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Employee happiness? It depends on what you call happiness

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There’s this guy whose work I admire immensely.  His particular calling in life (although I dare him to use the word “calling”) is to “expose the scams, shams and shames of modern life.” Steve Salerno is also the author of the wonderful book  “SHAM: How the Self-Help Movement Made America Helpless” and the related blog,

Most of the time I agree with him. But this weekend, he and I had a little dispute about employee engagement — which is, after all, my sacred cow.

I had tweeted a quote from SAS Institute’s CEO, Jim Goodnight: “If you keep your workers happy, they’ll keep their customers happy… the company is happy.”  Makes sense to me, especially coming from the founder of a famously successful company, which also appears regularly on the Fortune Best Companies to Work For list (this year SAS is #1).  He isn’t suffering from a lack of really great resumes for the few jobs that open up. His turnover is practically nonexistent.

Steve’s considered opinion of my tweet boiled down to two words, “Not necessarily,” and then he included a link to an article he wrote on the subject in The Wall Street Journal, debunking the beliefs around employee engagement.

In his column, he used expressions like “unbridled joy,”  “glee,” and that old standby “irrational exuberance.” The accompanying cartoon showed two distinctly different employees — one who is a grouchy grind, the other a laidback glad-hander whose hail-fellow-well-met personality would drive even Mother Theresa to extremes.  Steve quoted some research that showed that unhappy workers made half as many mistakes as their more cheerful counterparts. And that “optimists are less vigilant about taking care of their health, less fastidious about safety protocols and less inclined to save money.”

I would say that those “optimists” weren’t necessarily “happy” employees. They were just individuals with some kind of personality disorder. As for the Grouchy Guses? Who’s to say they were unhappy? Maybe they were just frowning with concentration.  Or maybe being cranky makes them happy.

Steve unintentionally raises a challenge here to the engagement community — and to those employers who aspire to have an inspiring workplace culture.  What exactly does happy mean to you, in terms of the kind of employees you want to attract?  What kind of happiness can you confidently serve up in your workplace that would produce the best outcome for all your stakeholders? And would that bring on board the kinds of people whose workstyles would make you happy as their leader?

I have found over the years that those who scoff at the notion of an employer’s responsibility to make his employees happy have a very limited, specific and not very flattering idea of what “happiness” looks like on the job.  It’s not all giggles, free dry cleaning and your faithful dog snoozing at your feet.  It’s about doing work that means something to you alongside people you respect.

As much as I hate to say it, Steve was right (but decidedly unhelpful) when he said, “Not necessarily.” There are some people who would be content and creative workers anywhere. And some who would always find something to complain about.  And either way, I would say that the employees’ frame of mind will show up in the customer experience. Which was the ultimate point of my tweet.

As an employer, you need to make sure your workplace culture is set up in a sustainable, authentic way, with the company values explicitly stated. And then find employees who would be happy there.  If you don’t want to serve up a cotton-candy and Ferris wheel experience, don’t promise it. And then you won’t attract candidates looking for a day at the fair.