After seven years in the trenches developing their "Experience Happiness" workplace philosophy, Nancy O'Brien and Linda Saggau have found their niche with a client list ranging from Minnetonka-based hospitality giant Carlson to the emergency department at Hennepin County Medical Center. On a recent snowy morning, the two filled a banquet room at the Edina Country Club with a group of management professionals anxious to learn about a trend that has captured a growing chorus of believers. Even the Harvard Business Review has weighed in on the topic, which it called "The Value of Happiness" in an article that explained "how employee well-being drives profits." Words like "serenity" and "excitement" are used to describe a practice that encourages happiness in the workplace as a means for motivating employees, improving managers and helping an organization's bottom line.
" 'I'm so busy' used to define us," Saggau told her audience. "It was about a fancy car and kids and grades. But what was missing was me. We found that unhappy people don't collaborate very well. But when you're happy, you're more likely to give help when it's needed and more likely to receive it when it's offered."
Both women have had extensive careers in corporate America as managers and consultants. O'Brien spent 18 years with IBM, while Saggau had a stint at JP Morgan Chase.
"Happiness propels innovation, and it propels resilience," O'Brien said. "If you look at life as a grand experiment, you are able to bounce back from setbacks and try again."
O'Brien and Saggau recently sat down with the Star Tribune to discuss their Experience Happiness work and their "return on happiness" measuring stick.
Q: What led you to create Experience Happiness and the Happiness Practice?
O'Brien: We had a lot of experience in consulting and we were noticing some common themes. One of those was workplace dissatisfaction, and that was different from workplace disengagement. It was an epidemic.
Saggau: It showed up sometimes as sarcasm, sometimes as presenteeism and sometimes as bullying. People thought, "I've got to get results to be happy," when the reality is you've got to be happy to get results. In a way, we needed to define happiness as something more than elation. People need to feel their contributions are worthy so they can bring their whole self to the table.
Q: What are your five principles of happiness?
O'Brien: One, be conscious and pay attention to what you are doing and how you are feeling. Two, honor those feelings. All of them are valid and help you pay attention to how to take care of yourself. Three, release the desire to control. We've got enough going on that we don't need to get in the way of anybody else. Four, co-create what works now. It's about paying attention to what is happening and how you are feeling and creating solutions. Five, learn life lessons. Don't compromise your well-being to seek approval from others.
Q: Explain what you mean by "return on happiness."
O'Brien: All of us like to know how we are doing. We wanted to help people assess how they are increasing happiness and how that can impact goals and outcomes. It's to improve top-line and bottom-line performance, including retention, productivity and sales. This gives you a lift in the good things in the workplace and a decrease in the things you want to minimize. Absenteeism and errors go down.
Q: Is this concept a tough sell to corporate officers?
Saggau: I had a client the other day say that this is like taking a nutcracker to a nut. The more you get into it, the more you see it as a powerful tool. People also take this home and start teaching the principles of happiness to the people they care about.
Q: Define happiness.
O'Brien: Part of worker dissatisfaction is that people know there is more out there. Values change, and it's more about collaboration and meaning than just stuff. People still need perks, but the balance is shifting. It's not about one or the other, it's about one and the other. The question is, "How do I give my people something that will last for a lifetime?"
Q: How did you two meet?
Saggau: Nancy and I were focused on management consulting with competing organizations. One day a potential client said, "I like you both, but I won't hire either one of you until you two are working together." So we had lunch, then dinner, and five years later sat down and said there are problems in corporate America and we can do something about it.