Last month, a group of 16 of the highest achieving students from the UCD Michael Smurfit Graduate School of Business went on a week-long study trip to Costa Rica and Cuba, where they gained direct first-hand knowledge of the challenges of managing social responsibility and sustainability issues in emerging and transitional economies where political, social and legal system are very different to the developed world.
The trip was led by Prof Rosa Chun, chair in Global Leadership, Reputation and Responsibility, and among the main objectives was to gain insights into transitional economies and the cultural and social challenges they face, as well as identifying the reputational challenges faced by managers in those environments.
Competition to take part in the study trip was intense, with almost 200 students from the Smurfit School expressing an interest in it. "We never expected such an overwhelming response," says Prof Chun. "We selected them on their GPA (grade point average) and their motivation as well as on diversity criteria such as gender, nationality and life experience. The students chosen to go on the trip were all from different programmes and many of them had never met each other before."
One of the more interesting outcomes from the trip was the impressions the students took away in relation to the relative happiness of people in Cuba and the implications of this for business. “Attitudes towards the concept of happiness vary,” says Chun. “In Europe, the focus tends to be on economic wellbeing but in Cuba it is very different. Almost everyone there earns $25 a month and lives in poverty, yet the level of happiness is very strong. One of the students mentioned that if you go to a restaurant there you can see that the happiness of the employees is very natural – you can see people dancing in the kitchen.”
She believes this is the result of pride and joy in what they are doing. On the other hand, image and status count for much more in European society. According to Chun, one interpretation of this is that Western society is not in reality measuring happiness at all but relative levels of unhappiness.
She cites suicide statistics to underline her point. “The suicide figures are important”, she says. “If you look at my own country, Korea, which was one of those least affected by the economic crisis, the suicide figures are still very high. This shows that economic wellbeing doesn’t necessarily lead to happiness.”
There are important lessons for business in this, she believes. “Happiness is not just about economic outcomes, it is about relationships at societal level and compassion is also important. If you could introduce happiness to corporate culture imagine what it could do for employee satisfaction.”
That will also translate into enhanced customer care and improved performance for the company. However, it has to be what she terms “authentic happiness”. It cannot be a box-ticking exercise.
“For example, business ethics means abiding by the rules and regulations. It is not desirable for large companies to be seen to break the rules; they want to protect their reputations. Many companies try to tick the corporate ethics box not because they want to, but because they have to.”
However, if a company was to introduce and promote values which made their employees happy and proud of their work, ethics and good works would be seen very differently. And the type of happiness is very important.
“Happiness will not automatically make a company better or more profitable and employee happiness doesn’t necessarily translate into customer happiness,” she says.
“There are different types of happiness. One person might be happy to work for the same company for 40 years but that may be because there is nowhere else to go. You don’t want that type of happiness. You want the type of genuine happiness that is contagious and which spreads to others. You don’t want employees forced to smile because they think you might be a mystery shopper. You want employees who dance in the kitchen, because they are genuinely happy. That will translate into productivity and customer happiness.”