Issue:October 2012

MANAGEMENT INSIGHT – Formulating Happiness

The Declaration of Independence underwent 86 revisions by the Founding Fathers, each of which is meticulously preserved and on display at the National Archives in Washington, DC. Through all those iterations, every one of the 1337 words in the document was crossed out and revised at least once, as the Founding Fathers crafted the phrases that would express America’s unifying beliefs. Only four words in the entire document were never questioned; never once met the stroke of a pen:

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. The search for happiness is part of the human condition. We all seek it. We in the pharma industry, however, may have a slightly less traditional take on the pursuit of happiness than most Americans.

Feeling sad? There’s a pill for that. Lots of them, actually. For decades, doctors favored tricyclic antidepressants (TCAs), which inhibit the re-uptake of norepinephrine and serotonin. Side effects include muscle twitching and sexual problems.
TCAs are also quite dangerous in overdose.

Not liking TCAs? Monoamine oxidase inhibitors (MAOIs) have also been in use for 50 years. Side effects include chest pain and racing heart. MAOIs also inhibit monoamine catabolism, which predisposes them to drugdrug interactions as well as what is known as the “cheese effect,” so called because it was first noticed by a neurologist whose wife began experiencing severe headaches shortly after she began using MAOIs and only when she ate certain aged cheeses such as Stilton which are high in tyramine.

Of all the treatments available today, only 65% of patients respond, and then only after a 2- to 4-week delay; something that is particularly concerning in a population prone to suicidal behavior.

Current research is largely geared to reducing side effects and increasing efficacy and response time. We’ve seen several new molecules that specifically inhibit serotonin re-uptake (SSRI) or both serotonin and norepinephrine re-uptake (SNRI). Triple reuptake inhibitors are being evaluated. These agents block the re-uptake of serotonin, norepinephrine, and dopamine from the synapse. The theory is that the additive effect of enhancing neurotransmission in all three monoamine systems (broad-spectrum) could lead to better efficacy and quicker response.


While the industry struggles to find a more effective antidepressant, most of us as individuals continue the quest for unmedicated happiness. We seek it in our home lives and at work. Companies have many reasons to strive to increase employee happiness. Happy employees are more productive over the long haul. They come to work. They get the job done faster; they exceed expectations.

In Creating Sustainable Performance (Harvard Business Review, Jan-Feb 2012), Spreitzer and Porath found that employees considered to be thriving (not just satisfied and productive but also engaged in creating the future) were 16% better in overall performance as reported by their managers and 125% less likely to burn out, by their own admission, compared to their peers. These happy employees reported they were 32% more dedicated to their company, and 46% more content with their jobs. They missed work less often and visited the doctor less, both of which imply significant cost savings to their company.

Yet happiness and its link to performance is still little understood. People believe, “If I can just get that promotion, then I’ll be happy.” Or, “If I can get that certification, I’ll celebrate then.” But upon getting that promotion or certification, they immediately focus on the challenges that face them in the new job or with the added responsibilities. Then before they know it, they’re fixed on the next promotion, the next bonus, the next sales target…we have a natural tendency to keep moving the goalposts so that the happiness we seek is always just out of reach, and we never allow ourselves to experience it now.

Research shows that if we chase happiness in this way, we’ll almost surely spend our whole lives in the pursuit of happiness, and never in the fullness of it. The key is to quit chasing happiness. We need to change our mindset and be positive and happy now. If we can do that, success will almost surely follow.

“People who cultivate a positive mindset perform better in the face of challenge,” writes Shawn Achor in Positive Intelligence (Harvard Business Review, Jan-Feb 2012). “I call this the happiness advantage – every business outcome shows improvement when the brain is positive. I’ve observed this effect in my role as a researcher and lecturer in 48 countries on the connection between employee happiness and success. And I’m not alone: In a meta-analysis of 225 academic studies, researchers Sonja Lyubomirsky, Laura King, and Ed Diener found strong evidence of directional causality between life satisfaction and business outcomes.”

Achor goes on to recommend several strategies to create a positive mindset, many of which I heartily recommend from personal experience. Taking a moment at night before bed to run through in my mind those things for which I’m grateful can radically change your mindset. Right before sleep is a perfect time to do this. The benefits of exercise on mood are well-documented. My wife will sometimes kick me out the door for a run if I wake up in a funk, because she knows it’ll turn me around. Achor also advises writing a positive message to someone you know, meditating at your desk for 2 minutes, and taking a couple of minutes a day to jot down your most meaningful experience in the past 24 hours.


As a manager, passing out happiness journals and mandating 2-minute meditation breaks is probably not a great strategy for encouraging employee happiness. So how do I create a happy company? There are some very weird strategies out there. Lindon Labs uses the LoveMachine, an internal software system that lets employees forward glowing letters of support to each other. Google’s Zurich office pours money into office environments, including bathtubs, hanging hammock-desks, fish tanks, and a long twisting slide between floors (not recommended with your morning coffee).

In our own industry, Bristol-Myers Squibb introduced Hirbe Powers, an extreme rep trainer. Hirbe is a superhero figure designed to motivate BDs and empower them with with advice on how to deliver their message with POWER and IMPACT. Hirbe is lambasted in the blog Pharmalot, where one rep writes “everything is focused on Brand Slogans and Messages…There was never new and relevant data that would help make selling science based…It was a low point in my career.” Our industry may be the one place left on earth where science motivates better than the Avengers.

So what does the science say about what works to create happiness in the organizational context? Spreizer and Porath identified the following four strategies that demonstrated scientific efficacy:


A happy employee is fully empowered to do his or her job. That may sound obvious, but it isn’t. If you give an employee a job in client service but the only tool she has to deal with an angry customer is an apology, she’s going to be taking a personal interest in that antidepressant research we talked about earlier.

