistic about the future of work. It will be very easy to fall into a negative spiral. Look at Elon Musk and all the other tech bros right now. There are many reasons for being positive as well because there are so many companies out there who get it. You talk to Garry Ridge and you talk to Rich Sheridan.
There’s Vega IT in Serbia, Zappos, and many other great organizations. We often don’t hear about them because those stories don’t get told. That’s one thing. There’s so much positive stuff going on and I do think the world of work is getting better overall. I would rather work in a typical workplace now than in a typical workplace several years ago. Things are getting better. There’s still a lot of work to do, but things are improving. That’s one thing.
The other thing that makes me hopeful and optimistic for the future is the young people because young people are amazing. They are way less accepting of bad workplaces, bad jobs, and bad managers than previous generations were. The Boomers are gone. They are retired already. They made it into positions of power and they liked the view from the top and they are perpetuating a lot of these bad behaviors.
The Generation X-ers, of which I am one, showed some promise, but a lot of them got broken when they went into the workplace. A lot of them bought into the whole work-hard, slave, save, and retire model. The Millennials, to some degree, and the younger generation, the Z and whatever, are trying to find names for the new generations now. They are amazing. They want meaningful work. They want reasonable working hours. They want to be treated well in the workplace. They are not afraid to quit. If they are in a bad job, they are out of there.
They are not afraid to discuss salaries and compare with their peers and see if they are getting a fair shake. That is amazing and gives me hope for the future because the way that companies have gotten away with treating previous generations, it’s not going to work anymore. You are going to have to get your act together and treat your people well. A lot of workplaces look at that and ask why young people are so spoiled. They are just asking for humane treatment.
There are some young new employees at Goldman Sachs who put together a slide deck asking if it would be okay if they reduce their working hours to 80 hours a week. That’s amazing. Companies better get their act together and figure out how to engage these young people at work because they are amazing and smart.
The whole diversity thing that you mentioned, they were born and raised on that. They get that inherently. That, compared together with a Great Resignation, has been forcing companies to look at how they treat their employees, and that’s amazing. Overall, work is getting better. Workplaces as a whole are getting better and we need to remember that because otherwise, it’s easy to only see the bad examples because they get told all the time the worst managers, the worst companies, the worst workplaces.
There are so many great workplaces out there as well. My message to anyone reading this is, “If you hate your job, I bet you there’s a better workplace out there where coworkers are nice and the managers are not jerks and where they treat you well and they won’t try to work you to death.” Maybe instead of enduring where you are forever, go find a better job. Go look at InternationalQuitYourCrappyJobDay.com.
Don’t settle and suffer. There are moments too where we might be in tough situations or crappy cultures. While we are there, if we remain there, it doesn’t matter what level or where you sit. Take your steps, actions, and small things. Show gratitude. Have a gratitude wall. Show people. Do visible things that allow people to have fun, share recognition, or appreciate each other. Celebrate the success you are happening within your own teams. I wouldn’t wait for somebody else. It’s too often we wait for other people to do the change whereas if we start to make the change ourselves, other people will follow.
Everything you mentioned is all about results and relationships. Sometimes, even in a crappy workplace, you can create a happy team. You can work locally. If the manager gets it and the coworkers get it, you can create a good culture. It is going to be vulnerable because pressures from the rest of the organization can pierce that little bubble, but if you can do it, that’s amazing. If you can’t, get out of there. Sayonara. I got something better. Don’t let the bastards wear you down, as she says in The Handmaid’s Tale.
I’m with you. If you can’t change back into yourself or reconnect back into your authentic self, back to everything we are saying, how can you work there? I understand sometimes we need the paycheck and we need to provide, yet there needs to be a better way. I appreciate that you are encouraging folks to check that out.
That is at the very fundamental level of happiness at work. You got to take responsibility for your own work-life or situation. Occasionally, that is going to mean having to walk away from a job that is not working out for you for whatever reason. Staying there forever, and not utilizing that option when you have it is the fear talking. I have talked to so many people who have quit their jobs and very few people regret it. Most of the people I have talked to say, “I quit my job and I only wish I’d done it sooner.”You got to take responsibility for your work life or work situation. Click To Tweet
I have heard that quite a bit. I have been part of one of these American layoffs and it’s never fun or easy. I used it as an opportunity to finish my book and start this fun work doing this show and also to combine happiness and inclusion at the workplace to help spark more possibilities for everybody. Taking the good out of some of the tough times is what we need to do or is chaos or crisis and amazing things can happen. The other thing is, are there more chief happiness officers out there or has that slowed down?
There are so many. We have partners in 30 countries. We have WoohooUnlimited.com. You can read about our partnership program. If somebody out there wants to be a Chief Happiness Officer, we do have training. We have in-person training and online trainings. You can join and become part of the network, and like you were saying, become part of a tribe that believes the same things you do. Also, get access to all of our tools and methods that you can apply in your own work.
I would check it out everybody, because the research has been done. These are incredible people. The results will follow. Focusing on yourself and the people brings a little bit more joy to the world. Trust me. It will bring a little bit more love and connection. That’s what we all could use right now. I admire you and what you are doing and your team and I applaud you. I’m honored to know you and call you a friend and hope to see you out in Copenhagen maybe at a future conference.
That would be amazing.
I appreciate your time. You are the best.
My absolute pleasure. Right back at you.
Alex, the super fun, edgy, weird, and impactful guy and leader. We admitted we are all unique and weird in a loving way. When we embrace our uniqueness, we accept others’ differences and the beauty they bring into the world. We chatted about the importance of this to exist for people to feel they matter, belong, and are doing meaningful things. Happiness at work allows people to feel safe and bring their full or most of their selves into work where relationships and results will blossom.
A few takeaways to consider that resonated with me during the chat are as follows. 1) Dig into some of the research that Alex has on his websites to help you connect and make a case for why happiness at work is a worthwhile cause for you and your team. 2) Own your journey and embrace your authentic self, where your beautiful differences and happiness look to see the light of day in this world. Check out my book or website to help you down your path of possibilities. We will all benefit and you will need to trust me on that. Believe and trust with faith that this effort is worth it. “You are worthy” puts you in a much better place. You got to believe and take the steps forward.
3) Once you have established your commitment to share and foster joy, take small steps and actions with people in your life. That’s part of your daily steps. Check out the CHO training from Alex. It’s pretty cool if you want to be a Chief Happiness Officer wherever you lived, and also practice some of the everyday actions that are in my book, Live Your Possible to create more joy, love, and connection in your everyday. As a reminder, change is not intended for you to become someone else. It’s for you to reconnect back into your happiness, the most authentic self where you and others can thrive living and loving your possible.
- Woohoo inc
- Live Your Possible
- Garry Ridge, People First Cultures Deliver Results – Past Episode
- Rich Sheridan, Joyful Cultures Thrive – Past Episode
- Jeffery Ma, Love as a Business Strategy – Past Episode
- Helping People Thrive Creating Joy at Work – Past Episode
About Alexander Kjerulf
Alexander is the founder and Chief Happiness Officer of Woohoo inc and one of the world’s leading experts on happiness at work. He is an author and speaker, presenting and conducting workshops on happiness at work at businesses and conferences in over 50 countries. His clients include companies like Hilton, Microsoft, IKEA, Shell, HP and IBM.