Alexander Kjerulf: “The #1 reason employees are unhappy is bad leadership”

November 30, 2017 Emily Payne

Alexander Kjerulf

Workplace happiness has a direct link to a company’s bottom line. And few people know how to cultivate happy employees better than Workhuman® Live speaker Alexander Kjerulf, founder and chief happiness officer at Woohoo inc.

Alexander’s primary passion is making and keeping the workplace happy, and he has presented and conducted workshops on the subject for businesses and conferences in more than 30 countries. With clients including Hilton, Microsoft, LEGO, IKEA, and IBM, Alexander has also authored five books on the topic. His most recent book, Leading with Happiness, was released just last week.

We asked Alexander about what prevents employees from finding happiness at work, simple ways leaders and managers can help this, and the power of positive feedback. Check out the first part of our interview below, or listen to it in the episode of Workhuman Radio above.

Tell us a bit about your background. What makes you so passionate about building happier workplaces?

I came out of the tech industry. I was a consultant for a number of years, then an entrepreneur, then I co-founded my own tech consulting company in Copenhagen, where I’m from.

One thing I’ve noticed is what happens to people when they have a job they love — when people are engaged, passionate, and happy about what they do at work. I’ve also seen what happens to people when they have jobs they hate, and let’s face it, a lot of people do. That just slowly wears people down over time.

In 2002, when we sold the consulting company that I co-founded, I asked myself, ‘what is my true passion in life?’ I realized that tech is amazing, but happiness at work is something I’m even more passionate about. So since 2003, that’s what I’ve been doing – making people happy at work.

In your experience, what is the most common blocker to employee happiness?

There are many things, but I see three main problems in workplaces across every industry.

One thing that we see everywhere is just constant busyness. It seems like everywhere you go, there’s just too much work and people are constantly falling behind. This, of course, creates a lot of stress and unhappiness.

The other factor we see is constant change. Of course, organizations need to change and keep up with the times, but it seems like in many workplaces now, it’s one change after the other. You haven’t even implemented one change and now they’re bringing on the next change. A lot of these changes don’t make sense to the people on the floor. It may make a lot of sense to the people in top management, but the purpose of each of these changes is rarely explained sufficiently to the regular employees.

The final reason that people are unhappy at work, and the number one reason, is just bad leadership. Good leaders make their employees happy, and bad leaders create a lot of stress, frustration, and misery around them. There are many great leaders out there, there are also some bad ones, and we absolutely need to fix that.

What can managers do to encourage more happiness at work?

It’s funny you should ask, because I wrote a book about that. My new book is called “Leading with Happiness: How the Best Leaders Put Happiness First to Create Phenomenal Business Results and a Better World.”

I think the whole things starts from valuing happiness. Having both top leadership and managers who realize that happiness is not just nice to have actually boosts business results. Happy employees do better work. Happy customers will return and buy your product and services again. Some of the best ways to do that are all really simple — and this is where a lot of managers get this wrong. They think that happiness is all about the right incentives, salaries, promotions, bonuses, or raises. A lot of managers think that it’s about perks, that they’ve got to give their employees free food, free coffee, free smoothies, massages, and an office gym.

But it turns out it’s none of those. If you look at the research to see what it is that makes people love their jobs, it’s about two things: results and relationships. Results is the feeling that you’re good at your job, you make a difference, you contribute to something important that has meaning and purpose for you. And relationships is this feeling that I am valued as a human being. I belong, I am part of the team, I’m appreciated, accepted, and maybe even liked. And that is what you have to create.

You can do that in a million small ways. One of our favorite tools that we try to teach managers is stunningly banal, but it’s about saying, ‘good morning’ when you come to work in the morning. Actually greet your team with a cheerful, friendly good morning. Show them that you’re happy to see them. That is one very powerful way of creating this feeling of relationships, that people are a part of the workplace where they belong.

You’re leading a session at Workhuman Live next year about the power of positive feedback. How do you think it’s best delivered? Why do you think managers withhold it in the first place?

First of all, positive feedback, praise, and recognition are some of the best ways to create results and relationships. When you catch your employees doing something good and you tell them about it, it gives them that feeling that they’re doing good work, which boosts their feeling of results. But it also creates relationships, because it shows that you see them and that you care about them. Of all the things that managers can do to create happier and more productive workplaces, I honestly believe that positive feedback is one of the most powerful.

