Happiness at work and performance : which leads to which ?

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As many businesses are paying attention to happiness at work and even appoint Chief Happiness Officers, we can legitimately wonder what making employees happy means and how to please them. Furthermore, with always growing expectations regarding performance, can happiness and performance go hand in hand ?

My opinion is that it’s very ambitious and hazardous for a business to pledge happiness. Firstly because happiness does not depend on what happens at work only : it’s a global concept and businesses don’t have all the levers. Secondly because each employee has its own definition of happiness that changes over time. In short it’s an untenable promise that will end with a boomerang effect. It’s always better to under-promise and over-deliver.

Happiness at work : an obligation of means sold as a performance obligation

In 1, 2, 3 or 5 years, what will Chief Happiness Officers answer to the employees who’ll complain because the promise was not kept, because they’re unhappy ? Because there is nothing objective or measurable in employee happiness, the only possible answer will be “I did my best”. Big misunderstanding ! One cannot hide behind an obligation of means while the promise sounds like a performance obligation and is understood as such.

That said there’s something positive in the idea. We all know that an happy employee, or at least a satisfied employee will be more engaged and efficient that an unhappy one. So we need to dig further, without promising the untenable.

Making people happy is too ambitious, not making them unhappy is more pragmatic

When I’m asked about happiness at work, I always answer that making people happy is a too high and hazardous promise, not making them unhappy is something achievable.

Happiness is not concrete, objective, pragmatic. On the other hand the many points of friction, dissatisfaction or even pain can be seen, identified and we can tackle them. It’s more about courage than trying to define something that’s not concrete.

More : happiness is a result, not an action. A little rock in one’s shoe is a pain. Removing it is an action. And if the result may not be happiness, it will be less pain, less frustration and it’s not that bad.

So when discussing what could please employees there are two main lines of thinking :

• pleasure disconnected from work : the gratuitous and immediate action with momentary effects. A “thank”, a X-Box in the rest-room etc.

• pleasure connected to work :removing irritants from the work flows and work-related activities. It takes more time to achieve but is more sustainable. If keep the “little stone in the shoe” analogy, removing the stone does not look appealing but has more impact that offering sweets to balance poor work conditions.

Pleasing people when they don’t work won’t prevent people for suffering when they’ll be back at work. It’s only balancing. Pleasing people when it’s about work show the business cares about people and is aware that its role is to help people to deliver their best, not put hurdles in their way.

Happiness at work and performance : a chicken and egg situation ?

But since the real matter (let’s be honest) is about engagement and productivity, let’s ask the only question that’s worth : does pleasing people makes them more efficient or does making people more efficient pleases them ?

I believe the second proposition is better.

Because if the expected happiness does not happen, people would at least have improved their effectiveness, what will benefit to them and the organization.

Because I prefer the mindset of a person who’s happy to be better at work compared to the one of someone who needs gifts and hugs to be engaged and focused. One of them comes to achieve things, the other to get his paycheck.

But each business is free to chose its vision.

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