Is it your job to make your employees happy?

Any leader or manager worth their salt knows the importance of inspiring and motivating their team.

The more self-aware among us will know how important it is to keep ourselves motivated and inspired too. But does that sentiment extend to happiness?

The old adage ‘a happy worker is a productive worker’ may seem to come from another, more paternalistic age, but the idea has hardly gone out of fashion. Silicon Valley in the 21st century is as famous for its Chief Happiness Officers as for its bean bags and sleep pods.

There is a certain sense to it. People who are miserable at work are presumably more likely than their cheerful colleagues to: fall out with each other, treat customers badly,  clock-watch, thumb-twiddle, keep their ideas to themselves, and quit.

Few could deny the power of leaders and managers to impact their team’s wellbeing, and morally we would hope that this impact could be positive.

But it’s a step too far for leaders to assume responsibility for others’ happiness.

For a start, there’s a difference between making people happy and not making them unhappy, and the evidence is mixed at best that the former is actually correlated with improved performance.

It’s also not what you’re there for. A leader’s ultimate responsibility is the health and success of the business itself, which can variably be described in terms of its financial health and success, and/or the fulfilment of its wider purpose. Any distraction, however well-meaning, risks derailing this primary objective.

Sometimes what makes people happy is the same as what’s best for the business. But not always.

You could make every day in the office a party. You can try to be everyone’s friend. You can double their salary. And they might indeed be happy… until the business goes under. Don’t expect them to thank you then.

Even if it were your goal, ensuring your employees’ happiness is not actually in your power (making them unhappy is, sadly, much easier).

Happiness is subjective wellbeing – emphasis on subjective. People can have every good thing in life and still not be happy, or they can be happy with little.

Given how poor we collectively are at controlling our own state of mind, it seems rather arrogant to assume we can do the trick for others – particularly when what makes one person happy might have the opposite effect on another.

Calling Mr Scrooge

None of this means that leaders have permission to be mean or indifferent to their people’s wellbeing. It’s just that happiness is the wrong word, and the wrong goal.

A worthier goal, and a better word, is for leaders to aim to help their people thrive in their work.

It may sound semantic, but thriving is different from being happy in several important ways.  Thriving is, as Socrates or Aristotle could have told you when they spoke of eudaimonia, living well. It involves struggle and meaning and a sense of interior harmony, where people live in accordance with their values.

We can say that a leader has a responsibility to help their employees thrive, because thriving people genuinely are productive people: by definition, their situation is getting the best out of them. Is it the primary objective of a leader? Not necessarily, but you won’t go far wrong if you achieve it.

How to help people thrive is another question of course. Being at the helm of a growing company helps, because it also means there’s plenty of opportunity for personal and professional growth, but that’s not always possible.

The same can be said from having a deeper social purpose.

Everyone’s different too, which means you need the bandwidth and leadership skills to get to know staff as individuals, what they’re good at, what matters to them and what their goals are.

Deeper in the organisation you need to pay attention to job design, career paths and the experience of working there, all of which require skilled HR support.

Get it right and everybody wins: people thrive, they perform better and so does the business. By a happy coincidence, you might even feel better about yourself in the process.

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Growth and Leadership

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