There is specific research from a lot of places including Harvard Business School on showing that if you praise people they are more creative, they are less stressed, they are more productive, and they work better with others. So the business benefits are clearly there.

It’s such a simple thing to do, and you can do it in so many ways. You don’t need to make a big production out of it. Just an honest word of appreciation. Go up to an employee and say, ‘Hey, I just noticed the way you handled that last client. He was really dissatisfied, then you found the perfect solution and now he’s totally happy again. Awesome work.’

You can tell them in person; you can write the employees an email praising them (which is nice because then they can save the email); or you can praise employees in meetings in front of the rest of the team. The important thing here is that the praise is genuine, heartfelt, and meaningful.

It’s also important that you praise for something that is specific. You don’t just say ‘good work,’ but you say what was good.

It takes no time and costs no money, yet many managers don’t do it. Why not? I think there are two main reasons. First of all, in most workplaces, we have developed a culture of negativity. This is already a human psychological bias called negativity bias we notice the bad things first. If somebody presents their work and they’ve got 10 good things and they made one mistake, most managers will instantly spot the mistake and comment on that. That’s just the way our minds work.

In many companies, there is no tradition of talking about the good stuff, or the things that work and the things that people do well. But all mistakes will be pointed out and punished instantly. That’s a mistake, but that culture perpetuates itself, and it becomes a habit it becomes harder and harder to see the positive and easier and easier to see the negative.

The other reason why positive feedback is so rare is that if an employee does exceptionally good work and the manager then praises that employee, then chances are that the next piece of work that person does will be less good than what they just did.

A lot of managers have unconsciously developed the thought that whenever they praise people for something good, the next time they do the same kind of work, they actually do it worse. Now, they didn’t do it worse because of the praise, that’s just the law of averages at work. But that’s the way many managers think.

Conversely, if someone does a really bad job and are criticized, then again, through the law of averages, there’s a good chance that the next time they do that task, they actually do it better. In the manager’s mind, there will be a connection between giving criticism and people performing better. It’s completely subconscious. No manager actually thinks like this, but over time, their experience may tell them that whenever I praise people, they perform worse, and whenever I criticize them, they perform better. Even though and I want to make this perfectly clear the research actually points out of the opposite. When you praise people, they improve their capabilities, they become more creative, more productive, less stressed, and do better work.

A lot of these are habits we develop over the course of our work career. Different cultures perpetuate different habits, and if you come from a negative culture, it might be harder to adjust. But as you said, the research is pretty clear on this.

Oh, completely clear. And what’s so hard is that a lot of what we’re fighting here is completely unstated. You will never hear a manager say it’s bad to praise your employee. You will never find in the employee handbook that in this company, we don’t give positive feedback. Because those are not stated, they will always be implicit values in organization. The implicit values are just the hardest to fight. And those habits can be really, really hard to change.

At Workhuman Live, I’m going to talk about how to do it, and give people some very practical tools for how to foster a culture of positive feedback in a workplace.

Is there a balance between positive and constructive feedback, even though the research shows that positive is clearly more motivating and impactful?

We definitely need both. However, in many organizations people only get the criticism. Whatever they do that’s good is taken for granted and never mentioned again, and whenever they make a mistake, that is instantly noticed and punished.

First of all, if we remember to praise people for the good work they do, they are more likely to do that again. Also, they will be more open towards any criticism. If we only criticize people, they will be more defensive whenever they’re criticized and no wonder.

So, there is no exact ratio, but I’m pretty sure that we as human beings need more positive feedback than negative feedback. If we find ourselves in situations where we are criticized more often than we’re praised, I think that ultimately causes some psychological harm.

There is a fascinating body of literature on what’s called recognition. How are you seen by those around you? How are you seen by your peers and your superiors? There’s a pretty well-established consensus that your identity is not shaped only by what’s inside you, but also very much by how others see you. And if others never see you, or only see the bad in you, then that can actually cause or harm your sense of self-worth.

We need people around us to see our good qualities in order to build up a strong sense of self worth and identity. And we need that especially in the workplace, where there is so much at stake. This is where we bring most of our talents, this is where we bring a lot of our energy, motivation, and ambitions. And, of course, where we spend a lot of our time.

A culture of positive feedback is essential for both the individual and for the business’s results.


Stay tuned for part two of our interview with Alexander, where we’ll discuss company values and the power of storytelling. And if you haven’t yet, be sure to register for Workhuman Live 2018, April 2-5 in Austin, Texas, before the end of the year to save on registration!