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Two years ago Lucas Donat decided he needed to root out the unhappy people from Tiny Rebellion, his ad agency. The negative Neds and Debbie downers simply had to go.

They were spoiling the otherwise creative atmosphere in his Santa Monica-based firm, and he called in a consultant to help figure out who needed to be sacked.

The consultant came back with another answer. “He walked in to my office one day and said, ‘We need to talk about leadership,’” Donat recalled. The problem, it seemed, wasn’t the frowning employees, but Donat himself. “He made me realise that if I wanted to create a happy culture, I needed to start with myself.”

Donat thought about the days he had brooded his way down the hallways in his 40-person office. And he wondered if he was really portraying the right image of a happy boss during meetings. A proverbial good look in the mirror was quite revealing.

So he didn’t fire anyone. Instead, he changed his demeanor entirely. Instead of gloominess and stressed-out behaviour, he now tries to take on challenges with a smile. 

“If you walked the halls of my agency today,” Donat said, “you will find a happy, thriving group of human beings.”

Donat’s effort to build a happier office isn’t just about having a pleasant place to work. Happy employees are more productive employees, many studies have found. And maybe more importantly, content employees perform better than unhappy ones.

Consider the 1995 study of interning doctors who were asked to figure out a medical problem, with one half of the group promised candy when they finished. Yes, you guessed it: the doctors who had sweets waiting for them performed twice as fast — not just because of the reward but because it made them happier to know they had a treat coming. 

Then there’s accounting firm KPMG, which asked a group of tax managers in 2008 to take a few minutes each day to do something fun, like write down a positive message to a friend or exercise for 10 minutes. Sure enough, their happiness and productivity improved significantly across a series of happiness indicators.

Still, happiness is rarely discussed as a motivating factor in offices. Individual managers don’t often think about their own happiness, so they’re unlikely to think about the happiness of others, said Thomas Juli, a management consultant in Heidelberg, Germany.

“When most people think about happiness, they think, ‘Once I’m successful, I’ll be happy’. But we rarely reach that point,” Juli said.

When working with companies, Juli often asks managers to consider what makes them happy. Few have a quick reply. “People don’t have the answer because they don’t know what makes them happy,” Juli said.

Sometimes the answer is simple. Juli worked on a project with a partner who wanted to be out by 17:00 every day to pick up his son from school. When Juli agreed, his partner’s happiness improved, and his increased productivity made up for the shorter time in the office.

The simple idea of finding what makes workers happy isn’t even up for discussion in some places. . Countries like Germany, China, and Japan — where workers are often expected to contribute without question — often don’t put a high priority on contentment.

Instead, companies there might use raises and promotions as a way to try to make employees happier. But, that rarely works, said Dr Timothy Lau, psychology professor at the University of Ottawa. “The things that drive us often aren’t the things that managers think drive us,” Lau said.

Instead of bonuses, Lau said managers will have a better chance at motivating employees by making a personal connection with them. If they know they’re part of a team trying to achieve objectives, they’ll be more likely to succeed than if they’re given a promise of money.

“In work groups, happiness comes from a sense of purpose, not the reward,” Lau said.

At his advertising firm, Donat found other ways to reward employees. His year with a consultant revealed a key employee complaint: they didn’t have time to exercise because of work demands on their time.

So Donat organised a lunchtime workout group. Now, two or three days a week, they trek a few blocks from the office, down to a park that overlooks the ocean. After a quick jog, the group comes back ready for the rest of the day.

“It’s not easy to say, hey let’s create a happy culture so everyone can be creative,” Donat said. “Just like anything else, you need to work at it.”

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