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How to Cultivate a Happy, High-Performing Workforce

Job turnover is occurring at such a historical rate that the trend has remained the hottest topic in business news for over a year. Over 4.53 million American workers quit in March 2022 alone, and the numbers continue to climb.

There are various reasons behind the Great Resignation. But simply put, many employees are walking away from their jobs because they’re not happy at work. 

Consequently, employers are scrambling to discern what it takes to keep their people on board and are trying multiple tactics to appease them, including:

  • Bumping up pay and benefits
  • Offering more flexibility
  • Creating more welcoming work environments

Some CEOs are still lobbing feel-good perks like free food, spa weekends, and game rooms to placate their teams.

The good news for business leaders is that some of these measures are enough to make people stick with their employer. And having happy employees is essential to running a successful business. But it takes more than a sunny outlook to maximize a worker’s ability to achieve results on the job.

Happy, underperforming workers are not a value add.

Companies need high-performing employees to prevail in an increasingly competitive marketplace. But once again, having an A-team roster isn’t sufficient to succeed. Employers also lose out if their superstars are dissatisfied at work. Because they’re so valuable, top producers are invariably wooed by industry rivals and won’t think twice about quitting if they’re unhappy in their current job.  

An engaged, committed, and productive team is the perfect equation for employers. But the million-dollar question is:

How do you create a happy, high-performing staff?

Drilling deeper, what things make people happy on the job? And what inspires them to excel at what they do? Interestingly, many factors that cause people to enjoy and thrive in their work are related, and they all stem from a healthy organizational culture.

Making Employees Happy

Happiness means many things to different people, and it’s hard to quantify. Everyone from Dale Carnegie to the Dalai Lama to Pharrell Williams has spun their special take on the topic. And regardless of how people define contentment, it fluctuates as situations change. So it’s understandable that leaders might find making workers happy an overwhelming task.

It’s certainly unrealistic to expect everyone in a workforce to be happy all the time. But employers can tremendously improve their staff’s general outlook by assessing areas that affect their wellbeing and removing as many things as possible that drain enthusiasm.

Leaders can make a significant difference in their employees’ happiness by focusing on three concerns:

  • Work-life Balance
  • Diversity, Equity, Inclusion & Belonging
  • Purpose
Work-Life Balance

Leaders can’t control factors outside the workplace that may impact employees’ happiness. But they can offer work-life balance options so their staff can perform their jobs without neglecting the important things in their personal lives.

One of the most common causes of stress on the job is a rigid forty-hour (or more) on-site work schedule. Consequently, many workers who experienced the flexibility of remote jobs during the pandemic were dismayed when their employers required them to return to the office full-time.  

But other leaders realized that remote and hybrid work models are long-term solutions that provide employees with the options they need to meet all their responsibilities.  And saving the time and money formerly spent on commuting gives their staff the ability to live fuller lives.

These work models can significantly add to employees’ job satisfaction. But only if they exist within a robust company culture that helps asynchronous teams operate cohesively.

Diversity, Equity, Inclusion & Belonging (DEIB)

Fair compensation is a starting point to meeting DEIB standards. But after equitable pay is established, other things mean more to people than money. Notably, most employees appreciate being valued for who they are and what they contribute more than a bonus or raise.

People enjoy their jobs much more when they’re respected and welcomed by management and team members.

Leaders must do more than produce DEIB policies to create this kind of psychologically safe environment. They must also actively demonstrate and coach the respectful attitudes that bring these policies to life. And they must ensure that these measures are in effect at every level in the organization.

People also derive more joy from their jobs when they receive meaningful acknowledgment for their contributions. Therefore, leaders can add significantly to their employees’ job satisfaction by consistently recognizing and celebrating them for their efforts and achievements.   


People are happier when they know what they do matters, and employers can make this happen on two levels.

  1. They can articulate to their staff the positive effect their company, products, or services have on the greater community. When employees understand how their organization makes a difference in the world, they feel more fulfilled and aligned with their employer.
  2. They can ensure that each employee knows how their role impacts company goals and success. People derive greater job satisfaction when they know their significance in the big picture.

