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It’s easy to be a great boss when times are good – budgets are ample, raises are forthcoming (and earned), stresses are minimal and the whole team is relaxed. But when everyone is under the gun, being the kind of motivating, supportive leader people need can be a major challenge, both for executives and the middle managers they oversee. How do you ensure a positive environment?

First, a few reminders of what a positive work environment comprises (examined in greater detail in this Los Angeles Times article):

Activity. While the notion of “hardly working” may sound alluring, in reality most people are happier when they are busy at work. In a study led by University of Chicago behavioral researcher Christopher Hsee, subjects were given a choice between delivering completed surveys to a nearby box or to one that required a 15 minute walk. In some cases, subjects were told they would receive a better reward (namely, a bigger piece of chocolate) if they walked to the far box; in other cases rewards were equal at each box. When surveyed about their ultimate satisfaction, respondents who walked the farthest – even if only to receive a bigger piece of candy – reported being happiest.

“Busy people are happier, even if they are forced to be busy,” says Hsee, who links the pursuit of meaningful work to the days when human exertion led directly to survival.

Meaning. Two groups of participants were asked to assemble Lego models in exchange for payment. One group watched its models pile up while members of the other had their handiwork disassembled before their eyes. The second group built fewer models and demanded 40 percent higher wages than those who were allowed to see their own accomplishments. Dan Ariely, author of this study (as well as the bookThe Upside of Irrationality), told the Los Angeles Times, “It turns out you can give people lots of meaning in lots of ways, even small ones.” But in every case, accomplishment is a significant component of work satisfaction.

Self-determination. Years of research have led psychologists Edward Deci and Richard Ryan to develop the theory of self-determination, which identifies three ingredients of workplace success: autonomy, competence and partnership. Where these ingredients are missing, stress and overall well being suffer.

Once you recognize these motivators, the challenge is making sure they’re built into your organizational culture from top to bottom. Notice that demanding more of your staff is not inherently problematic: People are happy when they’re working hard and making headway. Delegating work and authority is a positive move, especially if hard work and good problem-solving are recognized.

On the other hand, make sure that initiatives designed to improve performance don’t simply browbeat employees (including middle managers) into feeling like they’ll never measure up. Constantly sending the message that times are tough, circumstances are unmanageable and work is futile will, obviously, take a toll. Check in with managers – and the staffers they supervise – to make sure that objectives are realistic and that attitudes aren’t taking a dive. Remember that taking away job control (by enforcing more rigid work schedules or piling on meeting after meeting, for example) leads to stress. Conversely, rewarding high-performing employees with increased autonomy or opportunity can be a great perk.