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This article was published on September 8, 2013

Making awesome people happy at work (and stopping them from quitting)

Making awesome people happy at work (and stopping them from quitting)
Taro Fukuyama
Story by

Taro Fukuyama

Taro is a co-founder and CEO of AnyPerk. He's a Y-combinator graduate and hustled his way to be the first Japanese team ever admitted into Y Taro is a co-founder and CEO of AnyPerk. He's a Y-combinator graduate and hustled his way to be the first Japanese team ever admitted into YC. He once founded a company in a Taco Bell parking lot.

Taro Fukuyama is a co-founder and CEO of AnyPerk. He’s a Y Combinator graduate and hustled his way to be the first Japanese team ever admitted into the program. He once founded a company in a Taco Bell parking lot.

It’s fairly common knowledge that happy employees are simply better at their jobs. No matter the industry, hours, or education required, individuals perform better when their spirits are high. They are more engaged, more motivated, more likely to be pleasant to one another and any customers they encounter, and are thinking more creatively to solve problems and improve company operations.

This makes perfect sense, and the opposite is equally true. Employees who are miserable, angry, depressed, or just generally unhappy do not perform to the best of their abilities. They are disengaged and easily distracted, they cut corners and deflect responsibility, and simply don’t care about the quality of work they produce.

And yet a great deal of businesses just don’t do it. They think that extra investment in perks, or making their employees happier won’t get them anything other than in the red.

They’re wrong. According to clinical psychologist Dr. Noelle Nelson, you can literally Make More Money by Making Your Employees Happy. I’d have to agree – when CEOs and managers can put their egos aside and focus on making the actual workers happier, they’ll be richer too.

The challenge? Well, because every company, and every individual, is different, there’s no steadfast rulebook for making employees happy and engaged. It’s interpretive at best, and most companies will have to reflect on their own internal processes and workflow to determine how to make the company a more enjoyable place to work.

While this is vague at best, there are a few principles to follow. And they’re obvious to some – but you’d be surprised how many companies (startups and Fortune 500’s alike) fail to provide them:

1. Recognition

People want to know when they are doing something right. They want to receive credit for their accomplishments, and they want to know that their contributions to goals of the company are seen and appreciated.

Again, this will be different for every company, but the simple and straightforward act of thanking employees for their contributions goes a long way. This can be taken a step further with bonuses and reward systems, of course, but the psychological validation that comes from honest and thankful recognition works wonders.

Also, don’t reward people who don’t do things. Don’t give someone a bonus or a pat on the back if they had a cursory role in something. Especially don’t reward those who ‘led’ a team and not reward those who did the work. Understand and know each and every person’s contribution and reward that.

2. Individuality

This goes hand in hand with recognition, but on an even more individualized level. People don’t like to feel like cogs in a machine, with no identity beyond their job description. The best way to avoid this is to get to know employees individually, and, more importantly, to understand the complex and unique lives that each and every one of them lead.

This is manifested in less rigid attendance policies, where picking up a sick child from school or attending to an important personal matter isn’t met with accusatory questions or a demand for documentation, but is instead met with genuine concern for the employee’s wellbeing.
Individuality is also important when forming teams or assigning tasks. When managers have a sense for people’s personalities and interests, they can at least make the effort to create groups or dole out work to meet preferences, and hopefully create a work environment that suits everyone involved.

Do feel free to reward those who have a problem, too. A post from the Drucker Institute in 2011 covered a Businessweek article on firing ‘those seemingly always part of problems instead of solutions.’ It’s fair to give someone a hard time for doing badly – but if someone is consistently saying that things need to change, and they have valid reasons that might be painful to face, you should hear them out and potentially reward their willingness to fly in the face of conforming.

3. Perks

People want to be proud of the place they work, not just of the company’s end product or service, but also proud of what it means to be an employee of that particular company. One of the best ways to add prestige to particular job is to include bonuses that go beyond a standard paycheck.

The classic example is a benefits package, whether that’s insurance coverage, pension plans, profit sharing, or any other traditional “bonus” that could accompany employment. This is just a small portion of the realm of available employee perks, though.

Some companies are able to include recreation facilities on company property, from foosball tables to full-sized basketball courts. Other companies provide lunch on a certain day of the week, or host company social gatherings. All of these can be seen as “perks” of a job that contribute the overall happiness of the employees involved. There are even opportunities to partner with other business to share discounts or other special advantages.

These perks give people extra confidence that they are valuable to the company, and that the company has their best interest in mind. These are not rewards for performance or incentives for higher sales figures or productivity rates – they are to be seen as inherent benefits of working for a given company, a mark of status that and an employee can take pride in.

4. Understanding

Many corporations and startups find themselves growing faster than they ever thought possible. The result is rapid hiring and the onset of deep management – many people controlling many other people. The result is that the higher-ups can get remarkably distant from the work product.

This means that decisions begin to be made in a very vague way – on a ‘strategic’ level versus a level where thought is put into the day-to-day drudgery.

As a CEO, a manager, or anyone ordering around other people, you have to understand, use and work on your own product. I don’t care if you’ve got a million meetings. I don’t care if you like your comfy chair and the lack of stress. As a manager you should be as or more stressed as the employees. If they’re not, they’re probably a crappy manager.

This also means that if someone makes a mistake you cannot and should not skewer them. Disciplining an employee is a necessary and painful evil. Making an example of them and breaking them on a personal level is worthless. I’d also wager it makes you worthless too.

5. Ignorance of “Company Culture”

Your company culture should not be complex. It should be about doing good work, making your customers happy and executing on an idea. This may come with a few elements of stress. This may involve the eventual firing of people. This should not at any point involve not taking someone on because they’re not a good cultural fit.

“Culture” in companies has become an abused term to ostracize and oust those who might disagree with the incumbent staff. It’s very easy to be upset when someone says that something that everyone does is wrong, or that someone who has been around for a while is doing wrong. You have to be wiling to review every process and element of your company with a critical eye.

It hurts a great deal to be disagreed with, but it can and will help your company. And great people tend to disagree with you. Management theorist Peter Drucker embraced disagreement and believed it should be cultured.

“Culture fit” has been abused to actively push away disagreement. If someone is going to be offensive and annoying to the rest of your staff, sure, they’re maybe not the greatest person to hire. But if they’re going to be bringing something great to the company that may utterly destroy it, then you may have to kevlar up and prepare for some arguments.


Much of this boils down to respect, and just taking steps to foster a work environment that radiates positivity. When individuals are surrounded by smiling, happy people, they tend to feel that way themselves. Happiness has a way of breeding more happiness, and when each employee feels like an asset to the company, those feelings of value multiply upon themselves.

Value really is the key principle here – what can companies do make employees feel valued?

By treating each worker with respect, recognizing their individuality, and trying to make sure that whatever the job may be, it fits in with the other aspects of their lives as best it can, businesses can build a mutual commitment between workplace and employee.

Perks create convenience and personal attachment to a workplace, transparency helps employees feel involved and abreast of company-wide operations, and the more personal investment an employee puts into his or work, the better they will perform. Make sure that everyone involved in your company cares about the company, and doing business well. Not about their own personal hangups or the potential of looking bad because they made a mistake.

When a company legitimately cares about its employees (and shows it), it’s much easier for the employee to care about the wellbeing of the company, and put in the effort to help it flourish.

Image credit: Thinkstock

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