Is happiness at work the wrong goal?

Piers Bishop · March 24, 2015

Liz Ryan asks a provocative question in a piece in Forbes Magazine today: Is employee happiness the wrong goal?  You might ask why I am publicising this, as our own strap-line asks you to accept that “Happy staff get more done”.  But there’s actually no contradiction here: happiness at work is important, but there’s a problem with the way we use the word, and this has huge implications for staff motivation and engagement.

Liz argues that it is futile to try to sprinkle ‘happiness’ on people, and has an Orwellian vision of happiness at work: “When I think of happy employees, I think of contented little cog parts busily scurrying from cubicle to cubicle, running notes and meeting minutes around and glancing at the yardsticks on the wall every few minutes to make sure they are up to speed”.  She says it is “insulting … to talk about ‘making employees happy’ “.

Well, yes and no.  We humans have a fundamental need to get together with others and do things that are interesting and useful to other people. That’s just who we are – a social, problem-solving species. Some of us, when put in a position where we can do these core human activities, would report that we do indeed feel ‘happy’, and there’s nothing wrong with that.

However, other people would use other words, so I suggest that instead of focussing on the word ‘happiness’ we should be looking at what is getting in the way of our core human needs being fulfilled at work.  After all, work ought to be one of the best places to meet our needs, as the ingredients are all there – a social group, challenges, and opportunities to help others…

I completely agree with Liz when she says that leadership means removing impediments to teamwork, collaboration, etc, so the only real question is how to find out what those impediments are in your particular workplace?

As we know here at WeThrive, the best answer to that question is the simple one: ask them.  This gives amazing results, if you ask the right questions.  However, as some of the impediments are things we don’t normally talk about, or even consciously notice, it is worth getting some help. Our own system makes this as easy as it can be, taking the burden off managers’ shoulders and creating time for them to work with employees to make working life work better.

Interestingly, when the improvement work has been done and the roadblocks are removed, some staff will say they do feel happier. But others will use other words: more motivated, energised satisfied, engaged, etc, etc.

This is because words are vague indications at best of what is happening inside people.  If I say I am ‘happy’, for example, you can only find out what I mean by thinking about what ‘happy’ means in your own head, you can’t really know what it means to me.  The same applies to every word that isn’t about a real object.  This means that using a ‘happiness at work’ survey as the basis for intervening at work is fraught with problems – and the same goes for a survey of ‘engagement’, ‘motivation’, ‘satisfaction’ and so on.

This is also why, when a useful initiative like the Engage for Success movement (a UK project) comes along, some people will say ‘new wine in old bottles’, because they have seen the same vagueness before and learnt that it doesn’t have a direct connection to useful results in the workplace until it is unpacked into practical actions.

Oh no, more work to do – how do we unpack the abstract word into practical actions to improve happiness at work?  As I say, it’s reasonably simple.  Start with the things that we know are central to normal human functioning (there is a good level of agreement as to what these things are, thankfully), and just ask people to scale how they feel these at work.  Then, use their individual feedback to change the way the workplace works, involving them in the process in ways that also help towards meeting their needs.

Then we can reasonably expect improvement to occur.  And if they say they are ‘happy’ at the end, that’s not a disaster…