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The Tyranny of the Happy Workplace

“An office is a place to live life to the fullest, to the max. An office is a place where dreams come true.” – Michael Scott, Dunder Mifflin

Have you noticed how organizations are no longer content with simply having engaged employees? Now they must also be happy. Why? In part because research claims to show that happy employees are more productive and create more value for their organizations.

Ah, say the social science majors, welcome to our world, where proving causation (rather than just correlation) is not such an easy thing to do. In fact, as reported in a recent article from Inc, competing research shows that happiness may in fact be a bi-product of focus and productivity, not the other way around.

“Over the past three years, Harvard University researcher Matthew A. Killingsworth has been compiling data from users of a smartphone app called Track Your Happiness, which lets people report, in real time, how they actually feel.

The most surprising result of this study is that we’re most often the happiest when we’re lost in what we’re doing, aka being “in the zone.” Conversely, we become less happy when our minds wander.

Surprisingly, it doesn’t really matter what we’re doing when we’re “in the zone,” as long as we’re not being distracted or in a situation where we’re bored.

In other words, employees aren’t more productive when they’re happy. They’re happy when they’re focused, which can make them more productive as an accidental byproduct.”

If this research is correct, then it aligns well with previous work done over three decades by Amabile and Kramer on the so-called ‘Progress Principle’, which found that employees’ biggest motivator was making consistent, meaningful progress at work. Taken together, these studies suggest that we should not focus on happiness as an outcome but instead work on creating the best conditions to enable employees’ productivity and progress the good old fashioned way: by compensating them fairly, providing role clarity, clearly defining goals, giving employees autonomy to achieve results, removing barriers to getting work done (like unnecessary bureaucracy), and ensuring that they have their manager’s support.

There are a lot of organizations that don’t have these fundamentals in place; so one might suspect that focusing on them could provide more predictable returns than pursuing something as nebulous as happiness. And the best part is that they are all things within an organization’s control. The moment we state that our objective is employees’ happiness, we signal to others a desire to influence something that is largely out of our control, and therefore as a recent HBR post suggests, we end up in the largely indefensible position of trying to control people.

The Happiness is Mandatory

Regardless of whether happiness leads to productivity or vice versa, I think it unwise and futile for organizations to make employee happiness their objective. Happiness is a subjective experience and based on a wide range of factors unique to that individual human being. Proposing that anyone can make someone else happy is folly (as most of us tragically discover at some point in our romantic lives, and/or from watching General Hospital). And because it’s impossible to definitively know another person’s mental state, the temptation for many organizations might be to pursue or settle for the appearance of happy employees, rather than the complex and dubious outcome of actually happy employees. Imagine the cynicism that forced happy activities and programs might provoke, like a certain large discount chain that makes employees participate in daily pre-opening cheers and songs, but pays them so little that they organize food drives for one another.

I guess that gets at why I’m fundamentally uncomfortable with the ‘happy workplace’ discussion. When we engage in these conversations we are really only talking to and about a particular portion of the labour force.

If all organizations should make their workers happy, then it follows that the ideal outcome would be that all workers are happy. But the reality is that our society and economy need some of their members to do some pretty crappy jobs to keep the lights on. Should these workers be happy? Can they be? Is it realistic to expect that organizations can and should make all of their employees happy, even if their jobs are unenjoyable by nature? (Do not make me break out the A.I. Technician story again people). Perhaps it’s okay if we accept that no matter what our organizations do some people will not like their jobs, may not be happy, but will perform adequately anyway because they have chosen to participate in an exchange of labour for money. Can we be comfortable with letting them do that? Is it fair to these employees if we insist that work must always be something more than that? By declaring our goal to be employee happiness are we not placing certain implicit expectations on employees to ‘get happy’, or at least act that way?

A Happy Accident

I know that most advocates of the ‘happy strategy’ genuinely want organizations to care about the well being of their employees, and believe that doing so will also contribute to better business outcomes. This is a noble and intelligent message. But as is often the case, even the best message can get garbled if we use the wrong words to deliver it. Telling our employees that we want them to be happy versus talking about organizational strategies that can enable them to focus and make regular progress in their day-to-day work are likely to be interpreted in two very different ways. That’s because being happy (or not) is their prerogative. Our job is to give them the very best opportunity to succeed at work and drive organizational results. Let’s make sure we hold up our end of the bargain.

Image credit: Philippa Willitts via Flickr Creative Commons

7 Comments Post a comment
  1. I’m somewhat suspicious about the concept of meaningful work. I got into a debate recently with someone who said all work could be made meaningful, it was just a question of how you described it to them and linked it to the strategy. I don’t think I agree. As you say here, there are roles that are challenging, difficult, scientific management in nature There are employees for whom it is all about just getting through the day and don’t really want to be engaged, they just want to come to work go home and get paid This doesn’t mean that they are not doing a good job. Do we really need to search for some meaning in everything? I’m not sure. There is an element of it that just feels like we are spinning the truth if we try.

    April 15, 2014
  2. Gem, I think that gets to the heart of the issue – is all work meaningful? I’m with you – I don’t think so. I think about my Grandad, who worked in a mine in Northeast England for much of his career. Would he have related to the idea of meaningful work? I bet not, although I know that he believed in the dignity of a hard day’s work in exchange for pay, which I certainly believe in also. I don’t know why we need to abandon that simple ideal to embrace the idea that all work can or should have meaning.

    April 18, 2014
  3. So once again, Jane, a great post. Started me thinking (yikes). Meaningful work…happiness…and so on. What defines meaningful? Who’s responsibility is it to make someone happy? For some, the work itself has meaning…and the work makes them happy. But there are other situations where the work (pay) is a means to an end. The work is meaningful because it puts food on the table, supports a family, etc. And they are happy because their job serves that purpose. I know many people that are making crap loads of money, great benefits, great pension…but to some of us the work itself seems “meaningless”. But it’s not our place to decided someone else’s happiness.

    Your absolutely right…it’s subjective. An employer’s role is to measure their performance and fit (culture). Are they delivering results? Are they enhancing the team, or at least not dragging them down. Perhaps the individual is “happy” staying in their current position without aspirations of moving up the ladder.

    Oh…and don’t be too quick to assume your Grandad didn’t relate to the idea of meaningful work. I bet he did. I bet he knew that his hard work contributed to many, including he and his family.

    Just as we should never decided what happiness means to someone else, I don’t think we should decided what is meaningful either.

    “We are at our very best, and we are happiest, when we are fully engaged in work we enjoy on the journey toward the goal we’ve established for ourselves. It gives meaning to our time off and comfort to our sleep. It makes everything else in life so wonderful, so worthwhile.” ~ Earl Nightingale

    May 14, 2014
  4. Jerry #

    Great insights. Without knowing it perhaps, you expeessed the path forward for leaders of all kinds dealing with complex adaptive systems like humans and their organizations where key characteristics are emergent and not subject “mechanical” direct manipulation but instead respond setting “conditions” under which outcomes are more likely than less likely to occur.

    May 31, 2015

Trackbacks & Pingbacks

  1. Best Blogs 18 April 2014 | ChristopherinHR
  2. Does New Equal Happy?
  3. Don’t Make Me Happy | Talent Vanguard

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