Does It Matter If You’re Happy?

Does It Matter If You’re Happy?

September 9, 2013

Some very knowledgeable people say that it doesn’t matter if employees are happy at work. Somehow, that just doesn’t sit right with me.

There have been interesting studies lately showing that – in some cases – the least productive employees are the happiest. A recent article on the Enterprise Engagement Alliance site, Engagement: Winning the Battle for Customer and Employee Hearts and MindsThe Spillover Effect, notes that “Measuring the success of a business is not as simple as saying ‘happy employees equal happy customers.’ Happy employees can also be lazy employees.”

Others point to the recent Leadership IQ study, showing that in 42% of companies, low performers report being more engaged than high performers.

At the same time, though, there are myriad articles and research papers showing the connection between employee engagement and profitability and productivity.

So what’s going on?

Employee Engagement May Not Equal Happiness

For starters, employee engagement and employee happiness are not the same thing. Being engaged with work means having the right tools to do the job, understanding the path to success, and connecting emotionally to outcomes. This is not necessarily the same thing as loving every minute of it. And if happy means hanging out in the lunch room and surfing the web for most of the afternoon, then that’s certainly not engagement either. We can survey the issues around both engagement and happiness, but should not assume that one leads directly to the other.

In interpreting the data, it’s important to separate out who’s happy and who’s productive.  If we ask people if they are engaged and find instead that they are happy, but their performance results show that they are directionless or unmotivated, that’s critically important to know.

Watch Out for the Slacker, Jerk or Pessimist

There is a place for happiness, even if efficiency, productivity, and profitability are every business’ goals. Happy workers improve the ambiance of the workplace and unhappy workers can take others down with them.  Will Felps was interviewed for This American Life on NPR. He studies how the attitudes of one person can change the behavior of an entire group of people.  He identified three types who can have a negative impact: the slacker, the jerk, and the pessimist.  Felps found, “In dozens of trials, over and over, when he (an actor) acted like a bad apple with a group, that group would perform 30% to 40% worse than groups without a bad apple.” In fact, Felps stated, “What was eerily surprising was how these team members would start to take on his characteristics.”

What is interesting here is that even if you have the tools in place for engagement, bad attitudes can be contagious and have a strong negative effect on productivity.

So perhaps we should be concerned with happiness at work, not from an engagement perspective, but from an environmental one.  It might help to turn up the volume on an engagement program if the happiness of the right employees is a part of the equation. Do top performers have what they need and feel appreciated? What do they need to feel supported in their work? What would make them feel that the workplace is fair?  How about that ever important middle 60%? What’s the mood there? Managers and senior leaders should understand the challenges and achievements of these two groups in order to create room for success.

The Happiness Shift

It’s time to shift the happiness from the least productive to the most productive teammates. In every environment, there will always be unhappy or unmotivated people and I agree with Crystal Spraggins on TLNT that, “happiness is a state of mind that an employer can’t really control,” when it comes to those employees. There are, however, benefits to considering the happiness of the most productive employees and those who show the potential to improve performance. By addressing the things that are collectively bringing the mood down and by providing a sound engagement program as a roadmap, we can improve retention, reduce absenteeism, and eliminate the negativity and nay-saying that can reduce a team’s ability to perform. Let’s make sure that top performers are the ones to report that they love their jobs and feel valued.