The Link Between Excellence and Happiness at Work

By: Dr. Adam Stoehr, December 2012
I recently facilitated the Excellence Canada Thought Leaders Roundtable (TLRT), which in Toronto where 32 senior executives  from Excellence Canada’s Founding Partner organizations and Board of Governors came together to discuss how excellence links with happiness at work. The discussion led to powerful insights into how a strategic focus on excellence can lead to improved employee satisfaction, morale, and engagement.

This group of executives from some of Canada’s most important private and public sector organizations defined happiness at work, gave specific examples of the impact of excellence on happiness, and discussed the direction of the causation.  This article will explore  three themes: the definition of happiness at work; the specific impact of happiness on employees; and the  relationship between a strategic approach to quality and satisfaction.

Defining Happiness at Work

Happiness at work is a function of engagement, morale, and satisfaction.  An "engaged employee" is one who is fully-involved in and enthusiastic about their work and thus will act in a way which furthers their organization's interests.  Many of the organizations which were present use the Hewitt definition of engagement where engaged employees “say” good things about their organizations, they “stay” at their organizations, a “thrive”, and go over and above what is being asked of them.  Satisfaction was looked at in two ways. There was affective job satisfaction which reflects the degree of pleasure or happiness their job in general induces. There was also cognitive job satisfaction which is defined as being a more objective and logical evaluation of various facets of a job such as  pay, supervisor,  and other needs. Morale, said to be the most fragile of the three items,   is the capacity of a group of people to pull together persistently and consistently in pursuit of a common purpose.

The group saw a link between the three items and there was consensus that satisfaction was a basic need, morale was dependant on satisfaction,  and  engagement was the ultimate goal and was dependant on both morale and satisfaction.  Figure 1 shows the relationship between the three variables.  As you go from the base of the triangle from Satisfaction to Morale to Engagement.  The employee is more likely to stay and go over and above the call of duty.

Figure 1:
Employee Engagement is reliant on the basics of morale and satisfaction

What is the specific Impact of Excellence on Employees?

There is a very direct link between an organization’s decision to implement excellence and its’ impact on employees.  The relationship between excellence, engagement, morale,  and satisfaction is clear.  Refer to the following relationship analysis charts that will be included in my PhD thesis when it is published.  In all three charts we see that as  commitment to quality increases (Y axis), the engagement, morale, and satisfaction of the employees at those organizations also increases (X axis).

Chart 1:
Relationship between a Strategic Approach to Quality and Engagement

Chart 2:
Relationship Between a Strategic Approach to Quality and Morale

Chart 3:
Relationship Between a Strategic Approach to Quality and Satisfaction

The TLRT group were interested in understanding the specific impact (both positive and negative) on employees. The positive benefits can be split up in two categories.  The first is how implementing excellence will benefit the organization in terms of employee happiness and the second is how implementing excellence will benefit the individual employee.  The negative impacts were also explored with some thought as to  how these might be overcome. 

The positive impact (benefits) to the organizations of implementing excellence can be categorized as either performance improvements or the benefits associated with being recognized as a leader:

Performance Improvements
Recognition Improvements
  • Customer satisfaction increase
  • Financial performance increase
  • Productivity increase
  • Increased resilience and being able to go through tough times
  • Can count on staff to see you through storms
  • Increased mental health/wellness
  • Helps meet strategic objectives
  • Shared values, teams
  • Trust/caring culture
  • Maintain brand/position
  • Can sustain a high quality brand and charge a premium where appropriate
  • Increase reputation
  • Retention/recruitment benefits
  • Awards and certifications and the good will that accompanies these awards

It was thought by the TLRT that the benefits to individual employees of organizations implementing excellence are often unsaid.  They  are valuable in telling the “what’s in it for me” story.   Many of the benefits identified by the TLRT are summarized here by theme:

Positive Impacts of Excellence on Employees

  • Opportunities,  both professional and personal
  • Job success/sustainability
  • Pride
  • Stable employment
  • Reputation
  • Happier/Healthier
  • Growth and Development
  • Ownership/empowerment/contribution
  • Loyalty
  • Increased self-awareness
  • Sense of belonging
  • Co-worker cohesion
  • Political credibility/respect
  • Freedom/autonomy
  • Enhanced career path
  • Financial/performance recognition
  • Peer recognition
  • Clear understanding of direction
  • Personal alignment to common goal “I make a difference”

There were several negative impacts identified by the TLRT.  The TLRT thought that these negative impacts were based on perception and managing these perceptions was the way to overcome them.

