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.