A post titled “Why Happiness Doesn’t Matter” showed up on my radar this week. It’s the typical “happiness isn’t engagement” debate frequently used to stir up a reaction.
But this article made me angry.
The author, a startup CEO, is making an old argument to prop up his new silver bullet solution. And, while I don’t blame him for trying to take a provocative stance to attract attention to his product, when he refers to team effectiveness as a “new important metric” he completely lost me.
As someone who claims to be interested in helping organizations improve, I think his article is careless and damaging. Here’s why.
In our world of “read the title and assume the rest” content consumption, writing clickbait content that gives leaders permission to be dismissive of employee happiness is dangerous and irresponsible.
Those who are serious about the work of employee motivation and engagement recognize that the most important lessons to be learned lie in the fields of psychology, sociology and behavioral economics. To understand more about the role of happiness in the workplace, let’s turn to Dr. Martin Seligman, one of the founders of positive psychology. Below is an excerpt of how he defines and measures happiness.
The theory in Authentic Happiness is that happiness could be analyzed into three different elements that we choose for their own sakes: positive emotion, engagement, and meaning. And each of these elements is better defined and more measurable than happiness. The first is positive emotion; what we feel: pleasure, rapture, ecstasy, warmth, comfort, and the like. An entire life led successfully around this element, I call the “pleasant life.”
The second element, engagement, is about flow: being one with the music, time stopping, and the loss of self-consciousness during an absorbing activity. I refer to a life lived with these aims as the “engaged life.” Engagement is different, even opposite, from positive emotion; for if you ask people who are in flow what they are thinking and feeling, they usually say, “nothing.” In flow we merge with the object. I believe that the concentrated attention that flow requires uses up all the cognitive and emotional resources that make up thought and feeling.
And he continues…
There is yet a third element of happiness, which is meaning. I go into flow playing bridge, but after a long tournament, when I look in the mirror, I worry that I am fidgeting until I die. The pursuit of engagement and the pursuit of pleasure are often solitary, solipsistic endeavors. Human beings, ineluctably, want meaning and purpose in life. The Meaningful Life consists in belonging to and serving something that you believe is bigger than the self, and humanity creates all the positive institutions to allow this: religion, political party, being Green, the Boy Scouts, or the family.
When I read this, it echoes of the conversations we are having about employee engagement. Positive emotion, flow, and meaning are all topics central to creating an engaging work experience. I’m not sure how you can read this and not arrive at the conclusion that authentic happiness is a necessary ingredient to true employee engagement.
Here’s what I think most people get wrong when they talk about happiness at work.
- There are happy, unproductive employees but they aren’t the problem. But, when you find them, what’s wrong isn’t that they are happy, it’s that they work for a poorly managed team or business. It’s not the happiness that’s the problem. It’s usually a lack of leadership, no clarity of expectations and a feedback void that’s causing the performance issues. Employee happiness will rarely ruin your company.
- Employees can be productive without being happy, but they will leave you to find more happiness. There are lots of profitable companies where employees are emotionally removed from the company and just going through the motions (I’ve worked for one or two). These employees, when presented with the opportunity to do the same work someplace else that might make them happier will leave in a moment’s notice. I know I did.
- Work is a relationship between the employee and employer and a healthy relationship requires reciprocity. Imagine how you’d feel in a romantic relationship where you partner said things like, “happiness doesn’t matter, it’s our relationship effectiveness that produces the best outcomes.” Healthy, positive relationships require two parties who want the other party to be happy and will work to make it so.
Bottom line, happiness matters greatly to employee engagement and organizational success. It’s not possible to have a highly engaged, top performing organization unless you care about, invest in and succeed at creating an experience that will make your employees happy to work for you.