Skip to content

Don’t Make Me Happy

I’ve just spent a week working with a few of my Actionable colleagues on the other side of the world. This gave me cause to reflect on both the obvious and intangible elements that contribute to our exceptionally collaborative team culture. It also meant that I had a lot of time on several airplanes to catch up on my reading list. Something that had been in my Pocket list for awhile was this short article by Olivia Godhill about employee happiness. I wrote about this topic years ago, and have since mostly ignored the employee happiness hype, but it continues to be an alarmingly popular aspiration for many in HR.

To be clear, I am very happy in my role with Actionable. But that’s not because it’s anyone’s job to make me happy. Instead it’s a wonderful consequence of a lot of other deliberate decisions made by my colleagues and I about how we work together, and an alignment between my personal strengths and values and the opportunity to contribute at Actionable.

I obviously don’t have a problem with employees wanting to be happy, or organizations seeking the same thing. And yet, I believe that making happiness a stated goal is problematic.

Anything I’m proud of creating or achieving has involved failure, doubt, and stress. Some of the most unhappy tasks or jobs I’ve had have provided me with incredibly meaningful and valuable experiences that I wouldn’t trade for anything. I’m willing to bet the same is true for you. In no way am I suggesting that work should involve suffering, but for many people it’s made meaningful through struggle. How do we reconcile that with having employee happiness as a goal? (Note: for the best ever description of this see How to be Perfectly Unhappy from The Oatmeal).

Happiness is intangible, contextual, and extremely personal, the result of a complex intersection of many contributing factors, most of which are far outside the boundaries of the workplace and its influence. How can anyone, much less an organization tasked with a wide array of other metrics and processes, presume to know what will make someone happy, never mind deliver on that?

Some people who’ve been good enough to argue with me about this topic insist that merely stating happiness as a goal is a distinct and valuable signal to employees that their welfare is a priority to the company.

Of course, telling people your goal state versus simply asking them what they need to succeed or thrive sets what is likely to be an impossible target to reach or measure. Might this simply encourage people to adopt a happy demeanor to be seen as a ‘fit’ in the organization? If people fake it, how would we know? Are we intentionally or inadvertently telling people that if they aren’t happy, even for good reason, that how they experience life events is a problem for the organization?

Without a commitment to identify and reduce aspects of work that contribute to employee stress and hardship, making happiness a goal can become coercive and abusive. As Susan Basterfield writes (in reference to her stated goal to end suffering in the workplace, rather than bring more joy to it):

I think that it is certainly within each of us to individually cultivate practices and a mindset which can bring us (and to an extent others) more joy in the workplace, but for me that doesn’t address the underlying issue. Its treating the symptom instead of the cause.

So yes, I think we can all find ways to be more joyful at work. But if the construct of the workplace is designed to produce suffering through extraction, coercion, manipulation and control, it’s not changing anything.”

Just like with employee engagement scores, it would be all too easy to slip into a focus on happiness as a goal unto itself, rather than the lagging indicator of many other things being done right. This can create subtle pressure for employees to conform. Goldhill writes:

“The problem is when happiness becomes a requisite. In the workplace, for example, where performance reviews often insist on focusing on positive growth rather than genuine difficulties, demanding displays of happiness is “almost totalitarian.” Brinkmann likens insistence on employee happiness to “thought control.””

This approach risks treating employees as objects to be fixed. Blithely aiming for happiness for all potentially betrays a troubling ignorance of the experience that many workers face. Must they all be happy? What if they’re not? There is dignity in dealing with the struggles life hands us, and we shouldn’t be simultaneously held accountable for being happy throughout that process. Goldhill again:

“The underlying idea that anyone can make herself feel happy implies that unhappy people are to blame for their own misfortune.

Ultimately, negative emotions play an important and healthy role in how we understand and react to the world.”

I admit to a significant underlying bias here. I simply don’t believe that one person can make another one happy, at work or in any other arena of life. External factors, including a job or another human might contribute to one’s happiness, but every single one of us has our issues and challenges to work through on the road to a more rewarding or comfortable life, and no one can do that introspective work for us.

In organizations I believe that we can try to create conditions for people to thrive, make it safe to be impacted by life’s vicissitudes, and try to ensure that workers have mental bandwidth to work on themselves and pursue growth. But we can’t do that work for them, even if we want to.

