Henry Stewart Speaking at the 2019 Happiness and Humans Conference

In: BlogDate: Jul 30, 2019By: Henry Stewart

Henry Stewart was invited to speak about the importance of happy and engaged workplaces at the Happiness and Humans Conference in May 2019, hosted by the Happiness Index. Watch his talk here.

(It is 28 minutes but Henry never talks for more than nine before posing a question to the audience!)

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Henry Stewart speaking at the 2019 Happiness and Humans Conference

"5,000 deaths per year result from unhappy, disengaged workforces… If you’re sick, make sure you go to a happy hospital!"


I’m Henry Stewart. I am Chief Happiness Officer at Happy. I hope you all have a Chief Happiness Officer, yes? Somebody asked me how do you become Chief Happiness Officer? You just decide to be it, to make it your title. People I didn’t tell, people at all sorts of places have decided just to do that. I’m going to talk about happy workplaces and my aim, even with this audience, is to challenge you, to make you think again about how organisations should be run, about what management is about, but also to give you some ideas to take away.

Who’s heard of Happy before this, before you read I was on this? Ok a couple, good. We’re a training business. We’ve been around for 30 years. Initially IT training, helping people enjoy using computers, and now we help people transform into happy workplaces. We were in the best workplace list five years in a row. So what I’m going to be talking about is partly based on our own experience and partly based on some of the fab companies we met there, including Google, and looking at what they had in common, what it was that made a great workplace.

But first let me ask you to put your hands up if you agree with our principle. Our core principle is “people work best when they feel good about themselves.” Hands up if you agree with that. Ok if that’s the case, what should be the main focus of leadership in an organisation? Making people feel good, making people feel happy. Hands up if you work for an organisation where the main focus of leadership is making feel good. Ok we’ve got some – excellent.

I was on a panel with the Chair of one of Britain’s biggest retail companies and when I asked that question he put his hand straight in the air. He said, “Yes, at my 80000-strong company, that is the main focus of leadership.” Any guesses which company? John Lewis, absolutely. It wasn’t Sports Direct, I can tell you that. It was John Lewis and he went on to say how at the last board meeting they spent 20 minutes discussing the numbers and three hours discussing people. Do you or does you senior team spend at least five times as much time discussing people as numbers?

I don’t know if you know the John Lewis story, but it was set up by Spedan Lewis in 1929 as a workers mutual with, at the core of the constitution, the rule that every decision they make should be based on how happy it makes the staff. And that’s how they grew from one haberdashery store on Oxford St to the massively bigger organisation they are now.

My first question to you is how would your organisation be different if the main focus of leadership was making people feel good? This is not a debate. I don’t want you to say whether it’s a good idea or a bad idea. I want you to pose that hypothetical; what would your organisation be like, what would it feel like, what would it be like to work for?

How would it be different? We’d all be happier? Excellent. Better customer service. Increased productivity. Yes, any more? So a quick show of hands: how many think your organisation would be an even better place to work? How many think it’d be more productive? More innovative? How many of you are going to make sure it happens? This is not just for leadership. We’ve worked with organisations where people do it from the bottom. Everybody can have an impact.

Do you want to see some evidence that this works? You know the best place to work, this has been running for decades. There’s a guy called Alex Edmans who was at Wharton Business School who wondered, do the best places to work perform better? Good question, yeah?

To make the metrics easy, he looked at stock market listed companies and he looked, compared if you’d invested in the best places to work over 25 years, how would you have done compared to the stock market index? And he found that if, say, the pension that you’d invested by the end was worth £100,000 in the SMP, if instead you’d invested in the great workplaces, which you could’ve done, they were all listed every year, it’d have been worth £236,000. That’s the hard financial difference that creating a great workplace makes. And if you have a pension make sure you know it’s in that kind of company. It makes a difference.

How many here are in a not-for-profit of any sort, public sector, charity? A few. Ok, let’s take the NHS. The King’s Fund did a study looking at engagement in hospitals. All that data is out there. And you won’t be surprised to know that if staff are more engaged, patients are happier. Makes sense. But it is also the case that if staff are happy and engaged, less people die.

For every 96 that die in a hospital where staff are highly engaged, 103 die where they’re disengaged and unhappy. You know how many deaths that is? That’s five thousand deaths a year in the UK alone [that] result from unhappy, disengaged workforces. It’s the same, obviously, in wherever – happy workplaces save lives. And if you’re sick, make sure you go to a happy hospital because it will make a difference.

I will put one caveat on the happiness thing. We did have one client where they delegated to somebody to make people happy and this guy went out and bought lots of hula hoops and games and made people have fun and measured happiness before and afterwards and it went down. Any idea why it went down? People might have been forced to have fun, yes, and also when I’m talking about happiness, I’m not talking about hedonism. I’m not talking about in the moment, fine glass of wine, nice piece of music, whatever. I’m talking about long term fulfilment. That’s what we’re looking for.

So let’s me ask another question. Let me ask you to cast your mind back over your working life and to one particular time where you were really proud of the results you produced. Hopefully you’ve got lots to choose from, but I want you to think of one specific occasion. Nod your head if you’ve got a time in mind. Ok, I’m going to ask you some questions.

Hands up if it was a time when you were really well paid. No one? Not even the Google person? Ok. Hands up if it was a time when communication was particularly good from your manager? Ok, that’s probably a third. Hands up if it was a time you had a great manager? That’s getting on to three quarters. Hands up if it was a time when you were challenged? Ok I’d say that’s 80%. Hands up if it was a time when you were trusted and given freedom to make your own judgement?

I’ve asked that question to thousands of people from city banks to charities, from directors to front line staff. The answer is always very similar. It’s not about the money, though we all deserve to be well paid. It’s not about communication. Are you challenged? Do you have freedom and trust?

Would you like a quick tip on how to give people more trust and freedom? How many of you are managers, just out of interest? Ok. How often do you ask somebody to come up with a new idea, a new problem, some kind of solution and ask them to bring it back for approval? I’m going to ask you to miss out the last step. I’m going to ask you to do something called pre-approval, which means you approve the solution before they’ve thought of the solution. Make sense? I’ll explain it a bit. This is our own café at Happy. We had a 19 year old in charge who said she’d like to improve it. What we didn’t do was say show us a plan or let’s form a committee. What we did do was agree a budget, check she understood the look and feel of Happy and left her to decide for herself what it should be like.

I saw it for the first time when I walked in. We like thinking we’re a colourful company so it fits very well. But how do you think that 19 year old, three months into her first job felt walking into her café every day? Elated, motivated, happy. And very different if it was almost her café, but so and so insisted on this and so and so insisted on that. It was her café.

A trainer sent me an email some years ago saying I love the three things you’ve done to improve things at Happy to make it easier to serve the customer. I looked at the three things and the first thing that shocked me was I had no idea they’d happened, because they hadn’t come across my desk for approval. But then I looked again and spotted if they had come across my desk, I’d have rejected two of them, because I thought up a lot of the ways things happen at Happy. I used my best thinking. I reckon my thinking’s pretty ace.

So I am a natural barrier to change, like most managers, because when you’re a manager and somebody gives you an idea, you have improve it, don’t you? That’s your role, isn’t it? How many have put your best idea up to your manager and have them improve it? Not a great experience normally.

So let me give you a bigger example. Our website. In the early days of our website, I was very involved. I would say, we need this, we need that, can we take that away and do that? So the person in charge of the website never really felt in charge of the website. Has anybody been in that situation? So we decided we would pre-approve the website. That does not mean saying do whatever you like. I’m going to give you three options here. Do you like to be told what to do? Have complete freedom? Or freedom within guidelines?

Hands up if you like to be told what to do? No surprise, nobody at all. Hands up if you like complete freedom? Yes there’s always a few anarchists around. That’s good, we like them. Hands up if you like freedom within guidelines? Yep. And in a more representative sample it’s probably about 90% at least like the freedom within guidelines.

So, on the website we didn’t say do whatever you like. We had a branding exercise so the branding was clear. We agreed the metrics; how many people visited and how much income it generated. Johnny went on the best search engine optimisation training we could find so he had the skills. And we also insisted that he’d be talking to users. We didn’t need to know what they were saying. We just needed to know that dialogue was happening. Those were the guidelines.

