Are you happy at work? Do you feel burdened by it? Do you hate waking up in the mornings because you do not want to go to the office (or log in to your system in the current situation)? But, since it’s work we’re talking about, is it fair to want to enjoy it and be happy while at it? Annie McKee spoke to us about all that and more, especially in the context of startup founders, medium-sized business owners/executives, and HR leaders, as part of the Freshteam Leadership Series.

Annie McKee, a Senior Fellow at the University of Pennsylvania where she teaches and leads the PennCLO Executive Doctoral program, is also the bestselling author of ‘How to be Happy at Work: The Power of Purpose, Hope, and Friendship’, published by the Harvard Business Review Press.

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Key Takeaways


  • The best leadership behavior always leans on competencies that fall under the category of ‘Emotional Intelligence.
  • Work on strengthening these four main categories of emotional intelligence: self-awareness, self-management, social awareness, and relationship management.
  • It’s a proven fact that we feel first and then think, and the brain regions responsible for these interact with each other. It’s good to be cautious not to let your feelings alone dictate your actions.
  • Yawning and emotions are similar in this respect: they both are contagious. As leaders, it becomes essential to recognize your emotions and self-regulate them to ensure they are geared more towards positivity than negativity.
  • Various studies, research, and polls have shown that a significant percentage of the working force is unhappy at work, and most of the reasons usually stem from finger-pointing. This makes a strong case for leaders to strengthen their emotional intelligence capabilities.
  • Some of the most common ‘Happiness Traps’ are ambition, money, a sense of helplessness, and overwork. These are essentially our own doing and not really due to external forces.
  • We are responsible for our own happiness. Nobody or nothing can “make” us happy.
  • We need to frame our understanding of our work as a calling. Each of us needs to define how our work impacts our team, our organization, and other stakeholders outside of the organization.
  • In the remote world, the only way to build relationships, foster a sense of belonging and create trust is to make time for it, especially by the leaders.
  • There is nothing called false hope. It can be a grand vision that may need to be toned down by a bit, but it is a powerful tool for leaders to wield and wade through situations, especially challenging ones such as the current pandemic.
  • ‘Companion love’ strengthens the feeling of belonging among the employees. It’s essential to build a culture where they feel they belong to a tribe and feel wanted and important.
  • During the scaling phase, founders need to invite leaders and executives to be a part of culture-building and activities that set the tone for leadership practices. They should hold them accountable for inspiring people and fostering a sense of belonging among their team members.
  • Hiring panels must ask potential candidates to narrate true stories of situations when they were expected to lead and guide people and navigate through sticky situations. Those with hiring authority must assess the candidates on self-awareness, self-management, social awareness, and relationship management.
What is the basis of the best leadership behavior?

Leadership matters - this is a pervasive truth in modern organizations. And yet, leaders tend to get caught up with what needs to be done, the goals they need to achieve, or the strategies they need to implement. They do not invest time in thinking about how they should lead. Annie says each of us in modern organizations needs to think of ourselves as leaders who influence, move, and inspire others to work towards common goals. What do the best leaders do to guide and inspire others?

Close your eyes and think about a time when you were at your best as a leader - it could be an entire company or a team or just one recalcitrant employee you brought along. Think about how your mind functioned then, how you strategized or planned for it, what you said and did, and your intentions and the outcome.

If you examine your behavior at your best, you will find that you have likely used competencies that fall under what we call ‘Emotional Intelligence’, says Annie. Two researchers Peter Salavoy and John Mayer coined the term in 1990, popularized by Daniel Goleman published in his book titled ‘Emotional Intelligence: Why it can matter more than IQ’. 

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Daniel, Richard Boyatzis, and Annie later worked together to apply the idea of Emotional Intelligence to the workplace, managers, and leaders. They discovered four sets of abilities that we need to pay attention to as they affect our mindset, moods, and behavior.