Negative Impacts of Excellence on Employees

  • Perception of increased workload
  • Perception of front-end workload on documentation and process
  • Lack of understanding of “who is going to do all this work?”
  • Can be perceived as unfair when there isn’t a clear line of accountability
  • Perception that we must not be doing a good enough job today if we are trying to improve
  • General fear of change from status quo
  • “Here we go again” mentality associated with “flavour of the month” programs

Because these negative impacts can stop an organization’s progress in implementing excellence the following counter measures were proposed to get past the perceived negative impact.

Counter Measures to Get Past Perceived Negative Impact of Excellence Activities
  • Increase trust and transparency
  • Increase communication
  • Define clear lines of responsibility and accountability
  • Clearly identify how this will benefit the individual employee (publish the above list of benefits for individuals)
  • Reason for embarking on Excellence focus needs to be clearly communicated

What is the direction of the causation?

Once the impact was clearly defined the TLRT was interested in understanding the direction of the causation.  Is it a focus on excellence that causes happy employees or do happy employees  cause excellence?   The consensus was that you can’t really have one without the other.  It is a bit of a theoretical debate about which one comes first.  Very much like a chicken and egg conversation. 

What was beyond debate was that the relationship exists.   Members of the TLRT felt strongly that you can’t truly fix business problems without having engaged employees.  You can’t have engaged employees without having a focus on excellence principles.  When you create an environment that fosters excellence then everything else becomes possible.  When leadership teams remove barriers and empower employees to fix their own problems then happiness can thrive.

The conclusion on causation was that it’s an iterative process where positive results from an excellence focus lead to happier employees and happier employees then contribute more to the excellence focus. 
The opposite vicious cycle is also possible and should be noted where unhappy employees’ poor attitudes and negative behaviours impact the organization’s ability to implement excellence,  making them more unhappy etc. etc.
Refer to Figure 2 for a picture of the Causation Virtuous Cycle (Happy Face!).


There were three things that we wanted to accomplish at the TLRT. 

First we wanted to define employee happiness at work.  Happiness at work is a function of employee engagement, satisfaction, and morale.  Engagement was the most significant driver of an organization’s excellence journey.  Employee engagement was a key measure for organizations implementing excellence and good levels of engagement were dependant on good job satisfaction and good morale. 

Second we wanted to see the link between excellence and happiness and detail the benefits.  There is a clear positive relationship between an organization which successfully implements excellence and higher levels of employee engagement, satisfaction, and morale.  Some of the specific examples of benefits to the organization are improved performance in the area of customer satisfaction, financials/bottom line, and process management. Also, the organization can be recognized for their efforts and see benefits of recognition and improved reputation. The benefits are not only for the organization because the individuals within these organizations also see clear tangible benefits including financial/performance recognition, growth and development, enhanced career path, sense of belonging, and the ability to make a difference. 

Third, we wanted to discuss the direction of the causation.  In theory there is probably a start and a finish to this equation however in reality this cycle doesn’t have a clear starting line. An organization’s commitment to excellence helps foster an environment that makes people happy at work.  Happier people at work help makes implementation of excellence easier.  So this cycle has an iterative, virtuous nature that we need to continue to nourish on both ends. 

There is no debate that excellence and people happiness at work are related.  As a result organizations must continue to find ways to implement the principles of excellence and engage employees in the process to see all the related benefits for both the organization and the individuals who work at these organizations.  

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Author Information

Adam  Stoehr, PhD

Adam Stoehr, PhD