I saw the website for the first time the night before it launched. It either went up or it didn’t go up. And it wasn’t what I was expecting. It absolutely wasn’t what I’d have created, but that’s the point. If you truly delegate you do not get what you would’ve created. You get what they create. But it was completely within the guidelines, so up it went. On all the metrics a couple of months later, business had trebled and income had doubled. Even without the benefit of my expertise.

So my question to you is what could you pre-approve on Monday? Discuss again.

Ok let me give you a couple of examples. We’ve got a little client based in Cheltenham who you may have heard of, who really likes pre-approval. And in fact they so like [The Happy Manifesto] they’ve got their own GCHQ copy of that. They took pre-approval one step further. GCHQ needs to be at the forefront of technology, so they managed to get – not the leadership but some people in the middle – managed to get a million pound budget from directors for innovation. And being geeks they set up a crowd-funding site and they got lots of ideas.

Who would normally then make the decision on who got the money? Up the chain, the directors, someone like that? What they did at GCHQ was they divided the million pounds into a hundred sets of ten thousand pounds and gave it to the most junior people in the organisation to decide. I’ve got a colleague there who had a ten thousand pound idea for a new piece of technology to improve communication. In the past he would’ve needed five levels of approval and he probably wouldn’t have bothered. Put it on One Shot, the name of the site, it was funded within a week, it was implemented in two weeks.

Now think about that. You’ve done two things there. First you’ve massively increased the speed of change, and secondly, you’ve changed who does it. Who actually probably knows better about technology, the front line geeks who’ve just joined or the senior directors who’ve been there 40 years? Which is true not just in technology, but in most things. You want to get your decisions as close to the front line as possible.

Why are all these approvals happening? There should be somebody owning decisions. At Happy, for instance, one thing that got changed this year was our prices went up. I didn’t discuss it. My management team didn’t discuss it. One person owns that, he decides. He doesn’t take it to any meeting. He can consult if he wants. But as a result of that at Happy I only attend one meeting a month, because we don’t have meetings to discuss decisions and things like that. People are responsible for that. It sweeps away a lot of the bureaucracy.

Here’s one of the most innovative companies in the world. Who’s heard of Buurtzorg? Yes. Anybody involved in care in any way? You know how it works that you’re a carer, who get a list of who you’ve got to see, half an hour with so and so, five minutes with so and so. Does it work? No it doesn’t. Four nurses in the Netherlands in 2008 decided they wanted to change it. They would decide how much time they spent with the patients. Those four nurses have now grown a little bit. There’s 14,000 people now work for Buurtzorg. Without venture capital, they are a social enterprise. And as one of them said at one of our conferences, “I feel like I’ve got my vocation back.”

They’re aren’t any managers at Buurtzorg. There’s a CEO, but they work in teams of 10-12 and they decide together. Now, do you think this method, spending more time with patients, them deciding, it must be more expensive, mustn’t it? A study reckoned it saved Dutch healthcare two billion euros. Why? How can you spend more time with patients and it cost less? They swept away 30% of the cost by getting rid of the management. But also, by spending more time with patients, you spend less time in hospital and so forth.

So what is the role of the manager? Are you ready for a quick quiz on this? Ok, this is from Google. Who’s the Google person? Do you know Project Oxygen? We had a conference here ourselves about five years ago and they shared Project Oxygen with us. Basically, being Google, they looked at the data. They wanted to find out what’s the most important behaviour for managers and they looked at the data and they came up with eight. Your task, which are the two most important, ranging from good communication especially listening to express interest in your people to clear vision? 30 seconds, which are the two most important?

Ok I’m going to ask you to put your hands up for two of them. So how many think one of the top two is good communication especially listening? Not many. Expressing interest in your people? Oh lots. Be productive and results orientated? Empower, don’t micromanage? Hey, almost everyone. Help with career development? Key technical skills? Be a good coach? Clear vision? Ok. I think this is the best audience I’ve had. I’ve done this at about over a hundred organisations. So in third place was express interest in your people. In second place was empower, don’t micromanage. And in first place, the single most important behaviour of managers was be a good coach.

