Who Is Happiest At Work? Probably Not Who You Think

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How to find happiness in the workplace? One theory has it that the most deeply fulfilled workers are those facing the most daunting challenges. Another holds that the formula for contentment is being surrounded by colleagues that pick up your slack.

For insights regarding happiness and performance in the workplace, let’s check out some recent research.

Who Is Happiest at Work?
Writing at Harvard Business Review, Rosabeth Moss Kanter, a professor at the business school and the author of Evolve! Succeeding in the Digital Culture of Tomorrow, says that the happiest people tend to be those facing the toughest—but most worthwhile—challenges. We’re talking stuff like teaching kids in inner city schools, working for solutions to homelessness, or improving health in developing countries. In her research concerning what motivates people at highly innovative companies, Kanter found, “Money acted as a scorecard, but it did not get people up-and-at ’em for the daily work, nor did it help people go home every day with a feeling of fulfillment.”

On the other hand, when workers feel like they can make a difference, it leaves them more fulfilled. That’s a deeper level of happiness that money just can’t buy.

(MORE: There’s One Upside for Unemployed Older Workers: Happiness)

A study by Leadership IQ offers a very different perspective on what makes workers happy. The study found that in 42% of companies, the lowest-performing employees were more engaged and motivated than their middle- and high-performing colleagues. And why did the slackers enjoy their jobs more? A Fast Company post theorized:

In most organizations, low performers are pretty much left alone. They are happy as clams because no one notices or bothers them. They can just sit there quietly and won’t be discovered as long as no one does anything to alter the terrain.

As for their higher-performing colleagues, no wonder they’re not quite as happy: They have to pull more weight to make up for the low performers. Many of the best workers are stressed out and feel undervalued—often because, in fact, they are.

Which Workers Perform Best on the Job?
Extroverts are often considered to be good workers. They’re likeable, chatty types, who come across as go-getters with charismatic leadership skills. Yet a new study published in the April issue of the Academy of Management Journal cites research indicating that extroverts also tend to be poor listeners, and not particularly receptive to input from others.

(MORE: How the Best Tech Companies Treat Their Employees)

In a series of experiments, Corinne Bendersky, an associate professor at UCLA’s Anderson School of Management, and Neha Parikh Shah, a professor at Rutgers Business School, studied how extroverts and neurotics worked in various team projects. The extroverts didn’t fare well, according to evaluations by team members. A Forbes post quoted some conclusions made by Bendersky concerning how extroverts perform in team work environments:

“The extroverts are probably going to contribute less to the team and the contributions they make will be undervalued by the team,” she says. “They will do less and what they do will be under-appreciated.”

They’ll also talk too much and fail to take to heart the thoughts, insights, and suggestions of colleagues. Neurotics, on the other hand, were superstars who perform better over time at their jobs, as Bendersky told CNN:

“Our intuition about anxious, neurotic employees and colleagues is that their volatility and negativity is going to make them a drag on the team,” said Bendersky.

“What we don’t appreciate is that an aspect of that neurotic personality is really an anxiety of not wanting to disappoint our peers and our colleagues. Neurotics can actually be motivated to work really hard especially in collaborative situations.”

(MORE: Memo Read Round the World: Yahoo Says No to Working from Home)

Neurotics also benefit because colleagues have lower expectations of them. More is expected of the talkative extroverts out there, so they have more to live up to. “Extraverts’ contributions disappoint their peers due to the critical evaluations of the extraverts’ contributions rather than the high level of the initial expectations,” the study states. “This suggests that peers may infer that extraverts are motivated by self interests and interpret their contributions skeptically.”

Marissa Mayer‘s highly publicized decision at Yahoo to force workers to come into the office (no more telecommuting) raised another question regarding what kinds of employees perform their jobs best. “Speed and quality are often sacrificed when we work from home,” stated the memo announcing Yahoo’s change in work policy. “To become the absolute best place to work, communication and collaboration will be important, so we need to be working side-by-side. That is why it is critical that we are all present in our offices. Some of the best decisions and insights come from hallway and cafeteria discussions, meeting new people, and impromptu team meetings.”

