Employee “engagement” has been an elusive goal of business organizations for decades.

Yet despite the introduction of a wide range of “comfort perks,” the levels of engagement haven’t budged much.

But have we been measuring the wrong things? Eric Karpinski thinks so. He’s the author of Put Happiness to Work: 7 Strategies to Elevate Engagement for Optimal Performance. 

In the first part of this conversation, Karpinski explained the links between engagement and happiness in the workplace, and the role of gratitude and connection in creating a productive workplace.

Here he addresses the subject of workplace stress and how to “embrace the negative.” 

Rodger Dean Duncan: Personal stress has reached epidemic proportions in many workplace environments. What are some best practices in dealing with stress?

Eric Karpinski:  Stress has been given a bad rap in our society. We learn everywhere how stress is destroying our productivity and literally killing us. But stress evolved to help us. When we’re stressed, our heart beats faster, we breathe more quickly, and our body releases energy into our bloodstream, all of which help get us ready to act. Recent research has uncovered powerful ways to influence how we respond to stress that will allow us to harness the energy stress provides to meet the challenges we face.

One of the simplest tools is recognizing that stress can actually be helpful. This changes how our bodies respond to stress, increasing blood flow to the parts of the brain that can help us solve problems, address the root causes of our stress, and choose the best path forward. Studies show this new perspective on stress helps people present more clearly, do better on standardized tests, be more productive at work, get better grades and have significantly reduced negative health effects of stress.

Duncan: What can people do to clarify the purpose and meaning in their work, and what effect does that increased clarity have on both their engagement and their happiness?

Eric Karpinski

Karpinski: Finding meaning in our work is one of the most important and long-lasting ways to increase our motivation, engagement and our overall sense of well-being. Yet, meaning is deeply personal. As leaders, we can’t force a sense of meaning on others, but we can create the space for our people to explore.

One of the most powerful ways to look for meaning is to find ways that your life and your work contribute to something “bigger than yourself,” however you define that. For some jobs, this can be easy. Teachers, healthcare providers or folks in social service can often see those who benefit from their work. But most jobs help someone in some way—the end user of a product or service or your coworkers and colleagues. Sometimes it’s simply that the income supports your family or allows you to participate in other community activities or hobbies outside of work.

Exploring who benefits from your work can be a fun activity with your team to boost purpose-meaning. Ask your coworkers and your customers for stories of how they’ve been helped. Once you find those who benefit, implement regular reminders of who is benefiting and how through sharing stories or displaying posters of customers, or reviewing notes of appreciation. Anything that reminds you and your team who benefits from the work can support that sense of meaning and drive a sense of fulfillment.

Duncan: One of your strategies for creating impactful and sustainable change in the workplace is “embrace the negative.” Somehow that seems counterintuitive. Tell us about it.

Karpinski: If we are going to live in this world, work with other people, go after important goals, and try to make a difference, we are going to come up against challenges, obstacles, and resistance that elicit negative emotions. It’s natural to feel frustrated when others block your great idea or winning move, to mourn the loss of someone dear to you, to feel guilt when you do something you know is wrong, to be angry when you see an injustice done, or to feel disappointed when something doesn’t go your way. These necessary negative emotions are the inescapable discomforts that come with being human.

The most authentically happy people don’t suppress, ignore, or avoid all negative emotions. Instead, they often turn toward the fear, disappointment, and anxiety that come with real challenges and problems. These necessary negative emotions can ground us in reality and provide important information to guide our actions. They help us grow and learn about ourselves, our work, and our relationships, but only if we pay attention to them. That requires taking time for noticing, naming and processing those emotions, all of which is hard work.

In addition to these necessary negative emotions—what noted neuropsychologist Rick Hanson calls the “first darts” of human existence—there are also gratuitous negative emotions. These are the “second darts” that we throw at ourselves. This is when we take a small setback and spin into an emotional tornado: “I didn’t get the promotion, which means I’m a failure and I’m probably going to get fired. Then I won’t find another job and I’ll lose my home and be alone living in a gutter for the rest of my sad, short life.” Learning to recognize the difference between necessary and gratuitous negative emotions, and then apply the appropriate tools, is core to approaching negative emotions well.


Duncan: In what ways can focused coaching help people find happiness in the workplace?

Karpinski: Manager-coaching consists of regular, structured conversations between a leader and direct reports that focus on development and support instead of task-based problem solving. These conversations help your team member feel valued and supported, that they belong, and that someone is looking out for their development and cares about them as individuals—all of which drives happiness. An extensive international survey led by Blessing-White consulting firm showed that 68% of employees who had received coaching from their supervisor said that it boosted their satisfaction at work.

Manager-coaching, at its best, involves regular conversations getting to know each of your team members as individuals—better understanding their skills, signature strengths, goals, core values, and individual motivations, and then helping them apply that learning to meet organizational needs and team goals. When done well, manager-coaching builds trust and strong working relationships, and it allows you to tap into each of your employees’ expertise and creativity. This is essential when your team is facing the more complex challenges of today’s work environment.

Manager-coaching also gives you an opportunity to show you care about your people as more than interchangeable parts to get work done. Basically, these coaching conversations are a venue to apply all the tools in your engagement toolkit—appreciation, strengths, meaning, managing stress, etc.—all in one regularly scheduled format. And good coaching saves you time in the long run as it empowers your team to solve more of their own problems, reduces distractions as they often hold their smaller questions until their meeting with you and gives you opportunities to share leadership tasks.

Duncan: What’s the most important thing anyone can do to create more happiness and engagement at work?

Karpinski: Get started today. Take something new that intrigued you from this interview and try it out for a few days or a couple weeks. If it doesn’t work for you or the team, no problem. Go back to this interview and try something else. When you find something that works, integrate it into the habits and routines of your workday so that it becomes part of how you do your work. But just reading this interview isn’t enough. You have to change something to tap into these benefits. Start now.

This column was first published by Forbes, where Dr. Duncan is a regular contributor.

Rodger Dean Duncan