Should we try to make employees happy?


There has been such an overwhelming interest in the concept of employee engagement, it seemed almost inevitable that the pendulum would eventually begin to swing away from this concept. In fact, just in the past few weeks I have come across a few articles online that seem to be questioning it. This Forbes article, for example, suggests we need to “rethink employee engagement” and this blog post suggests that leaders who focus on making people happy are putting their organizations and reputations at risk. I personally think that while the concept of employee engagement may seem to be losing some of its appeal, that doesn’t mean it is actually losing value.

The Forbes’ author asserts, “If we’re listening to conventional management wisdom, we probably believe (or hope) that a stress-free, obstacle-free working environment will magically turn everyone into happy, productive employees.” The author goes on to suggest that emphasizing engagement will encourage an entitlement culture. I think this is an oversimplification and misunderstanding, and I highly doubt most leaders actually believe that pacifying employees will produce an engaged workforce. People who are really engaged with their work and their organization are anything but peaceful and coddled – they are thriving on being challenged and invigorated by their investment.

A similar error in thinking is illustrated in the blog article as well, which suggests a leader is wise to avoid “trying to make people happy.” Of course leaders who are conflict averse or overly consensus oriented are going to be less effective, but this has little to do with making others happy and more to do with making themselves more comfortable. It would be sager advice to encourage leaders to recognize that having happy employees does have a positive impact on the bottom line – but that in the long-run, avoiding hard management conversations and rewarding everyone for showing up only makes people “happy” in the short term.

As I was writing this, I came across this HBR blog article, which gets at the same theme I am trying to get across here. Dan Pallotta makes the point that being kind isn’t the same thing as being nice. Intent and perspective are key. “I’d much rather play for a coach committed to my true potential and willing to sacrifice my perception of him or her in the short term than a coach who’s more concerned about being liked. I’d rather work for someone who loves me than someone who’s nice to me.” As we discussed in this piece, great leaders operate from a broader perspective. Their behavioral choices are driven by wanting to do what’s best for employees and the company in the long-term. That may make people less happy in the short term, but it creates a context in which people can create value, feel valued, and contribute to success – the ideal milieu for cultivating engagement.

It’s easy to get frustrated with the latest fad concept, because as it gains popularity, people have a tendency to oversimplify it, and suggest it “does” more than is possible. Like all psychological constructs, engagement is a tricky concept to nail down, let alone link to critical business outcomes, though researchers are devoted to trying. The farther it floats into common vernacular, however, the less accurate people tend to be when talking about it, which creates some of the problem. But let’s not throw the baby out with the bathwater. Employee engagement isn’t the panacea for all of our workplace woes, but it does have potential to contribute to organizational effectiveness if we continue to seek to critically understand what drives it and how to leverage it.