Evidence-Based Happiness: Starting Small


In a recent blog post I described how scientifically based mindfulness training can help improve employee performance by building the capacity to sustain compassion and promote happiness. A recent New York Times article also explored the topic as a management principle, "The Happiness Code," which is about a company offering to generate happiness for its employees by using evidence-based research to produce the outcome. The Center for Applied Rationality (CFAR) in Silicon Valley relies on its founders' expertise in behavioral economics to promote employee satisfaction. The premise of the workshop is simple: to rid ourselves of bad mental habits like procrastination, avoiding problems, making poor choices, and wasting time to rationalize our unproductive behaviors. These ''cognitive errors,'' CFAR argues, persist in our patterned conduct and keep us in a loop of feeling either harried or frustrated. Some of these problems are byproducts of our brain's chemical reward systems--it's more pleasurable to cash a check than pay a bill--but some of it is lazy and solipsistic thinking, like avoiding bad news as if that would keep it from being true. These kinds of logical errors, however, can be corrected applying various tools derived from evidence-based research that can enable users to be more intellectually dynamic and nimble and, of course, happier.

Evidence-based management (EBMgt or EBM) is an emerging movement to explicitly use the current, best available evidence in management and decision-making to improve outcomes for the employer, employee, and customer. My colleague in the School of Management at the University of San Francisco, Neil Walshe, is a researcher committed to evidence based practice, specifically in the realm of management. Neil, an academic council member at the Center for Evidence Based Management notes, "there is nothing new about evidence-based practice. Medicine, policing, education have all been advocates and practitioners of using the best available evidence in the course of their decision making for several decades. However, it is only recently that management has started to recognize the need to change how management is studied and, indeed, how it is practiced".

Evidence-based management promotes a relatively simple idea: that management decisions should be based upon a combination of critical thinking and the best available evidence. "Evidence" can come from scientific research, professional experience and internally sourced organizational data. With this in mind, it can be said that all mangers use some form of evidence in their decision making but there is a clear bias towards the value of experience and the opinions of external experts over all else - even when it contradicts organizational data and scientific findings.

Evidence-based Management therefore tries to place a value on the quality of evidence and encourages managers to look not only at what research says about a given topic but also what their own organizational data suggests. "It is common for managers to assume a problem exists (e.g. absenteeism, low morale, limited employee-engagement etc.) when they have absolutely no internal evidence to support this. When challenged on this, the rationalization often centers on their own experience of a given phenomenon and little else."

For many mangers, evidence is perceived as a threat to the credibility of their own decision making, a sentiment perpetuated by the industry of management gurus and experts all of whom extol the importance of using a mix of "gut feeling" and "best practices" in the course of managerial decision making. Data, especially that derived from within the organization rarely gets a voice. "It can be hard for managers to understand that their own employees are a potential source of quality evidence".

One company practicing and promoting as its product its own version of EBM is TINYpulse, a company founded by entrepreneur David Niu in 2012 after returning from a long, global trip where he took the opportunity to interview entrepreneurs from various industries and companies. Focusing on one thing they all had in common -- the challenges of managing and retaining employees -- he created TINYpulse to give leaders a method to take the "pulse" on how happy, burnt out, and frustrated their employees are. Using anonymous surveys to take these tiny pulses, Niu and his team created TINYpulse Engage. The goal is not just to achieve individual employee satisfaction but also to build strong cultures. The company's mission is to "make employees happier" because evidence supports that when employees are happy, retention, customer service, and engagement all improve. In early 2016, TINYpulse expanded into the performance management space with Perform, a mobile-first app that helps managers and employees work together to meet performance goals.

I recently spoke with Ketti Salemme, Senior Communications Manager of TINYpulse who also shared some of the founder's principles and comments about my inquiry. As Ketti explained the company's mission and processes, she kept returning to the concept of culture and how keeping track of employee satisfaction through small and frequent performance reviews contributed to the communal good of the company as well as the individual employee's sense of self-worth and satisfaction. Although their methods vary depending on the company, essentially TINYpulse assists managers by developing weekly, bi-weekly, or monthly surveys that become part of a company's ongoing activities. Some questions may be light or even open-ended, on topics as diverse as how clean everyone keeps the staff kitchen to opinions on leadership and product lines. What all the surveys include is the question, to be rated on a 1-10 scale: "How happy are you at work?" What all the tiny surveys share is the guarantee of anonymity, a feature that is essential to the success of the process because of the trust it builds and the candor it fosters. Their clients come from the for-profit, non-profit and public sectors.

When I asked Ketti whether or not the company worried about "the illusion of technique," as philosopher William Barrett so memorably described the encroaching effects of a technological mind, she agreed that metric-based approaches could be perceived as instruments of exercising control rather than releasing happiness. To my question "is there ever such thing as too much information?" the founder Nui provided this helpful reply:  "There definitely can be the case of too much information at one time. For example, when organizations first start TINYpulsing, they will often get a groundswell of feedback. If the organization is really large, the initial set of feedback can feel overwhelming. Thus it's really important that the leaders and managers of the organization are ready to address the feedback." 

Given this experience, the TINYpulse team has developed a set of best practices that are useful for any companies collecting and manipulating data: These practices include:

1. Acknowledge to the employees that management received the feedback and are reading through each one carefully (because everyone has participated in a survey without getting a response). 

2. Categorize the feedback into themes to share with the whole company. 

3. Schedule town hall or all-company meetings ahead of time to set expectations for respondents and administrators so they have a date to target to share the survey results.

4. Address the themes even if there is an issue that cannot be dealt with immediately. If there is something that the company can take positive action on, then set up the action plan and owner.

5. Remind respondents of the positive impact of their feedback so they will be encouraged to trust the process and continue to participate.

6. Empower functional heads or department leaders to use the surveys effectively and for greatest impact.

Ketti acknowledged that the companies that benefit the most from the surveys are those who are seeking to be proactive in building or preserving a company culture and to develop sustainable problem-solving practices. Like with any therapy or treatment, trying to assess employee satisfaction in the midst of a crisis isn't as effective in addressing problems. The data that companies collect is only useful when it is applied and that process takes time. But for emerging businesses, the evidence-based support and even their own way of doing business at TINYpulse can be an inspiration. As Ketti proclaimed, "our mission is to delight," a word that also serves as an acronym for their company's core values which read like a standard guide to management but as if communicated by a cheerleader: to Delight customers; Elect to spread positivity; Lead with solutions and embrace change; Increase communication with transparency; Go the extra mile with passion; Hold oneself accountable; and finally Treasure culture and freedom.

TINYpulse, therefore, tries to walk its own talk. In addition to building a harmonious culture, the company gives away 1% of its product to deserving nonprofits, and provides an additional 1% of its profit to the Entrepreneurs' Organization, a global non-profit organization whose stated mission is to "engage leading entrepreneurs to learn and grow." And its employees volunteer 1% of their time to community-based and service organizations. Finally, TINYPulse shares its evidence-based practices and information gathered from surveys through the TINYpulse Institute and its open-source white papers and special reports.

Where the data and the technique and the happy talk all come together are in a concept of culture the founder described for me in the following way: "Culture is the vibe you get from a company within 10 seconds of walking through the door. It's the energy level one senses and the beliefs and values that we all share. So hopefully if you divided us into separate rooms, you'll still get a common sense of how we act, treat others, and go about our day."