These behaviors or emotional intelligence competencies determine individual and collective outcomes, affect relationships and even the quality of life. These are:


  • Social awareness: Empathy and organizational awareness are the two fundamental pillars of social awareness. The former relates to accurately reading the needs, motivations, concerns, and desires of others and being willing to act on that information. An organization’s founder or somebody in a leadership role is likely to pay attention to organizational culture in the early stages. However, they might end up neglecting it on a day-to-day basis in the long run. If leaders don’t devote enough time to activities such as culture-building, they are likely to sub-optimize while creating the kind of organizations they want to build.
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The science of why emotions matter

The study of neuroscience underscores the importance of emotional intelligence - it’s about how our brains work and how our emotions/emotional centers are located way back at the base of the brain (in the amygdala region). We process what’s going on for us, whether it is a reaction to the external environment or to our internal thoughts.

Our emotional response precedes our conscious reaction to a thought. In other words, the limbic part of our brain (the most ancient structures of our brain) operates very quickly and sends messages to our neocortex (the thinking brain). Even though it is a few nanoseconds, there is undoubtedly an interaction between the two regions.

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We feel before we think, and if we don’t understand that pathway from feelings to thought and that the interaction between feelings and thinking generates action, we are likely to be acting unconsciously for a large part of our time. Unfortunately, this can mean that there are higher chances that we slip into the negative emotion register. Though anger, fear, cynicism, and the likes are natural parts of human behavior, our brains do not function well if they take over.

We cannot take in information as blinders automatically come up if our brain perceives an external threat at play.

The opposite is also entirely accurate. When we’re excited, enthusiastic, feel a sense of purpose in our work, are happy, and feel like we have great relationships at work and achieve our goals, our brains function better. Those blinders come off. We take in more information, process it faster, and make better decisions.

What leaders must know about emotional contagion

Emotions are contagious. That’s why leaders must pay attention to their emotions and emotional intelligence. It starts with you! Whether you’re a frontline supervisor or the CEO of a company, people look to you for clues and cues about how they should feel. They are picking up your feelings, be it through the tone of your voice or your body language.

If they pick up that negative emotion register more often than the positive one, they are unlikely to function well cognitively. Pay attention to the tone you’re setting. This is a natural phenomenon. You might have walked into a meeting where nobody says anything, and you can’t see any signs of conflict. And, yet your body responds with a sense of discomfort. You know something is wrong.

That’s emotional contagion, and scientists say it is a survival mechanism where we have developed the capacity to pick up on the emotions/experiences of other human beings very early on in our evolution. If one of our tribe members felt fearful, we would have likely felt it too - all for survival. Similarly, if people in our circles were happy and excited, we would have felt that too.

Emotions impact cognition. Any interaction between emotions and cognition impacts our behavior and how others behave with us. Find ways to deepen your self-awareness, be it dedicated reflection time during the day or to get a coach/mentor/trusted friend who will not hesitate to tell you the truth. 

There is something called the ‘CEO disease’ where the likelihood of people telling you things, especially about yourself and your impact on them, tends to reduce the higher you go in an organization. It’s because you have the power. It is imperative to come up with a way (could be a quiet reflection, meditation, a walk in nature) to think about how you interact with people, what kind of an impact you have on them, and getting some feedback from them in some way or the other.

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The story of Marco and his golden touch 

This is about an individual called Marco (real name not used to protect identity) that Annie worked with for several years. Marco was a golden boy. Wherever he went, things turned into gold - much like King Midas, who features in Greek mythology. 

Early on in his career, he was a consultant at a very prestigious firm. By the time he was 28, a client, which was a huge financial services institution poached him. From the minute he got there, he started marching up the career ladder. He was given this particular position, and when a part of the organization was in some trouble, he just whipped it into shape quickly.

A year later, they moved him to another trouble spot, and he fixed that too. Another such success story followed this. In about 3-4 years, he earned the reputation of a man who could fix things. Remember, he was in his early 30s, still very young for the level he was in the organization.

His success story lasted until a couple of wise HR leaders decided to look at what happened to the parts of the organization after Marco’s exit. What they found was absolutely devastating. Teams were divided, and conflict was on the rise. While the results went up and only up when he was around, they plummeted as soon as he left.

Since Marco was in these jobs for a short period of time, the HR folks thought that maybe it was the teams’ fault and that they needed to make some changes. However, when they dug deeper, they found out that their best people left after Marco exited the position or even before - when they heard he would take over.

The HR folks realized that Marco had been blowing up his teams. Since he kept pushing and pushing them, he achieved short-term results as people were scared out of their minds. The positive results disappeared when he left, or the minute the teams felt the threat was over or that they had figured a way to sabotage him.

So, the company folks told Marco that they had earlier thought he was on track to become the firm’s CEO, but they couldn’t have him walking around destroying parts of the organization in this manner. After this, Marco found Annie. He called her up and told her that his HR folks think he doesn’t have empathy. She asked him, “Well, do you?”. He replied, “No, I don’t.”

Annie started sitting with Marco in his meetings. She would conduct reflection exercises with him, and she would help him figure out people’s reactions to his words and understand his impact on them. Annie felt he was making “okay progress”, but not enough as far as she was concerned.

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It was a fateful Monday morning that Annie would never forget. She walks into his office to discuss some new coaching sessions, and Marco tells her, “Annie, I get it. I finally get it.”

When Annie asked him to talk more, he related what had happened over the weekend. He had planned a few activities with his wife and two kids. However, on Saturday, Marco sat in his room and was working, asking the children not to bother him. He wrapped up his work by 2-3 pm, but they had missed all the activities they had planned. His wife and children were upset with him.

He took them out for ice cream and thought everything was great. After the kids were in bed, he expected to have a nice dinner and wine with his wife at the end of the day. But, he was in for a surprise. His wife told him she couldn’t do this anymore. Typically, Annie says you don’t hear such words from one spouse to another in a Catholic country.

Marco’s wife told him, “You’re blowing up this family, Marco.” Something happened to him when he heard those words. As she said those words, he could listen to his HR manager telling him he was blowing up his teams. He was using the same behaviors with his family as with his team members at work and causing destruction in both places.

A lesson in this story is that learning emotional intelligence competencies such as empathy is possible, and it’s hard. You have to have a thriving, powerful reason to do so, and it’s usually more than work. We typically have to find a personal reason to develop self-awareness, empathy, and our capacity for social awareness. And, it usually has something to do with work and how we operate in our personal lives.

After this incident, Annie’s feedback and coaching sessions had a different meaning for Marco, and his learning curve went from shallow to steep. His marriage is fine, the kids are doing well, and he managed to salvage his reputation and career and reached the organization’s heights.

Many are unhappy at work. Why?

Pause and reflect on that question. Are you happy at work? If yes, what makes you happy? If not, why are you unhappy? This does call for some deep thinking.

A few years ago, Annie set out to figure out why many people are disengaged at work and why so many organizations fail. She was lucky enough to have done several studies across all the countries/regions in the world, covering many businesses and institutions to study leadership and culture. 

These weren’t done from an academic point of view, though but were, in fact, consulting assignments. Annie says she and her team did as rigorous research as they would have done for a peer-reviewed journal or book.

What they found out was the combination of leadership behavior and culture does impact the results of organizations. But, what they also found was that a lot of people are unhappy at work. In the vast number of interviews Annie and her team conducted, people spoke about their managers; they talked about their emotional intelligence and others’.

The interviewees spoke about their culture and how they wanted to feel at work. For instance, people wanted to wake up in the morning and actually be there at work, and they didn’t want to feel a sense of dread. They wanted to wake up feeling excited and feel like they were doing important work. They wanted to feel like their work contributed to the future, and they wanted good relationships in the workplace.

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Annie looked at the data she collected from interviews worldwide, did independent research on this topic, and delved deep into studies done by her colleagues. She read philosophers and what different religious traditions said about happiness. What did the most recent philosophers have to say about happiness? She was looking for answers specific to happiness in the workplace.

According to Shawn Achor’s 2012 study, “happy” people were 31% more likely to be productive, 40% more likely to be promoted, leading to better life outcomes, job satisfaction, and a sense of autonomy. Gallup polls, year after year, show that a significant percentage of us are disengaged or neutral (don’t care) at work. Highly disengaged people are likely to be disgruntled, cynical, and trying to sabotage others.

When Annie asked the reason for people’s unhappiness at work, she mainly found a lot of finger-pointing. Yes, all of those reasons contribute to one’s unhappiness at work, which makes a strong case for leaders to strengthen their emotional intelligence capabilities. 

Don’t fall into these “Happiness Traps”

Though external factors and circumstances dictate our happiness, our bosses, and peers, Annie says the reality is we can do a lot ourselves to avoid what she calls the “Happiness Traps”. These are not what others do to us. These are things we do to ourselves to either minimize or sub-optimize our happiness at work and, frankly, in life.

The top three “Happiness Traps” are ambition, money, and “shoulds”, which tend to go hand in hand. Annie explains that many people end up doing things that do not align with who they really are or what they want in life, which falls under the “shoulds” trap. Annie says she has seen many people wake up in their 40s and early 50s asking what they have done with their lives. They choose to study what their parents ask them to, choose a career their professors or family said will suit them, and end up doing a job that pays a lot.

Ambition is an excellent thing to propel us forward, but overheated ambition is not. Being on a hamster wheel, moving from one brass ring to another, and not enjoying the journey is not a good place to be. Similarly, for a lot of people, money is the primary motivating factor. However, many feel like their lives are empty and find themselves unhappy, regardless of the swelling coffers.


The sense of helplessness is probably the most dangerous trap of all, leading to stress and depression. It kind of feeds into itself - the more helpless we feel, the more helpless we are. Annie says she has seen this to be on the rise since the onset of the pandemic and there’s probably hope on the horizon with the availability of vaccines.

The ‘overwork’ trap has been consistent in rearing its head throughout Annie’s career, and those who “love” their work a bit too much tend to fall into it. Annie’s colleague, Sarah Green Carmichael, coined the term’ overwork’, which means what it says - it’s just working too much.

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No matter how much you love your job or are passionate about what you do, if you work 24*7 by neglecting your physical, emotional, and relational well-being, you’re likely to burn out soon. Annie fears this is going to be the next pandemic - the burnout pandemic.

Besides the global pandemic, there are other stressors caused due to the breakneck speed at which the world is changing. If you’re fortunate enough to lead a set of people or if people depend on you, it’s your responsibility to do something about the stressors and not let them snowball into an uncontrollable crisis.

And, here’s the truth bomb you’ve been waiting to hear: Nothing and no one can make us happy. It comes from inside us. Of course, there are experiences we can create, build and leverage at work (and generally, in life) that can help avoid some of these “Happiness Traps”, no matter what we’re doing at our workplace and what the current challenges are.

How to foster a sense of meaning & purpose at work

Organizations should strive to build experiences around the themes of a meaningful vision of the future, a sense of purpose, and friendships in our workplace. 

Humans are meaning-making creatures. We like to do things that make sense. We want to believe what we’re doing matters and that we’re contributing to something bigger than ourselves. The beauty of startups, small- to medium-sized businesses is that you can easily catch the sense of purpose and feel it. In large organizations, it can be a bit harder to find a sense of purpose. 

It should ideally start with the leaders who need to ask themselves why they are doing what they’re doing in the first place. What meaning do they find in leading this company, starting it, and growing it? What is fulfilling about that to them? With this as the first step, they can work towards creating an organization where people can optimize and be their best selves.

Annie’s colleague, Amy Wrzesniewsk, Professor at Yale School of Management, has done research that shows we can frame and understand our work in three different ways. One, it’s just a job where you get paid, get some benefits and that’s the end of it. There might be situations where we might have to just do that. Annie says even under those circumstances, we need to find ways to make meaning out of what we’re doing. It could be that you’re doing your job really well or you’re improving the processes in your organization or even if we build relationships in our workplaces. 

We need to do the same thing with our career but at least it makes more sense here because it’s like we are going somewhere. That can be very fulfilling but just like the “ambition” trap, being on the career ladder just for the sake of being on it does not make sense. We need to know we’re making a difference.

Annie says it would be best if you frame your understanding of your work as a calling, no matter the nature of your job. You needn’t be working for the United Nations or a not-for-profit organization to think of your job as a calling. You can see how your job helps improve processes or impacts your company’s customers and the people inside and outside your organization.

This was a bit easier to do in the physical workspaces. But, how do organizations ensure their teams’ morale is high and there’s a sense of belonging in the remote world? Though research is still going on in this space, here are a few pointers to take care of, based on what researchers know about remote work and human beings.

In an in-person environment, you have plenty of opportunities for casual contact and interactions, which can give rise to accidental creative moments. The chances of this happening in the remote world are minimal or negligible. Research shows building trust, which is vital in any organization or group to function effectively, takes much more effort and time to build in remote work environments.

Research throws light on a couple of early trends. Just as in the early phases of a startup, there is increased attention to the functional expertise of team members and less attention on people, relationship-building, and helping folks instill a sense of purpose and meaning in their work lives. The solution is simple: just make time for the ‘people’ aspect of your team/organization. 

Second, when we get together virtually, we jump right into the task. We use technology to get the work done as efficiently as possible. Again, the solution is simple. Make time for building those connections. It cannot happen by accident. Leaders can create daily check-in rituals and conduct weekly meetings to ask their colleagues if they are doing well and if things are going well for them. 

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Yes, it is an added burden on the leaders in the current context. Still, they must conduct one-to-one interactions with their team members, mainly because most of them are dealing with unimaginable losses and circumstances. 

A lot of innovative ways have come up across organizations to get them interacting with each other. It might be awkward at first, but as it picks up, you’re likely to feel good to connect to another individual and talk about things other than work.

It takes effort and time and planning just like for reaching any other goal. Making “belonging” and a sense of shared purpose a goal is a great idea. Make a business plan to achieve this and hold your leaders accountable. We are in an era of experimentation to connect people emotionally and psychologically in the virtual world. 

It’s good to try a bunch of things that go well with your business and your organizational culture and see how people respond to it. Don’t be put off by people’s adverse reactions to your experiments. Be transparent about why you’re doing what you’re doing.

If you think about it, we’re almost in each other’s homes, something that was not the case in the pre-pandemic context. Go beyond your work discussions and connect with the human in your colleague.

Why hope is the last thing we lose

Hope is a very human aspect, and yet, sometimes, we find it to be elusive. If you’ve ever been in a situation when things go wrong, what gets us through is hope - a sense of “I can get to the future, and it’s going to be okay”. Humans have an incredible capacity to do this even in dire circumstances. Hope is what allows us to get up in the morning and put one foot in front of the other in those challenging times.

During normal circumstances, hope sparks creativity and allows us to look to the future and plan for it. Hope is an optimistic vision of the future and all the images and feelings that go with it. Sometimes, the future isn’t apparent, but we have some idea of where we’re going based on our wishes, desires, and values.

Hope is a kind of plan: How are we going to get where we want to be? The world changes, and accordingly, our vision needs to change. We have to adapt along the way. Hope has produced the most significant changes in human history, be it social or technological changes. But, what should you do, on a very practical level, when times are challenging, as in the current scenario?

We can look a bit into the future, have an image of where we’re going, and say, “This still holds. I think we’re going there but let’s work on this for the next three months. For the next six months, we’re going to do that. For the next year, we’re going to set goals for ourselves that feel real and attainable, and we’re going to help each other get there”.

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It’s not just about painting a picture. It’s about painting a picture and bringing it alive and a little closer in terms of our time frame when things are challenging. We need to find those things that make us feel that today will be better than yesterday and tomorrow will be better than today.

For leaders, if people feel that you are hopeful about the future, that you have an optimistic vision of where you’re going, that you’re working with them to create plans to get there, and that you’re willing to adapt, they will follow you anywhere. People will be inspired by you and will go where you want them to go. Hope is that powerful.

Annie says there is nothing called false hope. Maybe, some visions are magical thinking, and we need to temper them down. However, hope is not rose-colored glasses that do not let us see reality. In fact, it’s quite the opposite. Hope allows us to see reality with crystal-clear lenses to plan for overcoming the obstacles and leveraging the opportunities in our environment.

Making friends at work - should you? 

In some cultures or work environments, making friends and building relationships is considered to be taboo. For some, it is an individual preference. One reason is if you’re friends with your colleagues, it becomes challenging to have those hard conversations with them. So, what does the research say about friendships at work?

There are definitely boundaries at work that we want to honor. We don’t share all the same activities outside of work, and we don’t share the same lifestyle. Some of us have family, some of us don’t. Some of us have personal interests that are different than those of others. As the world becomes more diverse and our workplaces become more diverse, that will be more and more true.

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According to Sigal Barsade, Wharton Business School management professor, the definition of friendship is pretty simple (and yet complex) and perhaps, innocent (which we tend not to be when we become adults): companion love. 

What we mean by companion love is this: I care about you, I know you care about me. I will help you. I know you’ll help me. I’ll be there to support you when you need me to. You’ll be there for me. I trust you. I trust you to have my back, to look out for me. And I know you trust me and, if you need me there, I’ll stick up for you. I know what you are, what you want, I know where you’re going. I understand what is fulfilling to you about this job, and I know what you hate about it, and I’m going to help you do more of the first and less of the latter. 

A sense of belonging is crucial to human beings. We need to feel that our tribe is our tribe, and it wants us, and we want to be a part of it.

Scaling culture as you scale companies

One of the common mistakes founders make is to assume that they can continue to do what they did when the company was really small and that they alone can be the sole provider of inspiration and a sense of meaning and fulfillment at work as the company scales.

Yes, they do have an essential role in creating the kind of culture and leadership practices in their organization. Still, they need to understand the importance of opening up boundaries to let other people in. Sometimes, it’s tough to get our hands and heads around the organization’s culture, especially when it’s growing. Leaders and founders can use the power of resonant microcultures in their organizations.

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They indeed have a handle on the culture around them, and they can understand the kind of culture they want to create going forward. Firstly, founders can open their doors and let people into the inner circles of culture and leadership practice creation. Second, in a structured manner, they must ensure everybody is on the same page and hold executives and leaders accountable for the above, just as they would for their functional targets and numbers.

This, on a practical level, is bound to create teams and, therefore, an entire organization, where people feel a sense of belonging, are happy, and engaged at work. Leaders will not naturally gravitate towards this culture-building role because, traditionally, they have not been rewarded for it. So, the management must hold people accountable and reward them for culture-building activities.

Hiring leaders beyond functional expertise

Organizations are generally good at hiring based on technical or functional acumen. It shows up in the resumes, and it comes up in conversations and references. However, they don’t seem to be as good at hiring for emotional intelligence competencies.

One of the ways is to ask potential candidates to tell you stories of situations where they were meant to lead, guide, and inspire people during the interview stages. You could ask them to tell you stories of success and failure. Tell them not to focus on the external environment or the politics too much. Ask them to explain the situation briefly and encourage them to speak about what they said and did, what they thought about the kind of impact they felt they had had on those around them.

When they are narrating stories, you should look out for signs of self-awareness in them. If one is not self-aware, that’s going to come out quickly. Instead of self-reflection or a little bit of critique or some thoughtfulness, you’re likely to hear a high-in-the-sky kind of an idealized version of the story instead of the real one.

To test self-management competencies, you could ask them to narrate a story where they led a group of team members through a difficult situation. Through their narration, you could figure out how they reacted to stress. Did they read the situation accurately in your estimation, were they able to understand the organizational culture, and did they engage in the right behaviors?

Annie’s advice to every single hiring manager is to add 20 minutes to the interview process just for stories and take those quite seriously. Don’t let the candidates shy away from such stories and let them talk about the usual wonderful things people generally talk about - such as how wonderful they are and how they pull out one negative trait and show it.

Get the real stories because it tells you a lot about the kind of person they are. Having them talk about themselves in the abstract doesn’t tell you anything.

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