I had one group of Chief Executives where not one of them got be a good coach and even asked afterwards, “why is that part of my job?”

Let’s look at that. Who’s had a coach at some point in their career? What did they do for you, one line? Career development. Ask good questions. Help me sort out loads of shit. Did they tell you what to do? Did they ask you questions? Did they build confidence? Did they help you find your own solution? That’s the role of the manager right? That’s the role.

Let’s say you’re at work, you get a note from your manager saying I want to see you at two o’clock. Do you feel excited? No [audience laughter]. We should do. It’s not their fault, they see their role is to be the expert, the decider. The [role of the] manager is not to show how clever I am, it’s to show how clever my people are. That’s the role, to build confidence, ask questions, help people find their own solution.

I’m going to quickly switch to another point, which is at Happy our aim is that people should have joy in their work 80% of the time. We measure it and it’s 73% at the moment, which isn’t bad particularly as a rather rusty IT system has just gone in. How do you get joy in your work? You have purpose, but particularly you’re doing something you’re good at. Gallop has asked over a million people “do you get to do every day what you are best at?” Guess what percentage say yes to that simple question? Any guesses? 20, 40, 10. Do you know the answer? It was 17; one in six. But where people do answer in higher proportions, those organisations are 40% more productive.

Let’s say you have an appraisal. Do you have appraisals? Who still has appraisals? Oh no, get rid of them. We had a vote this year, should we keep the appraisal system. 85% said no, get rid of it. So we have obviously the one-to-ones with your coach and then we have a four-monthly check-in, which just is a half page thing. So get rid of appraisals, yes. Anybody here look forward to their appraisal? Oh one or two do, ok. It’s very rare, but there we go.

Where was I? Strengths. So say you have an appraisal and you get your strengths, your weaknesses, what do we normally get to work on. [Weaknesses]. Yes, what’s the alternative? Yeah, get to build your strengths. Never mind those weaknesses. How many of you are parents? Let’s say little Johnny comes home with A, A, A, C, F. What do we focus on? 82% focus on the F, whereas you could just say, “look at all these things you’re fabulous at.” That’s what we should be doing at work.

Would you like this summed up in three key points. Ok, number one: get people to do what they are good at. It’s a deeply radical idea which will never catch on, I know. Just that small step, getting people to do what they’re good at. Number two: give them the freedom to do well. And number three: what’s the role of the manager? Coach them to be their best.

I’m seeking, with the Happiness Index and others, to build a movement of happy workplaces. I know you’re all on board. If you want an electronic copy of my book simply email me at henry@happy.co.uk and you also get on the monthly newsletter. Ok I’ll close there. I’m Henry, I’m happy, I hope you are too.

Henry Stewart, Founder and Chief Happiness Officer

Henry is founder and Chief Happiness Officer of Happy Ltd, originally set up as Happy Computers in 1987. Inspired by Ricardo Semler’s book Maverick, he has built a company which has won multiple awards for some of the best customer service in the country and being one of the UK’s best places to work.

Henry was listed in the Guru Radar of the Thinkers 50 list of the most influential management thinkers in the world. "He is one of the thinkers who we believe will shape the future of business," explained list compiler Stuart Crainer.

His first book, Relax, was published in 2009. His second book, the Happy Manifesto, was published in 2013 and was short-listed for Business Book of the Year.

You can find Henry on LinkedIn and follow @happyhenry on Twitter.

More by Henry

Next Conference: 2025 Happy Workplaces Conference

Our Happy Workplaces Conference is our biggest event of the year, and we'd love for you to join us on Wednesday 25th June!

Our 2024 event was our first ever hybrid event, and so we hope to run next year's in the same way. We will host up to 50 people face-to-face at Happy's HQ in Aldgate, London, and we can host up to 200 people online via Zoom. However you choose to join, there will be interaction, discussion, space for reflection and opportunities to network with others.

Stay tuned for full details of our speakers for next year's event. As always, our speakers share practical, hands-on ideas that you can implement to create happy and engaged workplaces.

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