Fair enough. But Kellogg School of Management’s Leigh Thompson writes that in addition to creating spaces (physical or virtual) for workers to collaborate and bounce ideas off each other, what she calls “caves” are necessary as well. By a “cave,” she means a quiet, private spot—perhaps a home office, but not necessarily—where an employee can truly get down to business without the interruptions of chatty extrovert colleagues. You know, the kind of place that a neurotic might actually feel sorta comfortable.


I remember these beautiful moments I had in family, around a nice meal prepared by my grandmother. We were all talking together, making jokes and having fun, Just happy to be together. At this time I had the sensation that time has disapeared. In a family, with a friend or just with someone i love i can feel sometimes  similar feelings. 

If we try to pay attention about all these moments we felt happy we will discover  a constant phenomenon: they are most of the time linked to someone else. in these moments of happiness i was never alone but with a group of people or just someone else, happy to share the moment. Little by little the researchers are reaching the conclusion that :''The happiness comes from the relationship between us.'' 

A person will feel motivated to play on its X-box for hours, having fun, even if he is playing alone but after few hours working in his workplace he feels bored and needs to take a break. Why? Because when he plays on his game he is having '' Flow''. The flow,well known in the gaming industry, gives someone the sensation that the times and the space disappears. I can identify myself with the hero of the story, i have a higher purpose.

This is what is missing in the workplaces! the employee in its workplace doesn't feel the sense of a higher purpose... He just doesn't feel that he is the hero of the story. Indeed we all want to be hero, consciously or not! Moreover we all want to feel liked.

Once an employee is happy in his company, its performances will improve because he will want to give the best of himself. The successful companies of tomorrow will be the companies able to create such environment in which the employee feel that he is the unique piece essential for the company and for the society in general.


People are happiest when they have the "Most worthwhile" jobs and challenges. I believe that 100%.

Only problem is, so many jobs these days have zero worth, in the scheme of things - Especially when it comes to managers covering their own rear ends.

When I worked as a missile test engineer at Texas Instruments Defense three decades ago, I was extremely happy because my job mattered. Ditto when I worked as a volunteer Reserve cop - Even though I didn't make a penny, I knew I made a difference. If I missed a day of work or screwed up in either job, it was possible that someone would die who wouldn't have died if I did my job correctly.

But since those days, no computer programming job I have had since can possibly be as worthwhile, and consequently for 20 years I have been EXTREMELY unhappy and even depressed at every job I've had. It seems like my usefulness has evaporated. I'm unemployed now, probably because I can't find a job I can really get interested in anymore. I can't even get an interview at jobs that I consider "worthwhile" - the only jobs I can find are pure business jobs - Accounting, finance, management reports - Yuck. 

Plus, I'm now a "disposable employee" (a contractor). When they don't need you anymore, or if you have a temporary medical problem, they toss you in the trash like a piece of garbage. I've been out of work for over 6 months because I was battling insomnia. No labor laws protect me, and the job was meaningless anyway.

It makes it EVEN WORSE when our stupid managers use artificial challenges and artificially tight schedules to make worthless jobs seem important. That gets more productivity out of their employees, unless the employees are smart enough to know they're just coloring in milestones on an artificial schedule. No one is going to die if I miss a day, a month, or 6 months. They're doing perfectly well without even replacing me. I feel like my life is a total waste.

davidbowles like.author.displayName 1 Like

Brad this refers to the "Leadership IQ "research":

In a study of some obviously dysfunctional companies which do not hold their workers accountable and do not give honest feedback, the poorer performers were “happiest”, thereby invalidating the idea that engagement drives profitability…..

Excuse me?

First of all these poor performers are not “engaged”, which means “going the extra mile”, something which they seem to avoid at all cost. Secondly, the only conclusion from that study is that bad management of people, letting some get away with sub-par performance while others have to carry water for them……makes the good performers mad! Third, the happiness at work people would strenuously argue, and I would agree, that drifting through the work day while others carry the load does not make one “happy”.  Another part of your own piece here, from Professor Kanter, supports that fact.  Perhaps it makes them glad to be getting away with it, and glad that they get paid the same for far less, but that’s not the normal happiness at work which comes to those who are productive, deal fairly with others and really help the team do well….