Work-life balance, authentic attention to DEIB issues, and a sense of purpose make people happier. And research proves that enhanced enjoyment leaves employees primed for achievement.  For example, at the conclusion of their MIT Sloan Management Review study on the topic of workers’ happiness, the writers confirmed:

“Within the workplace, we know that happier employees are more likely to emerge as leaders, earn higher scores on performance evaluations, and tend to be better teammates.”

They also noted that happy employees have lower absenteeism rates, are highly motivated to succeed, and are more creative.

Helping Employees Perform at a High Level

While happiness can contribute significantly to a worker’s performance, employers can help them achieve much more. The best way to accomplish this is by reinforcing workplace culture with practical behaviors that lead to individual and organizational success.

Some top areas for leaders to target in their workplace culture are:

  • Setting clear expectations
  • Enforcing positive accountability
  • Skill building
Setting Clear Expectations

Employees can’t succeed if they don’t comprehend what’s expected of them. So leaders who don’t establish specific goals and methods for their staff to achieve them are setting themselves up for disappointment. Vague parameters are also incredibly frustrating to the people trying to get things done.

Leaders can position their employees to be top performers by making expectations clear in two ways:

  1. With every task or project, provide their staff with a solid understanding of what they want them to accomplish and when they should complete it.
  2. Define the behaviors they expect their staff to follow to reach each goal.

Making this practice a vital element of the organization’s culture is beneficial in any workplace setting. But it’s even more critical with remote and hybrid workers who have fewer opportunities to receive in-person cues from their managers.

Leaders who provide distinct expectations empower employees to achieve results and make their efforts count.

Enforcing Positive Accountability

Historically, the word accountability was associated more closely with blame and fear than happiness or the confidence it takes to perform well. But leaders who make positive accountability the foundation of their company’s culture are turning that paradigm on its head. 

These employers know that people supported in taking ownership of their outcomes become higher achievers. As Mark Samuel explains in his book, The Accountability Revolution, a framework of positive accountability creates an “environment of trust, support, and dedication to excellence.” 

Employers can encourage their teams to embrace accountability if they eliminate the term’s negative connotation. By introducing it as constructive practice, leaders can help their people develop their potential and take more pride in what they do.

Skill Building

Most employers try to hire people who have sufficient skills for the jobs they’re filling. But for companies to remain competitive, their employees need to increase their expertise regularly.

Leaders can continuously improve their team’s performance by providing ongoing training and learning opportunities. By encouraging participation in workshops, webinars, and other coaching sessions, they can help their staff enhance their technical abilities. But employers shouldn’t stop there.

Many people with the concrete qualifications for their jobs have never had the opportunity to develop the “soft skills” they need to thrive in their positions. These skills include the ability to effectively:

  • Communicate
  • Stay organized
  • Collaborate
  • Plan ahead
  • Solve problems
  • Adapt

Leaders can help their people master soft skills like these by threading behaviors that reinforce them directly into their company’s culture.

The Formula for a Happy, High-performing Team

Aristotle believed that “pleasure in the job puts perfection in the work.” We can conclude that the converse is also true: top achievers are happier and more confident. It’s no mystery why companies that help their people strike that balance routinely land on “Best Places to Work” lists.

Some business leaders may worry that rising to this challenge is more than they can manage. Many are tightening their belts in an increasingly challenging economy and can’t afford the perks that temporarily incentivize people. And they might not even be able to award raises or share profits as they would in more plentiful times.

But they can weave policies and behaviors into their workplace culture that help people enjoy their jobs and work more effectively. Of the many improvements employers consider for their organizations, building a supportive, results-driven culture will yield the most promising ROI: a happy, high-performing team.  

Schedule a call with a CultureWise specialist to learn more about how to create exceptional workplace culture where employees thrive. And sign up for a complimentary subscription to the Culture Matters newsletter to receive informative culture-related articles, videos, podcast episodes and webinar offers every week.