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Fostering Happiness in the Laboratory

Fostering Happiness in the Laboratory

Quality leadership heightens employee engagement

Scott D. Hanton, PhD

Scott Hanton is the editorial director of Lab Manager. He spent 30 years as a research chemist, lab manager, and business leader at Air Products and Intertek. He earned...

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Every employee values and appreciates good leadership. Good leadership creates a workplace that is more conducive to engagement and thriving at work. Leaders can exhibit a number of behaviors that will have a significant impact on their employees and help create an environment where each employee feels valued and is encouraged to thrive. It turns out that the actions that can contribute to this positive work environment are relatively simple on their own. It is the combination of them that becomes a powerful force for employee engagement.

There is clear and abundant data that demonstrates that engaged employees and thriving employees perform better and generate improved business results. Some examples from these sources include:

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  • Thrivers have 16 percent better job performance
  • Thrivers report less burnout
  • Engaged employees deliver 70 percent fewer safety incidents
  • Engaged employees deliver 147 percent higher earnings per share
  • Engaged employees deliver 21 percent greater profitability
  • Engaged employees are 31 percent more productive
  • Engaged employees are 87 percent more likely to stay

Elements of great leadership 

Peter Drucker, management consultant, educator, and author, once said, “Management is doing things right; leadership is doing the right things.” As leaders, what are the right things for us to do to enable the benefits that derive from thriving and engaged employees? Here are a dozen leadership behaviors that each of us can exhibit to make a significant difference in our workplaces. None of these are fundamentally difficult, but the combination of them can be powerful.

1. Care

Teddy Roosevelt said, “No one cares how much you know until they know how much you care.” Our words and actions clearly define what we care about as leaders. Our people pay close attention to the things we care about, and the things we don’t. Caring about your people encourages them to be reciprocal and care about us, the mission of the organization, our customers, and the organization. “If you care, they’ll care.”

2. Listening

Great communication skills are needed to be a great leader. We often think of great communicators as charismatic orators, but usually the most important communication skill is active listening. Our ability to listen to learn, with curiosity, is vital to build relationships. Using small affirmations—questions to ensure understanding and encouraging others to speak—enables people to feel heard.

3. Safety

People must feel safe—physically, emotionally, and psychologically—to bring their best and whole selves to work. As laboratory managers, we are comfortable addressing physical safety, but we also need to demonstrate that we value emotional and psychological safety. New York Times bestselling author Daniel Coyle provides 13 great ideas to demonstrate emotional safety. One of them is to embrace the messenger. Not only should we not shoot the messenger, we need to embrace and thank someone for bringing us the bad news that ruined our day. That will let people know that we value the truth and welcome input.

4. Share vulnerability

Sharing vulnerability enables leaders to get help and take full advantage of all the smart and experienced people around us. If we can embrace the discomfort of being wrong, of not knowing the answer and praising people with better ideas than ours, we can enable our people to trust us. That trust will bring out their best on a regular basis. Their best will enable the organization to perform at a high level.

5. Ask for help

It often seems that asking for help may make us appear to be ignorant, slackers, or helpless. However, the opposite is actually true. The people who regularly ask for help are seen to be smart, courageous, and successful. One of the most important skills to be successful in the workplace is the confidence to ask for help whenever it is needed. Asking for help enables us to learn faster, resolve problems, and make use of the talent around us.

6. Establish purpose

If you don’t have a goal, any destination will do. By carefully understanding our priorities, measuring what matters, and focusing on defining behaviors, we can generate and communicate purpose to the organization. Purpose is more than a clever vision and mission statement. It answers the big “why” questions for the organization. It helps people understand why the organization exists, why they work so hard, and why the customers buy our products or services. Aligning behind a powerful purpose helps people engage with the mission.

7. Demonstrate grit

Grit is the combination of passion and perseverance. Passion is about the things we dream about; the things we simply must know more about. As leaders demonstrate their passions, they communicate what they care about and why it is important. Perseverance is that “stick-to-it-ness” that enables us to overcome difficulties and drive creativity and innovation. It helps define what’s worth the trouble to do really well. The combination enables us to care deeply about ideas and actions, and to continue to try, experiment, and learn how to get better.

8. Giving

Being a willing giver builds a strong network. Most people are quite interested in interacting with people who are willing to share their knowledge, expertise, and networks. As leaders, we can model giving behaviors and help our people to learn the benefits of giving. At the same time, we can develop “otherish” giver traits that enable us to gain the benefits of giving and prevent others from taking advantage of our giving nature.

9. Independence

One of the key elements of intrinsic motivation is autonomy. Being able to carve out a little independence enables leaders to act from our passions and to be accountable for our decisions. Core elements that drive independence are novelty, curiosity, perspective, diversity, and authenticity. As leaders, we can demonstrate the benefits of new challenges, wonder, broadening perspectives, valuing differences, and learning from others. As we share these concepts with staff and make these independence behaviors safe in our workplaces, we encourage self-confidence and accountability—two traits that improve the workplace.

10. Decision making

One of the most important responsibilities of leadership is making decisions. Drucker says, “The best outcome is making the right decision, the second-best outcome is making the wrong decision, and the worst outcome is making no decision.” As leaders, we need to be willing to make decisions, to own our decisions (especially the bad ones), communicate our decision-making process, and complete the follow-through once the decision is made. Not deciding erodes trust in organizations, causes doubt about the decision-making process, and erodes confidence in the leader. When we are willing to consider diverse opinions and ideas and to keep forward momentum on projects with clear decisions, we aid our staff in making their own decisions. Encouraging clear decision making at every level of authority enables the whole process to speed up and takes advantage of all the talent in the organization.

11. Constant learning

Having a growth mindset enables the people around us to grow and develop. If we can encourage our people to be dynamic learners and try to learn something new every day, we can foster an environment of problem-solving and agility. Most people love to be counted on and to have the encouragement from their leadership to develop and grow. Leaders who understand that learning is more important than knowing can get more from the talent in their teams and are more likely to retain that talent as it develops.

12. Enable growth

Effective leaders develop a system that enables individual employee growth. By developing effective roles and objectives, and providing consistent, constructive feedback, we encourage the people around us to try new things and grow. If we combine that with a focus on strengths, rather than improving weaknesses, we accelerate the growth pattern.

A valued employee is an engaged employee

Great leadership matters because people accomplish the mission. Engaged people will give discretionary time, ideas, and energy. As leaders, we can enable improved engagement through caring, listening, and driving a positive culture. Leaders can model and teach the elements of success by demonstrating and encouraging grit, giving, learning, and independence. Since people are the most important component of any business, effective leadership is required to enable them to thrive and to then drive business success. As valuation expert Dave Bookbinder says, “The value of a business is a function of how well the financial capital and the intellectual capital are managed by the human capital. You’d better get the human capital part right.”


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  2. EMPLOYEE ENGAGEMENT: How to build authentic brand advocacy from within a whitepaper from Agency EA,
  3. Gallup “The Relationship Between Engagement at Work and Organizational Outcomes” 2016
  4. David Nast as included in “The New ROI” by David Bookbinder, Limelight, Laurel, NJ 2017
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  6. Teddy Roosevelt quote
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