We live in an age when happiness is hard to quantify and even tougher to hang on to for any length of time. Although we have more resources and opportunities than any other generation in human history, we still struggle to find what will make and keep us happy. Last year, the New York Times published an article on the secrets of happiness based partially on Martin Seligman’s book Authentic Happiness that identified a few key elements of happiness: strong relationships with family and friends, lack of materialism, enjoyment of daily activities, and forgiveness of others. As part of his research, he also assessed the emotions of 272 employees and correlated the results with job performance. Unsurprisingly, he found that happier employees perform at higher levels and are more productive. Other studies have found that not only are happy employees more productive, but have better health, less insurance claims and lower absenteeism.
As leaders we play a role in employee happiness at work on a regular basis. As many of us struggle with our own happiness, we find it is even harder to apply what we know to others. Out of a desire to make things simple, we tend to fall into three employee happiness “traps.”
The most common happiness “traps” include:
- We are completely responsible or not responsible for our employee’s happiness
- Everyone has to work in a rewarding environment
- Even the wrong people can be made into the right people
We are completely responsible or not responsible for other people’s happiness.
As human beings, we have a tendency to be extreme about happiness. The most extreme are two polar opposites: those that feel completely responsible for someone else’s happiness compared to those that care very little about anyone’s happiness. The first type wants to be liked by everyone and operates many times as a friend to employees more than a leader. These leaders struggle constantly with being successful except in unusual cases. They create a workplace with heightened jealousy, greater personal conflicts, and hurt feelings. This type of leader tends to be on an emotional roller coaster between feelings of elation at having made employees happy and feelings of sincerely hurt when employees fail to cooperate with them. The other extreme are those leaders that assume that if people are happy they must be “slacking off” or not working at the level required. Sadly, these leaders are happiest and feel most effective when employees are the most miserable and can be a truly caustic force in the workplace. Both variations are extremely damaging to employees and organizational success in the short as well as the long run. A leader should be interested in engaging, enabling, recognizing, and developing employees, but happiness is defined by the individual.
Everyone has to work in a rewarding environment.
Most of us recognize that a rewarding environment is critical for employee success. Although there are a variety of ways to engage, motivate, and encourage employees, some jobs in the end do not match the employee’s skills, interests, and abilities. This lack of a “good match” significantly reduces the potential happiness and productivity of the employee. Most employee surveys find that interesting and rewarding work is one of the top three most important predictors of satisfaction in any industry or job. No matter how flexible or supportive an environment, if an employee does not feel a sense of fulfillment with the work assigned, it is unlikely he or she will be happy. A common phrase that captures this perfectly is when we refer to “trying to put a square peg in around hole. “ As leaders, it is incumbent upon us to determine how well we have “matched” our employees to the work assigned and adjust accordingly. If an employee is a poor match, it makes more sense to help the person move on to something more fulfilling.
Even the wrong people can be made into the right people.
There is some debate over what to do with poor performers. One camp argues that everyone can be made a great performer with the right investment while others feel that the wrong person should be replaced with someone that is better suited to the job. Jim Collins in Good to Great made famous the idea of “having the right people on the bus” before embarking on strategic change (summary of the book appears at http://www.jimcollins.com/article_topics/articles/good-to-great.html). Research is progressively showing that the opportunity cost of creating a high performer is more expensive than recruiting a high performer. However, it is human nature to fall into the trap of thinking someone is happier with a job than without. This decision limits the happiness of the person by asking them to continue to work at something they are not successful at or feel a sense to engagement. This is not fair to the organization or the employee.
A concluding thought is that we are never going to make everyone that works for us happy, no matter how hard we might try. Leading is about making decisions with partial information, scarce resources, and competitive demands. As a result, there are perceived if not actual winners and losers in almost every decision we make as leaders. The best you can do is increase as much as possible the positive and minimize the negative effects.