“(Happiness) is about giving employees permission and encouraging them to just be themselves,” writes Tony Hsieh (pronounced Shay), CEO of Zappos, a billion-dollar on-line etailer that defines itself as a “service company that just happens to sell shoes.” Zappos puts the vast majority of its marketing budget not into advertising and promotions but straight into customer service. The company claims its goal is to make each customer experience so phenomenal, the customer feels like it’s their birthday.

Zappos astounding business success suggests that this approach works, but it makes sense from a social psychology perspective as well. We humans are social beings. We want to make the people around us happy. We each want to feel like a valued and appreciated member of the hive. As such, employees want to please customers, and the more resources they are given to enable them to do so, the better. Zappos customers have responded to the customer service approach with a whopping 75% repeat customer rate. Add to that a steady flow of new customers and you’ve got a really great business model.

Dipping back into the science, we find even more evidence that we thrive when we feel supported by the hive. In a study of 1,648 students, Achor, working with Stone and Ben- Shahar, found that social support was the best predictor of happiness during stressful times. The correlation between happiness and Zimet’s social support scale (an academic measure used to evaluate students positive engagement with their social networks) was an astonishing .71. The correlation between smoking and cancer, for comparison, is a mere .37.

Only one thing motivates us more than receiving social support from peers, Achor found, and that’s providing social support to peers. We like helping people. We feel good pitching in to help a colleague who’s slammed. We like to be a part of the gang, either around the coffee pot or as part of the Social Committee. We get a nice little social high from solving problems for customers. Employees who ranked highest on providing social support were 40% more likely to receive a promotion the following year, reported higher job satisfaction, and were 10 times more engaged in their jobs.

Two weeks ago, one of our clients here at Xcelience approached us in a desperate situation. The company needed to produce a batch under quarantine and ship that same day. The project involved our new service introduction of spheronization and extrusion. In my experience, no CRO has ever accomplished something like this before. We’re very proud to have been flexible enough to make this happen, and when the customer praised our team for delivering against the odds, we all experienced a deep glow of satisfaction.


Last week, I sent around a company memo about an exciting drug we’re working on. This drug could someday radically change a lot of lives for the better. It was for change like this that most of us entered this business in the first place. Yet sometimes, we, as management, can get so caught up in the cogs of the machines we operate that we forget to share with employees the bigger picture of what they’re contributing too. Within an hour, I had over a dozen responses from employees sharing their enthusiasm about this project. I made a mental note to do this more often.

Sharing information extends to the bottom line as well. Everyone in the company is a player in the game. They need to know the score and to be able to see the link between their project and the company’s performance, according to Speitzer and Porath. At Xcelience, we hold all-employee meetings about every second month, and broadcast our forecast with the entire staff.


Your boss gives you a vague assignment, is unavailable for  clarification, then tells you your resulting research PowerPoint is lousy. A colleague berates you in a conference room full of your peers over a  grammatical error.

Over half of all staff subjected to this type of behavior intentionally worked less hard afterward, according to a research project conducted at Thunderbird School of Global Management by Spreitzer and Porath with Professor Christine Pearson. More than a third knowingly let the quality of their work slip. Two thirds said they went out of their way to avoid the perpetrator, and a similar number said their performance suffered.

It really only takes one bad player to pollute the corporate culture. I call these toxic employees, and they can be hard to root out. Ratting on a colleague doesn’t help your social standing in the hive, particularly if the toxic employee survives the attack. At Zappos, every new hire goes through a 4-week training program, including 2 weeks in which all they do is take calls from customers. At the end of that 4-week period, the entire class is made an offer. If any trainee wants to leave, he or she will be paid for their time, plus a $2000 bonus to quit immediately.

Another company in our industry has taken this one step further. The CEO of this company, which I’m not at liberty name, told me while I toured his facility that he regularly fires clients he works with. Clients! I guess he does this based on how the client treats his employees. Even after a lengthy discussion, I still don’t see how he can do this in a business so driven by client service, reputation, and referrals, but I will say that his employees seemed motivated and happy, and his account of his profits suggests that the company’s (surviving) clients are very pleased with the service they receive.


Feedback from the hive, as anyone who has ever met an angry bee knows, is direct and quick. Every company should offer positive and constructive management feedback on a regular basis. It’s the right thing for the organization as much as for the individual. Let’s say (and this example is purely fictional) one of my managers is getting too caught up in the details of his job and is unavailable for his staff when he needs to be showing leadership. It’s become a problem, and I’m starting to catch whiffs of discontent. I want that manager to know yesterday. It’s in everyone’s interest; I need that leader to be there for his staff, and the manager himself has a reputation to maintain – he would be mortified to learn that his leadership skills were being discussed behind closed doors for days or weeks. He could miss that bonus or be baffled when he misses that promotional opportunity around the corner, maybe even quitting as a result. Ultimately, just by not telling him what’s expected, Xcelience might lose a good employee.

How much feedback a company gives is still a matter of debate. Some firms offer 360 degree feedback that includes colleague input, usually in a summarized format to avoid any (intentionally or unintentionally) offensive comments. Many employees appreciate the added insight into how their colleagues view them, particularly when it involves things they can change, like work/life balance. This type of feedback has to be undertaken with great caution however – the last thing anyone wants is to work for Big Brother.


Whether or not an individual is happy in the organizational context is to a large extent the choice of that individual. We each have the right and arguably the responsibility to find our own happiness by building a positive mindset through the various aforementioned suggested techniques. The company can create an enviornment conducive to that positive mindset by following the four strategies of letting employees make deicisions, sharing information, minimizing incivility, and offering feedback.

And/or we could continue our research for an efficient and effective happy pill; a project for which the world would surely thank us. And then complain that we charge too much for it!