3 keys to happy, innovative employees

Research shows that, while free food and an on-site gym are great perks, what employees really want is to know how their work helps the company succeed.


I’m a big proponent of big data—especially big data for HR.

It’s catching on, and in a big way. This article in The New York Times shares several examples of the benefits of workforce science, which it describes as:

“It adds a large dose of data analysis, a.k.a. Big Data, to the field of human resource management, which has traditionally relied heavily on gut feel and established practice to guide hiring, promotion and career planning.”

In today’s workplace, we can—and do—measure much more than ever before. I’m not talking about employee surveillance (though that can be a component where appropriate), but rather using the information we already gather in more effective ways.

Erik Brynjolfsson, director of the Center for Digital Business at the Sloan School of Management at MIT, says, “The heart of science is measurement. We’re seeing a revolution in measurement, and it will revolutionize organizational economics and personnel economics.”

What does the data actually tell us about our workforce? The article shares several examples:

  • Past performance isn’t a good indicator of future results.
  • The personal warmth and quality of the supervisor is more important to employee results than the employee’s experience and attributes.
  • Being outgoing doesn’t make you a good salesperson. The ability to persist and keep going forward, even after being told “no,” does.
  • At Google, the happiest and most innovative workers are those who “have a strong sense of mission about their work and who also feel they have much personal autonomy.”

Let’s look at that Google finding for a moment.

What makes Google employees happy? It’s not the free food or campus amenities.

What makes Google employees innovative? It’s not predicated by their college degrees or prior accomplishments.

Happy and innovative employees at Google understand the big picture, know their role in helping to achieve it and feel empowered to do so.

I know from the data my clients gather that this is true for the majority of employees. Through their strategic social employee recognition programs, our clients gather a great deal of data on employee accomplishments and attitudes about work.

Here are the three keys to happy, innovative employees:

1. Ensure employees understand the big picture. A mission statement on your website, hanging on the wall or even spelled out in your employee value proposition is useless unless employees personally understand what it means for them.

2. Tell employees their roles in achieving the big picture. Understanding the mission is one thing, but knowing what you personally can do to help achieve it is another. Make lofty goals real for employees in their daily work; it makes the corporate mission much more personal—and achievable. In a specific and timely way, tell employees when and how they help the company achieve the bigger mission.

3. Empower employees. Towers Watson, Hay Group, Bersin by Deloitte and others all tell us that companies who enable their employees have at least two times higher engagement. Enablement includes communicating back to employees when and how they achieved the mission.

A version of this article first appeared on Recognize This!, Derek Irvine’s blog.

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