Read This Week:

Not Even Remotely Possible – Jon Evans, Tech Crunch

This article came across my Twitter feed after I published my recent post on remote work, and it’s so on target. Especially the point about the tendency to frame challenges of remote work as somehow worse than the challenges inherent in traditional office work:

“Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying remote work is a panacea. It too has its failure modes. But the assumption that its failure modes are worse than those of office work, just because office work is the historical default, is sheer intellectual laziness.”

Your Internal Culture is Your Brand – David Mattin, NewCo Shift

Good read about the challenges associated with transparency created in part by social media. Recent scandals illustrate the risk to organizations in this new reality:

“My core idea is one I’ve written about before, but that’s perfectly exemplified by this Google episode. In short: a business used to be a black box. Now, it’s a glass box.

Back when your business was a black box, the brand was whatever you painted on the outside of the box. You had control over that. People came and looked at what you’d painted, and either they liked it or they didn’t.”

Writing a User Manual at Work Makes Teams Less Anxious and More Productive – Leah Fessler, Quartz

I love this post about one way to work more effectively with colleagues: by drafting a one-page user manual that details how your team members can work most effectively with you.

This might sound gimmicky, but one example the author references includes sections that are sensibly designed to invite reflection and discussion:

  1. My style
  2. What I value
  3. What I don’t have patience for
  4. How to best communicate with me
  5. How to help me
  6. What people misunderstand about me

Note my caveat about this being a good tool for ‘discussion’ – dropping this on your co-workers desks and expecting them to adjust to you is not likely to improve working relationships…



Image credit: Luca Upper

3 Comments Post a comment
  1. James Elfer #

    Hi Jane, great post. I haven’t read much on happiness from the HR community but I was at the OECD earlier in the year and they’re obsessed. They call it ‘subjective well-being’ of course – it’s funny how economists and scientists seem to have such an aversion to the word.

    I always think work is like a mirror to the outside world (and vice versa) so we can learn lots from policy-makers and governments. The question of whether we should care about people’s happiness in our societies has attracted lots of thinking. I reckon there are some helpful parallels back to employers and employees…

    In an attempt to move away from GDP as a single measure of societal success, big institutions are trying to quantify happiness (we see it in those UN reports that get picked up once a year in the press – ‘the Swedes are on top of the world!’). The measures are imperfect of course but like the Gini Index and Inequality, they offer a helpful and comparative indicator of progress. I like the work of Joseph Stiglitz and Paul Dolan, who chunk well-being up into three separate components (experiential – did I enjoy today; evaluative – do I enjoy my life; eudemonic – is my life meaningful).

    I find the distinction helpful for lots of reasons but I’m particularly taken by the insight that the latter is an indicator of performance at work. This suggests that organisations can and should be interested in employee happiness – or at least one component of it – beyond a moral imperative (which let’s face it, isn’t a great driver of change in big business).

    So I think employers, like governments, should care about happiness (as described above) and should try to measure it accordingly. If they can do this robustly, they can explore an empirical question – what are the explanatory factors behind subjective well-being in the workplace? Or at least, what are the explanatory factors behind a eudemonic component?

    I imagine they would find that your thinking holds – that ‘happiness initiatives’ are a waste of time or worse, and it is rather those other conditions, like autonomy, collaboration, intra-team trust and meaningful work that shift the needle. If HR can demonstrate that to their leadership teams with some scientific rigour, they can start to blur the lines between happiness and performance. And I think that is worthy of some attention.

    Thank you for writing and sorry for a bit of a rambled response – great to have a provocative morning read!

    August 23, 2017
  2. James! Thank you for your thoughtful and thought-provoking comment! In particular I appreciate you sharing this “I like the work of Joseph Stiglitz and Paul Dolan, who chunk well-being up into three separate components (experiential – did I enjoy today; evaluative – do I enjoy my life; eudemonic – is my life meaningful).”

    This is a big theme for me when reflecting on troubling or unsatisfactory practices and viewpoints in HR: clear definitions. People that dismiss this as semantics miss the point that applying insights from research, the practices fo other organizations, or the last Inc. article they read require a clear, shared set of definitions for the terms they are basing their plans and actions on. Do some companies that focus on employee happiness have a nuanced and multi-faceted definition of it? Possible, but that’s not what I see. That kind of sloppy thinking leads to superficial initiatives aimed at appearing progressive or satisfying a CEOs latest obsession, not applying evidence based thinking to test an idea’s utility or effectiveness… (rant over).

    Thank you so much for reading and taking the time to share your clear thinking on this topic!

    August 25, 2017

Trackbacks & Pingbacks

  1. | Talent Vanguard

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: