Project Management and Team Happiness

End products are important, but so is your team’s health and happiness

September 12, 2018 | Helen S. Cooke

happinessBusiness projects are seldom discussed from the point of view of the “happiness” of their team members. Projects are recognized for getting things done, and projects are resourced for overall effectiveness. Sponsors, customers, and society at large look for valued outcomes that are delivered within a timely window of need or market competitiveness.

But project managers know that the quality of the end product is a result of many singular decisions by different people over the course of the project, and that if the members of a project’s team are happy, the project is likelier to keep its valued membership intact despite the ups and downs of the work itself. We want to keep our teams intact. We need their skills. We need their team spirit. In other words, we need to work towards keeping the members of our teams happy.

Some might argue that team happiness is a frivolous goal. But an unhappy project team is a liability that introduces more risks that the project manager must ultimately manage and resolve. A wise and forward-thinking project manager should be asking: What can I do to keep my whole team happy?

There isn’t a lot of research about happiness in the context of project management. There is, however, a lot of research regarding what makes people in particular countries happy—and it turns out that the elements that contribute to happiness are more or less the same all over the world. Let’s take a look at what makes people happy in the world’s happiest countries and think about how these factors can be translated to the work environment.

So, what makes a particular country the happiest in the world? In 2018, research by The World Happiness Report, based on data from the World Gallup Poll, found that Finland was number one. Norway was number two, while Denmark, Iceland, and the Netherlands were next in line.  (The United States slogged in at number eighteen.)

Finland must have done something to get to the top. The criteria cited for contributing most to Finland’s top ranking are:






You might ask questions about how these factors add up in your own country. Do the people in your country feel that they live in a caring place? Do they feel free, or experience freedom in their lives? Do they value honesty, or feel that honesty is something they should strive for or take pride in? What about health? Do most of the people feel they enjoy general health? And if they don’t, are there support and medical systems to return them to health?

The last item, income, presents an interesting point to consider. Income sufficiency is a term that generalizes that what you get is adequate to support life in general, adequate to make your survival reasonably secure. So the question isn’t necessarily how much people make in dollars and cents, but whether that amount allows people to thrive. Are wages living wages, and is income fairly distributed across the population? Do wages reflect the real value of the job?

One of the interesting results from this year’s World Happiness Report was that immigrants in happy countries report similar levels of happiness as that country’s domestic-born citizens. In other words, people respond to their new environment. If they are newly arrived in a happier country, they will respond to this new environment and become happier. Immigrants from different ethnic groups and cultures may have different standards of living, or different habits and histories. Yet the general criteria used to define happiness seems to transcend these cultural boundaries. Caring, freedom, honesty, health, and income are experienced by all. They are felt.

If you feel that you live in a caring environment, it doesn’t really matter whether you live in a small rural town or a crowded city block. If you feel freedom in your life, it isn’t so much about your current responsibilities, challenges, and burdens, but more about the conviction that you are free, with options available to you later on in life. Honesty may express itself brusquely or diplomatically, and the pace, or accent, or medium through which it is delivered is not a barrier. People don’t even have to like the message to appreciate its honesty. Health is health across deserts and jungles and ice sheets. And income, however we define it, might in one place be delivered via food and shelter, and in another place using currency.

The elements of happiness appear to be contained more in how you feel than in any single definition. We can imagine a patchwork quilt of happiness made up of many pieces.

So how do we apply these findings to create a “happier” project team? Let’s explore the categories used in the Happiness Report.

Caring: How can a project manager convey caring to a team? As a start, we can confirm that the assignments they are given are a reasonable match with their skills and experience, and convey our expectation that they will succeed. We can ask about their welfare outside of work. Should a crisis occur outside the job, we can cut them a little slack or arrange someone else to relieve them in a tough spot. And we can check in with them from time to time to show that we’re aware of their contributions and willing to back them in a pinch.

Freedom: To create freedom in a team environment, a manager can define the end goal and standards or parameters that are not negotiable, and then give team members the freedom to discover their own way of reaching goals. Limiting detail in the project plan allows freedom. A project planner can take the plan into detail to provide reasonable estimates on a work breakdown structure, and then after it checks out, remove the detail again before distributing the plan to the team. Broad assignments to individuals and teams allows each to find the deliverable or end product in a way suited to the diverse work experiences and skills common to a particular project team.

Honesty: Full and transparent communication among members of a trusted team creates a climate of honesty, even if it’s information that may be too controversial or uncertain to share with those outside the team. Honesty requires considering threats and uncertainties openly and deciding together to move forward in spite of challenges. Getting honest feedback requires open listening and thorough consideration of all responses. Expressing our intent to treat each other honestly encourages honesty from each person.

Health: Protecting team health requires honoring the basic health requirements of each team member. Allowing adequate time for sleep, adequate breaks, access to self-support, and protection from toxic influences or hostile violence – these are all a given.  Considering the effect of team demands on members of the teams’ families is another way of preserving team health.

Income: The baseline for a fair income is to credit all team members at the fair rate for the level and complexity of their job. You don’t mess with the paycheck, but money is not the only income a team member receives. Should we not also protect credit for ideas, work, solutions, and team contributions in the same way? What about opportunities for leadership, advancement, or career development?

Check yourself by asking questions about your own management style. Do you take the time to celebrate and acknowledge your team’s successes, both individually and as a group? Is credit for results being distributed equally and fairly across the team, without gender, racial, or other biases sneaking in? Do you pay attention to the “squeaky wheels” who demand your time as well as team members with a mild manner of interacting? Do you as a manager step in to resolve conflicts and disputes? Are you aware of counterproductive competition? These problems can seldom be resolved internally by the people at the lower level. It is a sacrosanct responsibility of management. Do you watch for and resolve conflict fairly?

Managing projects requires managing teams. So ultimately, you have a responsibility to maintain the welfare and stability of the team. These five contributors to happiness are a great place to start.

  • About The Author
  • Helen S. Cooke is a 20-year project management veteran with experience in Fortune 500 companies, universities, the service industry, manufacturing, government, military and defense. She is a PMP® and a PMI® Fellow, and an experienced management consultant. She has worked on five continents and was elected a Fellow of the Project Management Institute in 2005. Helen was a PMI officer and served six years on PMI’s Global Board of Directors.

    Helen led a profit and loss practice at Deloitte for 10 years, was a mid-level manager in the federal government, and was a university administrator. She headed the Project Management Center of Excellence at McDonald’s Corporation and implemented SEICMM Level 2/3 and a PMO at United Airlines. She has taught project management systems at the graduate level at Keller Graduate School and a PMO course at DePaul University in Chicago. She is the author of several books about project management and organizational project management maturity.