The search for happiness?

816tC2hjFELAs more and more organizations look at problematic engagement issues within the workforce, the more confusing the concept of engagement actually becomes. Engagement is a trendy buzz word right now, but like corporate culture, it’s not easily defined and varies greatly depending on the organization.

That uncertainty has led to a very disturbing trend that terrifies me beyond belief. For some reason happiness is often viewed as a synonym for engagement and total employee happiness is often presented as the utopic end state for an organization.

Why is this troubling? Well, ask yourself this question:

“How many of us can recall a childhood moment when we experienced happiness as a state of being? When everything in our world was alright?”

That question, taken from the trailer of the film adaptation of François Lelord’s novel “Hector and the Search for Happiness”, highlights why happiness should never be a metric we try to monitor. Ignore the obvious fact that tons of people are stuck working terrible jobs and consider that as an adult, there is never a moment when everything in our life is exactly as we want it to be. Do you know anyone that doesn’t have to worry about some combination of bills, deadlines, illness, kids, commutes, satisfaction, recognition or countless other internal and external factors that dictate happiness?

A perfect example; I am typing this post in Victoria. I landed to bright sunshine and a stress free Sunday knowing that I was going to see my good friend and finally meet a woman that has inspired me beyond belief through her unwavering optimism as she battles cancer. I mean, just look at the view I had while I drank a beer and read a book.


How could I be unhappy? Well, unfortunately, I am away for my anniversary and four days from now marks the 1st anniversary of my father’s death. These huge events weren’t enough for me to slip out of the content state of mind I was in, but without question they weighed on me.

And that’s just it. As human beings, we are almost never completely happy. I know I’m lucky; I love my wife and kids and am lucky enough to have found a community to call home. I’m surrounded by friends and like my job and am recognized for my efforts. That should be enough, but life makes it so it’s not always the case. To quote my friend, “no matter how good it is, your shit is still your shit.” I feel like those people that search for complete happiness are looking for an escape from the real (and often great) life they already have.

Make no mistake, being “happy” at your job is important, but for an organization to thrive we should be more concerned with fulfillment, how employees connect with their role and making sure they understand how that role fits into the company culture and strategy. In an ideal situation, an employee’s happiness would be a natural bi-product of being recognized in a timely fashion, understanding how their role helps the organization and still fulfills them both creatively and professionally.

But we don’t live in an ideal world. Businesses need to make money and maximize returns. When push comes to shove, happiness at work is a nice to have at best. A pessimist might say that accepting human suffering and not caring about people drives innovation and productivity (Louis CK nails it when he talks about the iPhone in this clip), but even non-sociopaths would have to admit that trying to build a culture and business over an arbitrary, uncontrollable concept is a naïve play and a very sizable risk.

Every organization has people that hate their job, even though they are very good at it. Worse, every organization has people that love coming to work and are great team mates, but not productive when it comes to getting actual work done. Thankfully, the second scenario can be dealt with through tough conversations and fair performance reviews. It’s the former that is the big issue.

Currently, I find myself trying to help productive employees find fulfillment when they hate their job or feel undervalued. I feel that these two groups of people are the biggest concern, and sadly, the most overlooked when we start talking about happiness over productivity. In the last five years at my current organization, I’ve come across talented, motivated employees that were completely unhappy in their current role but still productive and aligned to the corporate strategy. The challenge was not helping them achieve their goals, it was to keep them positive and help them find a way to stay engaged.

For the purpose of this post, I am going to focus on two examples:

1) New hires that wants to be productive and recognized immediately

As TELUS begins to hire more Gen Y and Gen Wii employees, we are forced to deal with a widening gap between expectations and reality. Potential is fantastic, but in the corporate world very few teams have the freedom and flexibility to hand huge projects to new hires. When an employee feels their talent is being wasted and their work is beneath them, chances are they are not going to be happy.

These employees are not lost causes; in fact they are some of the most valuable employees on your team. They are motivated and eager to take on more responsibility. They are determined to succeed and truly care about their work and the organization. Through strong leadership and career development, you can keep them engaged and focused on their next role/project. You can work with them and help them gain the real world experience needed to transform their energy and creativity into business successes.

Will they be happy? I’m not sure, but they can certainly understand they are moving forward on a path to career fulfillment. They might not love their situation, but you won’t crush their drive.

2) Hard working employee that wants recognition for their effort, but don’t fall into the high potential/high performer buckets
Unfortunately, performance assessment and limited compensation increases often means that hard working employees that are doing their job and genuinely like coming to work every day are left asking “why not me?” Constantly overachieving for the greater good is noble, but unrealistic for long term health. In a world where we are often moving from one conference call to another or stuck in traffic, it becomes all too easy to ask why do I bother? If my leader doesn’t value my effort, why am I giving 110% when I’m being valued at 90%. If I’m not getting promoted or given a raise, why should I spend time away from my family?

This challenge is one that is becoming more and more critical. I refuse to believe we need to have everyone in the org striving to be in the Top 10%. Imagine if your team consisted of super competitive employees that needed to be tasked with the most important strategic imperatives? Imagine if your entire team was focused on the next big thing instead of keep the lights on and developing relationships with the business? Your team would be a disaster.

By definition, the bell curve / nine box model leaves a select few at the bottom, a select few at the top and the majority in the middle. If the middle of your bell curve disconnects and starts questioning why they are working so hard or if the grass is greener in other pastures, the stability and health of your team is at risk.

Continual conversations, career planning and realistic goal setting all come into play, but realistically, these team members are the most likely to tune out. If their perceived value and effort is not matched, they are flight risks for small raises or more recognition.  If they feel undervalued, can we ever expect them to be happy? We can no longer hide behind the corporate mask of “no raises.” Leaders must focus on recognizing what these employees bring to the table,  and give them a chance to take on more responsibility.

I realize this post seems dark, but I feel it’s a valid concern. Trying to balance a distinctly human emotion with hard line numbers like shareholder return is only going to lead to failure and disappointment. Let’s leave the search for happiness for the lights of Hollywood and focus on make work better.


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