What bosses—including me—get wrong about happier offices

The first impulse is to do something NOW—but it’s actually better to stop and think before acting

Header for The Happy Office Project
Group of happy employees clustered around a desk

Again, not the staff of Canadian Business, but a stock photo. Our office, unfortunately, lacks both a professional stylist and studio lighting. (Tom Merton/Getty)

To conclude this phase our Happy Office Project, we asked the boss—editor-in-chief James Cowan—to weigh in on what he learned about the Canadian Business team, and his own management style, during our experiment. Here’s what he had to say.

It had been a brilliant week at Canadian Business. The staff had worked late on an issue, pulling together an ambitious editorial package and launching a whole new section without enough time for either. As editor-in-chief of the magazine, I bought cupcakes to say thank you. Like the old military maxim holds, an army marches on its stomach. Keep the troops fed and you’ll keep them happy. I thought the offering was well received; my colleagues seemed tickled with the morale boost and the cakes were gone within a few minutes. So, a couple of months later, I did it again. This time, the cupcakes just sat there—rejected chocolate-frosted indictments of my leadership abilities, with sprinkles on top. Some were eaten eventually, but I felt like a grandmother attempting to buy love with unwanted kugel. It was a hard lesson in trying to manage a happy workplace. Goodies and good intentions aren’t always good enough. In managing a staff, it isn’t the thought that counts.

I’ve learned plenty of hard lessons as part of our Happy Office Project. The first: Our office isn’t as happy as I thought. About a month ago, the staff at Canadian Business completed a questionnaire constructed by Plasticity Labs, a start-up that’s worked with more than 20 Canadian companies on boosting workplace happiness. On a scale out of seven, the magazine staff rated 4.8, meaning we’re about as happy as employees in the ever-downtrodden manufacturing sector and significantly less happy than the normal knowledge-based worker. We also reported below average levels of job satisfaction and were less inspired by our work than respondents in other workplaces. Even worse, a couple of employees reported exceptionally low satisfaction with their jobs. As a manager, I was failing my team. Even worse—I didn’t know until now.

After Jim Moss, the co-founder of Plasticity, presented the worrisome, ego-bruising results, I asked the obvious question: What could be done? The first step was to resist the urge to take a first step. “Your kneejerk reaction is to act, immediately,” says Moss. “But really, what you need to do for the first six months or even a year is to observe the behaviour of the group, to see how happiness ebbs and flows across time.” By tracking happiness over time, managers can get a sense of what builds morale and what damages it. “That becomes a real education in itself,” says Moss. Sometimes, just listening can be a sign of compassion. “Some people might say ‘Not acting is a sign that you don’t care,’” says Moss. “But no, it’s just not over-acting. It’s a conscious, intentional effort to learn about team to have a real impact.”

Moss has plenty of stories of well-intentioned managers who acted without paying attention to what their team really needed. Like the guy who brought his team cookies and donuts every Friday, only to see them go uneaten. “Finally, somebody said to him ‘Twelve out of the 15 of us are diabetic,” says Moss. “Can we just get fruit and vegetables?’” Thinking they’re aping the perks of Silicon Valley, other bosses buy flat-screen televisions for the break room or a Ping-Pong table, only to see them go unused. For those bosses, the first step of engagement is to correct the failure and then ask employees what they really want. “If you’re going to spend a thousand bucks to improve employee morale, do you really care what you spend it on?” asks Moss. “The best thing to do is find out will work best, and then do that.”

As I learned with the cupcakes, it’s also a mistake to take a one-size-fits-all approach. Employee of the month might be great for the first couple of times, but eventually the manager either feels obligated to recognize everyone or uncelebrated team members will feel slighted. Moss says it’s better to listen to the team and aim for “small, meaningful wins,” at least to start. Some folks respond better to a private congratulatory email. Others want a surprise party. Others might actually want a cupcake.

Building a happy, engaged workforce also isn’t just a matter of coddling. Liz Wiseman, a leadership consultant and author of Multipliers: How the Best Leaders Make Everyone Smarter, says good leadership isn’t about “cupcakes and kisses.” Rather, it’s about finding ways to make a team feel challenged in their work. “The people who really motivated me weren’t always nice, they weren’t the people who put their arm around me and said ‘Liz, we really appreciate you,’” she says. “They were leaders who asked me to do really hard things and then stepped back and let me struggle with it. They were demanding and intolerant of mediocrity.” Employees might love these kinds of leaders, but it’s not because they’re nice. “It’s because they give you an opportunity and they bring out our best,” Wiseman says. “And we love the people who bring out our best.”

All of this makes rational sense, of course. But there’s still an impulse to try and boost my colleagues’ spirits with a grand gesture. While it’s better to wait, listen and then act, Moss says the instinct to act is a useful place to start. “That’s saying ‘If there’s something I could do to help, I would do that.’” The challenge is being patient enough to figure out what “That” is and recognizing that it will likely take hundreds of smaller “thats” to build a happier office for the long term.


The Happy Office Project is a special series initiated by Canadian Business. Plasticity Labs is neither providing or receiving payment for our participation, and has no involvement in its editorial content.