When Disneyland was first created, it was designed to be a place where people would feel happy – happy about reliving the best moments of their childhood, happy to see their children enjoying themselves and happy to learn new things about science, history and technology. Soon after the park’s grand opening, they found that despite their best efforts, they could not actually make people happy. It turns out that happiness isn’t something you can inject into people. They had to give up on that idea. Instead, they wisely chose to create the conditions under which people would create their own happiness.
One of the first things they did was to observe the places in the park where visitors weren’t happy and see what they could do to change those conditions. This might seem obvious but they noticed that people standing in long lines tended to manifest what the Disney folks called “crabbiness.” There was a marked increase in children crying, family arguments and unhappy faces when people had to stand in line more than 30 minutes. They were stumped as to how to handle this dilemma since they suspected that the waiting times would only get longer as Disneyland’s popularity grew.
Someone made a remarkable discovery, however. They found that it wasn’t just standing in line that was upsetting but rather the lack of any forward progress. As it turns out, we human beings need to feel like we are getting somewhere or making progress to be able to manifest satisfaction and happiness.
The solution was ingenious. Instead of having everyone just stand there for 30 minutes and then letting them into the ride, they kept the line moving by having them walk along a serpentine pathway during the wait that led to the ride’s entrance. As they snaked their way along, they got to see things from a different angle. Disney managed to create the impression that they were making progress. Even though it still took the same amount of time to get to the entrance of the ride, the incidence of crabbiness diminished considerably. This idea of waiting in a line that keeps moving is now commonplace in banks, airports, checkout lines in large stores, etc. and probably reduces crabbiness there as well.
Have you ever been in a highway traffic jam and noticed the following: creeping along at 10 mph on the interstate is more satisfying than when the lane completely stops – even if after stopping for that time you could catch up to the people who were making steady progress? We’d rather be moving forward at any speed than be completely stopped. It’s the same phenomenon.
There is a lesson here for all of us in Disney’s discovery. If you want employees to feel happy and fulfilled, set up the conditions where they can feel like they are making progress, covering ground or moving closer to their goal. This can be accomplished not just by changing physical circumstances but by how we communicate with them about the progress we see them making. When they feel like they are getting somewhere, making a difference, they’ll create their own satisfaction.