Finally I have serious problems with this research, both in terms of how they persuaded people from 207 companies to share their individual engagement scores so that they could be compared to the individual  performance appraisals.....and also whether their 207 sample companies really represent the universe of organizations here in the US.....or anywhere.

best to you

David Bowles, Ph.D.
co-author, The High Engagement Work Culture: Balancing ME and WE (Macmillan, 2012)



Do you have any empirical evidence to suggest that less engaged people are also less happy at work? Or are you suggesting that this is true a priori?


@TimAllenLets start with the definition of engagement:  when the work environment is perceived as good enough by a worker, that person can experience a sense of well being, an emotional state some have called high morale, or "happiness";  in that state that worker is much more likely to want to make extra effort in the job ("go the extra  mile"), identify with the goals of the job and the organization and be an advocate for that organization (as in recommending its products or services to others, or it as a place to work).  That is engagement.

So going back to this piece of "research" to which the article refers, the people who do very little and expect others to carry water for them are not, by definition engaged. As I have said above, no definition of "happiness at work" includes being delighted to be doing less and making others do more to make up for it, and/or having a feeling that one is getting away with that.  Engagement by most definitions I have seen, always includes the high level of happiness, morale, call it what you will, as a precursor to the behaviors I have mentioned.  So yes I am saying it is impossible to be engaged without first being "happy" in the sense I am using it.  People who are less "happy" about the work environment will, by definition, be less engaged. 

best,  David

co-author, The High Engagement Work Culture:Balancing ME and WE (Macmillan, 2012)


Is the word "happiness" the difficulty in discussing this issue?  Are those who are "engaged" and "productive" experiencing "fulfillment" in contrast to happiness?

 Someone who knows one has to work to survive, and pays for that survival by managing to hold a job where low-productivity/engagement is possible, can certainly feel "happy" about meeting survival needs without necessarily feeling "fulfilled".

davidbowles like.author.displayName 1 Like

Tim I understand your argument better now that you spell it out. It is interesting you should look at this question from the viewpoint that you do, and I actually agree with you, as you will see from this blog post I did which includes some in depth discussions I had with an Oxford, England organization run by one of the top experts in the world on happiness at work, Jessica Pryce-Jones.  I argued that Jessica was using such a broad definition of happiness that it encompassed engagement, which then allowed her to say that engagement was limited and unnecessary!  See it here:


I do take issue though with the idea that LeadershipIQ has a case whatever definition of happiness is used.  Happiness isn't the problem with them, its the engagement side of the equation: that is because they do not understand engagement and do not measure it accurately, in my opinion.  The "happy" people they look at who are low performance are not really "engaged"....as normally understood....so their argument has no value.   An enormous amount of research shows that high worker engagement drives organizational performance in powerful ways;  this can only happen as an aggregate of performance by individuals, therefore non-performance is a clear sign of non-engagement. There is an interesting discussion of this LeadershipIQ piece on the Employee Engagement Network online, and I recommend it to you....several of us there with a background in this type of research have a poor opinion of their methodology and conclusions:


best to you,  David

co-author, The High Engagement Work Culture:Balancing ME and WE (Macmillan, 2012)

Read more: http://business.time.com/2013/04/25/who-is-happiest-at-work-probably-not-who-you-think/#ixzz2Sg3r9vMV

TimAllen like.author.displayName 1 Like

@davidbowles @TimAllen  It seems reasonable enough to require that "engagement" entails a certain kind/degree of happiness --- I'm not convinced, but I'll assume you have a case. What I don't think is reasonable is the claim that "happiness" (as ordinarily conceived) entails engagement. It's easy to think of situations in which people can be happy at work without being engaged. However, if you're talking about happiness in an abnormal sense which does entail engagement, then we're not disagreeing, but talking about different things. If that's the case, though, then you're also not disagreeing with the findings of the Leadership IQ study. You're just advancing a different view of happiness.
All the best,Tim