We can't just chalk it up to Minnesota Nice.

Sure, being nice is a welcome trait in colleagues and supervisors. But niceness alone seems too simple an explanation for why Minnesota workplaces are happier than average. There's more to life (and work), including smart leadership, a sense of purpose — oh, and good old pay and benefits.

"There's not going to be just one cause," said University of Minnesota philosophy professor Valerie Tiberius, who has studied happiness. "Everything is going to be more complicated than you think it's going to be."

In a survey by WorkplaceDynamics, the research firm that partners with the Star Tribune to compile the Top Workplaces list, Minnesota ranked first among 45 regions surveyed on workplace satisfaction. The survey focused on components of well-being, like relationships, positive feelings and a sense of meaning.

"Lots of things rated more highly by Minnesotans speak to having good relationships in your workplace and feeling like what you do is worthwhile," Tiberius said.

As one commenter put it: "My ideas and thoughts are valued, we are always open to trying something new, my co-workers are like family, I am motivated and pushed to work hard to a high potential, I am not just a number and senior leaders care about my career and growth, there is always potential to grow within the company."

Minnesota employees rated their companies above the national averages in a range of factors. For example, Minnesotans were 2 to 4 percent more likely to agree with statements such as "There is not a lot of negativity at my workplace" and "I feel genuinely appreciated at this company" and "This company operates by strong values and ethics."

To find out why Minnesota employees are such a satisfied bunch, we went to the experts: professors who have studied happiness and workplaces and leaders at this year's Top Workplaces. They offered a number of possibilities:

Minnesota's economy is flourishing.

"The economy here has outperformed the rest of the country," said Myles Shaver, a professor of strategic management and entrepreneurship at the University of Minnesota's Carlson School of Management. "What does that mean? Generally there are more opportunities. If you don't like your job, there's someplace else to go" — and with employees in more demand, businesses that want to attract and keep good ones are motivated to treat them well.

Shaver noted that many of the survey statements indicate that respondents view their company's management favorably. "It's hard to answer those questions positively if your company's suffering," he said.

The number of large companies headquartered here is another advantage, said Nancy Feldman, president and CEO of UCare, a nonprofit health plan. Large companies "have the resources to do the kinds of things that create more employee engagement — not just good benefits, but a positive kind of work atmosphere."

Minnesotans like living here, and that attitude spreads to their jobs.

"There's an adage among the headhunters in town: It's really hard to get people to move to Minnesota, and it's almost impossible to get them to leave," Shaver said.

Minnesotans can find good jobs around the state — not just in the metro area, said Jeff Gau, CEO of St. Cloud-based Marco Inc., a technology services company. Those who want to live among lakes and forests can do so while working in a diversity of industries.

"A lot of people here are homers," Gau said. "They go check out other communities in other states, but they come back. There seems to be an attraction back to the lakes area, back to our four seasons."


The Twin Cities metro area would please Goldilocks.

"We're big enough to have everything you need, but not so big that you can't be connected," said Theresa M. Glomb, a professor of organizational behavior at the Carlson School of Management.

"People feel a sense of connection to their companies and connection to others in their workplaces," Glomb said. "One of the key predictors of being satisfied at work is connection with other people, at an organizational level but also a community level."

Also, a dollar goes further here, said Clay Collins, CEO of LeadPages, a Minneapolis software company. That's a big advantage in industries like his, where pay rates don't vary dramatically by geography.

"Any one of our engineers in a heartbeat could get a job in San Francisco," Collins said. "But here, you don't have to pay like four grand for a studio apartment that's across the street from a meth field."

Minnesotans have strong values.

The state is a bit old-fashioned, but in a good way, said Joel Theisen, CEO and founder of Edina-based senior care agency Lifesprk. "We may not be the coolest kids … We're a little more conservative, but it's deep and it's real and it's authentic."

Years ago, Theisen worked in Silicon Valley. "It's cool, it's awesome, and it's cutthroat. For me it didn't feel right. That's one of the reasons I came back here, to Minnesota. I felt there was a deeper sense of purpose."

It may have to do with the way Minnesotans are raised, said Tom Salonek, founder of Eagan-based Intertech, a software developer training and consulting firm. "I grew up on a family farm and watched my dad work from sunup to sundown," Salonek said. "It's sort of baked into my DNA. In the Midwest, your parents weren't strangers to hard work."

Finally (there's no getting around it), Minnesotans really are pretty nice.

Nathan Lewis, VP of operations for Werner Electric Supply in Cottage Grove, has worked on both coasts. At a national conference recently, he talked to a couple of other business leaders about the Midwest — and Minnesota specifically.

"There's definitely a feeling that there's a difference in Minnesota," Lewis said. "We're quick to trust; we're quick to love. … We seem very geared toward meeting other people's standards, making other people happy."

Employers here understand the importance of family and care about their employees' lives outside of the workplace, Lewis said.

Our business culture also may be more egalitarian than elsewhere. Marit Brock, chief performance officer at Minnesota Gastroenterology, said that's the case at the St. Paul-based practice. "We've got doctors, we've got entry-level staff, but everybody contributes," she said. "Everybody's part of the team."

Katy Read • 612-673-4583