From the July 2011 issue of Investment Advisor • Subscribe!

July 1, 2011

Wasted Energy

Chronic unhappiness in the workplace requires decisive intervention to prevent it from spreading

Every manager dreads the employee who wallows in his own despair. You know the type. They are not happy unless they are unhappy. They contaminate the air and distract your team from its mission. They demand attention for their woes but rarely proffer a solution—or worse, rarely act to create a positive outcome. They’d rather point out the failings of others, including you, than be accountable for their own well-being.

Sadly, with the financial services business facing such an acute talent shortage, more firms are indulging such behavior for fear of losing a capable person—even one who is not living up to her potential or who is undermining the firm’s culture. Do we really have to accept such a state of affairs?

[Read Angie Herbers' July column on how to keep employees happy.]

In a recent forum involving Pershing clients, the subject of people and culture was top of everybody’s mind. One executive remarked that his singular focus for the past year was building an organization where the right people were matched to the right jobs, and where motivated individuals could flourish. In order to accomplish his people development goals, he said, he had to begin with himself. By coincidence, amidst this soul searching, he heard a former Harvard professor of psychology named Shawn Achor speak on the power of happiness in transforming individuals and businesses.

The executive said Achor’s talk caused him to rethink everything, from how he greeted employees to how he conducted meetings. “Now,” he shared, “instead of starting company meetings with all the crap that’s bothering me, I begin by identifying three things that make me happy. It’s remarkable how this changes the tenor of the discussion and the commitment to producing a solution and an optimal outcome.”

Inspired by this discussion, I picked up a copy of Achor’s book, “The Happiness Advantage.” While much of the content may seem intuitive, the author deftly helps the reader understand how happiness creates success and how we can employ seven specific, proven patterns to improve achievement:

The Happiness Advantage. Because positive brains have a biological advantage over brains that are neutral or negative, this principle shows us how to retrain our brains to capitalize on positivity and improve our productivity and performance.

The Fulcrum and the Lever. Our mindset shapes how we experience the world. This principle teaches us how we can adjust our mindset to be more optimistic and create the power to be more successful.

The Tetris Effect. When our brains get stuck in a pattern of negativity, we set ourselves up to lose. This principle explains how to retrain our brains to spot patterns of possibility, so we can see—and seize—opportunities wherever we look.

Falling Up. In the midst of defeat, stress and crisis, our brains map different paths to help us cope. This principle is about finding the mental path that leads us up out of failure or suffering to create new success.

The Zorro Circle. When we are overwhelmed by challenges, our emotions take over our rational brain. This principle empowers us to regain control, first by focusing on small, manageable goals, and then gradually expanding our circle to achieve bigger ones.

The 20-Second Rule. Sustaining lasting change often feels impossible because of our limited willpower; when willpower fails, we fall back on our old habits and succumb to the path of least resistance. This principle shows how, by making small incremental adjustments, we can reroute the path and replace bad habits with good ones.

Social Investment. During times of stress some of us choose to retreat within ourselves and to reject social interaction—but the most successful people have strong relationships with friends, peers and family members. This principle inspires us to invest more in one of the greatest predictors of excellence, our social support network.

“The Happiness Advantage” can be a powerful force for managing a financial services firm. As an industry, we have endured a period of high stress, material loss and even crisis. Our clients have suffered, but so surely have the people who work in our business and we ourselves. As Achor observed in his book, “Rarely have I seen an optimistic and motivated worker under the supervision of a pessimistic, apathetic manager. As leaders go, so go their employees.” How leaders and those within the organization comport themselves at all times, but especially in difficult times, can predict the outcome of a crisis.

Shawn Achor’s lessons are critical in the process of hiring and developing people. So often I hear leaders of financial services firms lament the poor quality of people whom they interview for jobs. Some attribute this to generational differences, the diminishing interest in entrepreneurship, or other factors not within their control. In reality, there are many examples of outstanding people who work in this industry, who bring energy and joy to their work and commitment to the mission of their employer. But when the manager has low expectations, their expectations are often fulfilled—and the unhappiness cycle continues.

If you have surrounded yourself with individuals who are not achieving their potential and who seem to be chronically sad, whiny and unhelpful, then it’s time to ask what is inhibiting their success. While it’s possible that they are mismatched to their jobs, more likely they need an attitude adjustment. That change starts with you, as their leader, and your level of optimism, energy and passion.

Think about each person who drags down your business and determine whether their attitude can improve with effort. If you believe that your people want to make that effort, just as they want to find meaning and fulfillment in their jobs, then convey your conviction and commitment in your daily words and actions.

Achor argues that optimists cope better in stressful situations and are able to maintain high levels of well-being during times of hardship, allowing them to sustain outstanding performance in a demanding work environment.

Promote optimism in your firm culture. Achor writes that adversity is the event we can’t change, and belief is our reaction to the event. If we believe there are solutions, we see adversity as temporary and an opportunity for growth. But if we feel helpless, then our actions or inaction will bring negative consequences.

For leaders of financial advisory firms, it is important not to tolerate bad attitudes and chronic unhappiness. The strength of your culture dictates your ultimate success. While different people are motivated by different things, those who do not take responsibility for their happiness will, over time, infect your organization with their malaise—and hinder your performance as an enterprise.

Ultimately, this is the challenge for those who manage advisory firms today: It is not about just you anymore, or even the clients you serve, though both are critical. Real transformation in the advisory business occurs when its leaders recognize that much has changed, where markets can’t camouflage the sins of mismanagement, where expanded span of control means loss of control, and where high performance comes from getting the right people to do the right things in an environment that supports them. Negative cultures bleed companies of their lifeblood. Happy workplaces are ultimately better for all stakeholders—clients, owners and the people who work within your firms.

Click here to read the rest of the July 2011 issue of Investment Advisor.

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