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The Case for Happiness at Work Is Self-Evident; But There’s Also Evidence

It is at once the silliest and most important debate going on in the field of human resources.

Should business leaders seek to make their employees happy?

Of course! Why not? Don’t happy employees make for happy customers? Is it not – to borrow a term from the Declaration of Independence – “self-evident?”

Yet some prominent figures argue employee happiness is a foolish goal. “The idea of trying to make people happy at work is terrible,” Gallup CEO Jim Clifton told Fast Company. His nephew, StrengthsFinder 2.0 author Tom Rath, argues “the pursuit of happiness might do us more harm than good. . . . Despite Thomas Jefferson including it in the Declaration of Independence, the ‘pursuit of happiness’ is a shortsighted aim.”

Equating employee engagement and happiness “makes my ears ring and my mouth twitch,” wrote my fellow Forbes contributor Maren Hogan. “There’s no proof that happy employees will do anything great for your company,” she asserted. Writing for the Harvard Business Review, Red Hat CEO Jim Whitehurst asserted, “Engagement isn’t about being happy. Happy people may or may not be engaged in the business.”

The most important reason to make your employees happy is simply because they are your employees, people whose lives are affected for good or bad depending on the quality of leadership and managing where they work. This is, admittedly, a moral argument, a question of conscience rather than profitability. But for a question this serious, we ought not be afraid to begin by interrogating our values.

Why do health care organizations concentrate on the quality of their patient care? Because people’s lives are affected. Why do businesses agonize over profits and share price? Because they have a “fiduciary responsibility” to their shareholders. A company’s responsibility to its employees is no less weighty. Business leaders should not casually dismiss one of the central goals of their employees’ lives.

But even when they do – even if the sole justification for making employees happy were the return on investment – it would still be imperative. The evidence is clear that employees whose companies make them happier reciprocate by investing themselves in the success of the business. Contrary to Hogan’s assertion, there is plenty of “proof” that happy employees do great things for their companies.

In BI WORLDWIDE’s research, happiness is strongly associated with hard work. Nine of 10 happy employees agree they “feel an obligation to work as hard as I can for my organization.” Among unhappy employees, the proportion drops to only six out of 10. Ninety-three percent of happy employees agree they are “willing to work especially hard for my organization’s customers.” Among unhappy employees, the figure drops to 69 percent. Similar differences appear on other predictors of an employee’s best work.

The portion of retention influenced by an employer – factors other than, for example, a spouse being offered a job in another market or wanting to return to college – is largely composed of the worker’s happiness there. Among those who are unhappy at work, 54 percent plan to leave in the next 12 months. It’s only 23 percent among those who are happy at their current jobs.

“Someone can be happy at work, but not ‘engaged,’” wrote engagement author Kevin Kruse. “They might be happy because they are lazy and it’s a job with not much to do. They might be happy talking to all their work-friends and enjoying the free cafeteria food. They might be happy to have a free company car. They might just be a happy person. But just because they’re happy doesn’t mean they are working hard on behalf of the company. They can be happy and unproductive.”

Hogan, Whitehurst, and Clifton make similar arguments. Clifton analogizes employees to bears in a national park whose natural instincts will be messed up if they are fed. “Don’t feed the bears,” he cautions.

Beyond the obvious fact that people are not bears, the evidence clearly refutes the anti-happiness crowd. While technically people could be happy but not engaged, in practice, they aren’t. The overlap between those who are happy and those who are engaged is so large that there simply are no appreciable numbers of people who are happy at work and not engaged, or, conversely, engaged and not happy.

Statistically, it is nearly impossible to be happy and not engaged. Our research indicates they are two sides of the same bargain, that what businesses call engagement (customer focus, retention, collaboration, creativity) they get largely in return for the happiness they create among their employees.

Inherent in the arguments against happiness at work is the discredited Theory X of employee motivation – that given a choice, people will work as little as possible and goof off as much as they can. Also buried within those arguments is a misconception about happiness itself – that it is solely hedonistic. This was not what Jefferson meant when he wrote the “pursuit of happiness” into the Declaration of Independence.

“Scholars have long noted that for Aristotle and the Greeks, as well as for Jefferson and the Americans, happiness was not about yellow smiley faces, self-esteem or even feelings,” wrote Jon Meacham, author of Thomas Jefferson: The Art of Power. “According to historians of happiness and of Aristotle, it was an ultimate good, worth seeking for its own sake. Given the Aristotelian insight that man is a social creature whose life finds meaning in his relation to other human beings, Jeffersonian eudaimonia – the Greek word for happiness – evokes virtue, good conduct and generous citizenship.”

This is the type of happiness that is reflected when BI WORLDWIDE asks an employee, “How Happy Are You at Work?” In fact, that question proved to be so powerful that we made it the first question in the self-assessment we built into workhappier.com. We invented a novel means of capturing it with a face whose smile or frown changes as the employee moves an adjacent 100-point-scale slider. Our analyses show it is as strong or stronger than any “employee net promoter score” measure, such as asking if an employee would recommend the firm as a good place to work.

There is, however, one massive pitfall that brings us back to the morality of the issue. Leaders persuaded of the business case for making employees happy but who are interested in doing so only for the money are at risk of turning the initiative into nothing more than a management technique, if not an outright trick.

“Those who have exploited it best are those with an interest in social control, very often for private profit,” wrote William Davies in The Happiness Industry: How the Government and Big Business Sold Us Well-Being. Happiness “is represented as an input to certain strategies and projects, a resource to be drawn upon, which will yield more money in return.”

BI WORLDWIDE’s ongoing research is now focused, among other issues, on the question of what happens when an employee gets wise to such a maneuver. She may balk: “You mean the only reason you care about my happiness is to make yourself more money?” Or she may brush it aside: “I don’t care why you’re trying to make me happy as long as it means more attention to making this a better place to work.”

These are, at least, legitimate questions rather than the silly assertions by the anti-happiness crowd, citing no evidence, that sparked the whole debate. In this way, the debate is constructive. For that, and for sparking a healthy reexamination of the meaningful reasons why someone would get into the business of managing people, we can be grateful, and maybe even happy.

(Originally published on HR.com. To test your happiness at work, take the free job assessment at WorkHappier.com.)

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