Making The Case: Psychological Research Helps Business Succeed

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I’ve spent years working in and studying some of the best companies to work for in the US - companies nationally recognized for being great places to work with incredibly low turnover rates, high engagement, and employees that are genuinely excited about going to work every day.

When I was the Culture Maven at Rackspace, a nationally recognized Best Place to Work, people would comment on how much fun our employees looked like they were having at work. And skeptics would question how much work we could possibly be getting done in the incredibly relaxed offices. In their minds we were just a bunch of t-shirt clad slackers who played ping-pong all day long. What the skeptics failed to see was that Senior Leadership was actually very calculated when it came to creating our office environment, our policies, and our ‘forced’ interactions between employees because we believed that all of those things paired together to create Fanatical Support for our customers.


I’ve said it a million times and I’ll never stop saying it, creating a strong corporate culture is not about throwing parties, having crazy decorations, or having a margarita machine. It’s about using what we know about the psychology of people to help drive business forward so employees are motivated, customers are happy, and the business is profitable.

The video featured at the beginning of this post does a great job of highlighting the calculated reasons that Zappo’s has created their offices and their culture the way they have and ties those reasons to the psychological phenomenon known as Self-Determination Theory. It’s videos like these that will continue to spread the message that culture is more than a party.

I was lucky enough to touch base with the researchers and creators of the video - Jennifer Caro, Stu Haack, Zeyad Maasarani, and Michael Saunders. They’re students at the University of Southern California(Annenberg School of Communications) Online Master’s degree program in Communications Management and completed the video as part of a school project.

The reason they chose to study Zappos:

“We wanted to understand how Zappos motivated its employees - they have a reputation for being a very unique and emotionally satisfying workplace.” Zeyad Maasarani

“After Michael and I took a tour of the Zappos headquarters and after I read “Delivering Happiness” by Tony Hsieh, I wanted to know more about leading a business full of employees that were actually excited to be at work. Furthermore, I wanted to know how to build a culture and community within an organization that saw a common vision.” Stuart Haack

The most surprising thing they learned:

“How well Zappos’ core values and culture fit within the framework of the motivational theory known as Self-Determination Theory.” Michael Saunders

“I was surprised to see the level of autonomy and discretion that Zappos employees were afforded. I realized that when a leader empowers and trusts his team, good things can happen.” Zeyad Maasarani

How this project changed the way they will do business:

“Because of our research into Self-Determination Theory and Zappos, I will always strive to promote the satisfaction of the psychological needs of Competence, Autonomy, and Relatedness among everyone I meet.” Michael Saunders

“I learned that my actions, whether positive or negative, is a direct responsibility and reflection of who I want to be and if I want to deliver happiness I must change my attitude and outlook.” Jennifer Caro

In Conclusion:   

I think this team did an incredible job of showing the relationship between a well documented and studied psychological theory on motivation and a business that's nailing it.

We need more research and videos like this one because like Stuart said, “It is clearer now than ever before that the old way…of doing things is no longer the best way to succeed in business. Businesses don’t thrive simply on efficiency and production, inputs and outputs, but are underscored by quality service, which thrives on happiness of customers and employees. The axioms about happy workers hold true, but they are difficult to understand or believe until you see them in action. Zappos and Delivering Happiness deliver that example and then some, and have provided a new “happiness” standard by which all organizations should strive to achieve if they want to thrive among the best businesses of the 21st century, and still be around in the 22nd.”

About Marisa

Marisa Keegan is a leadership coach, trainer, and HR consultant for quickly growing organizations who are passionate about strengthening their employees, their brand, and their culture. She has helped lead the HR, culture, and engagement initiatives at two nationally recognized great places to work; Rackspace as Culture Maven and Modea as Talent Manger. She is an author at Fistful of Talent and Culture Fanatics. Marisa has her Masters in Industrial Organizational Psychology and currently lives with her husband and twin boys in Richmond, Virginia. Marisa can be found on Twitter @MarisaKeegan.

About the Author

Marisa Keegan


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