A blog post on Harvard Business Publishing, Are Happy People Dumb? by Shawn Achor, got me thinking about this old but interesting question. The theory often touted is that anyone with the intelligence to keep up with what’s going on in the world couldn’t possibly be happy about it. This is part logic and part stereotype; the stereotype part comes from our arsenal of historical figures who were alcoholic writers or manic-depressive artists or musical geniuses who committed suicide. We’ve come to associate above-average intelligence with emotional disturbance, so we think there must be a causal factor.
Achor quotes research that shows that when you take a smart, successful person who’s unhappy and raise his level of positive emotion, he performs even better. “Doctors primed to be positive come to the correct diagnosis 19% faster when primed to be positive as opposed to negative,” he says. “Salespeople have 37% higher levels of sales when optimistic. In fact, a meta-analysis of employees at companies reveals that nearly every single business outcome improves when a brain is positive. Happiness is a significant advantage.”
That puts a whole different spin on mood, doesn’t it? Achor goes so far as to say that happiness is the single greatest competitive advantage an organization can have, because it broadens the neural pathways that tell us what is possible in the world and thus leads to greater creativity. It isn’t the guy brooding on the problems of the world who is “deep,” but rather the guy who can see past those problems to the solution.
Once you start thinking about what we all know about employee engagement, it becomes more intuitive. Take Zappos CEO Tony Hsieh’s “theory of employee happiness,” for example. Hsieh talks about happiness instead of engagement, not just because it’s different and catchier, but because it’s what truly matters. Employees will be engaged in their work if they’re happy being there. And they’ll perform better as a result. It’s that simple.
So what about that tense, angry high-level executive who makes everyone miserable, but whom we tolerate because she’s smart and she gets things done? Now we have to think about her on two levels. How much smarter and more personally effective would she be if she stopped being unhappy? And how much more effective would the organization be if she stopped playing Genghis Khan and bringing down the general happiness level of the staff? A smart, unhappy person at the top of the organization has a ripple effect that just shouldn’t be tolerated.