Happiness isn't just a buzzword when it comes to team engagement and employee retention. As business owners and team leaders, we know that happy employees are more likely to be committed to their work and contribute their ideas, resulting in greater innovation and customer satisfaction. But what does it take to cultivate happiness in the workplace?

It's not just about small perks or "fun" additions. True happiness is a state of emotional well-being that goes beyond superficial benefits. By prioritizing the emotional well-being of our team members, we create a foundation for a positive and productive work environment.


One of the most impactful takeaways from executive Japan Study Trips is that many Japanese organizations prioritize their employees' happiness and joy as their actual purpose. As someone who has lived in Japan and visited scores of successful companies over the past decade, this insight has been invaluable to me. It's also been eye-opening for the nearly 100 international leaders who have joined my study trips. It's clear that putting people first can lead to great success in business.

These leaders elaborate that their intention is not just to create a “nice” workplace, but rather that they genuinely care about their people and want them to experience real happiness through “emotional well-being” and a “positive evaluation of [their] life and accomplishments overall.”

To do so, these leaders go out of their way to seek employees’ input, provide stability of employment and create the conditions for them to grow and succeed.

This leadership ethos echoes the deeper meaning of the Toyota Way pillar of “Respect for People,” as I describe in my book Learning to Lead, Leading to Learn: “holding precious what it means to be human.”

Successful business leaders worldwide agree that creating a happy and joyful work environment is key to achieving extraordinary results. This philosophy is not limited to Japanese management practices but can be seen in successful companies across the globe. Richard Sheridan, CEO of Menlo Innovations, and Bob Chapman, CEO of Barry-Wehmiller, have both written books on how creating a positive work environment leads to sustainable business results and transformational growth. Sheridan's "Joy Inc." and "Chief Joy Officer" emphasize the importance of happiness and joy in the workplace, while Chapman's "Everybody Matters" highlights how treating employees like family leads to greater engagement and happiness. By prioritizing the well-being of their employees, these CEOs have achieved remarkable success and set an example for leaders everywhere.


Inspired by what we experienced at these companies in Japan, one of the executive leaders on a recent Japan Study Trip asked a well-intentioned question – one that was on the mind of most everyone else: “How do you measure happiness?” She went on to ask what survey tools the Japanese food product manufacturing company, which professes that “happiness is our purpose,” uses and what data they collect to understand whether they are meeting their happiness goal.

The COO of this company, whose founder is considered a sensei (mentor) to Toyota leadership and other Japanese executives, was confused and replied “What do you mean, ‘how do we measure happiness?’ We just know it. Do you survey your family, or do you know their experience because you spend time with them?” He went on to say that he personally experiences how people are feeling because he goes out often to interact with them, asks for their input and gets to know them as people in his community – not just workers.

Too often we rely on what our metrics and data can provide—and while it’s great to have information about how employee satisfaction or performance has changed over time while working with us, at the end of the day, what good is that data if you cannot retain your employees long enough to make use of it? How long will your employees stay if they’re not feeling fulfilled, feeling happy in the work they do?

So, how do you measure happiness? You don’t measure it. You experience it. You help create the conditions that result in it.

Happiness can be elusive, especially in the workplace. It's not something that can be easily quantified or measured like other KPIs. Unlike tracking project timelines or adding employee benefits, happiness is a feeling that can't be easily measured. As a result, ensuring employee happiness can be a challenging task. However, it's important to remember that happy employees are more engaged, productive, and committed to their work. So while happiness may not be a metric that can be easily tracked, it's certainly something worth striving for in any workplace.

You don’t need to create a survey, or questionnaire to determine how happy or fulfilled your employees are with their work at your company. It’s far more straightforward than that.

You go to gemba (in Japanese, this means “the place where something happens”), you go to see your employees where they are and beyond the work they are doing. You connect one-on-one and ask them questions to get to know them—not just because of the business outcomes you need, but to strengthen their feeling and knowledge of you as a leader and as someone who cares. You make yourself available for questions and concerns from your employees and create a culture where active listening is prioritized and learning is shared. You don’t shut yourself off from getting involved or getting to know your team members; you embrace it.

How can you tell if your employees are happy? They may not articulate it directly, but you can see it in their engagement, in their excitement to get to work, in the innovative solutions they develop and in being a part of the process of bringing the team’s goals to life. If they’re happy, it isn’t something you have to ask them; it’s something you can see and feel as long as you are part of the process of involving yourself in the work, too.

If you're looking to achieve business results, consider what you're doing to create genuine happiness among your team. And ask yourself, how are you ensuring that they're experiencing it?

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Katie Anderson is an internationally recognized leadership coach, consultant, speaker, and author of bestselling book Learning to Lead, Leading to Learn, with over 20 years of expertise in developing people-centered learning cultures across a range of industries. She has worked with leaders of organizations such as Roche, Facebook, Toyota and regularly keynotes international events. Katie received her BA with honors from Stanford University and a Masters of Philosophy in public health from Sydney University, where she was a Fulbright Scholar.