Stop Trying to Make Your Employees Happy

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Many employers are trying to crack the employee engagement code. They’re trying to keep their employees motivated so they produce good work, have positive interactions with their coworkers, and want to stay at their workplace. Turnover is disruptive and costly, but with access to so many different workplaces today, keeping good employees can be challenging.

What is an employer to do? According to big data, there’s one mistake employers should avoid–equating employee happiness with employee engagement. Employers ought to aim for engaged employees, not happy employees, because happiness and engagement aren’t the same.

I define employee engagement as:

The ability of being committed, dedicated, and emotionally connected to your work and workplace so that you’re willing to give your best, discretionary effort

Employee Engagement (EE) is:

  • a business skill like communication, emotional intelligence, or project management.
  • a skill that can be discussed, measured, and improved.
  • bringing your whole person to work.
  • putting forth your best effort or holding it back.

If you look at the worldwide statistics on employee engagement from Gallup, you’ll see the most engaged countries and the least engaged countries.

These statistics are from 2020-2022:

Source: Gallup Organization

According to the research, the 15 most engaged countries are:

Now, let’s look at the happiest countries.

The World Happiness Report tracks happiness across the world. Just like Gallup’s engagement reporting, the happiness surveys are self-reported, meaning individuals report on their own levels of happiness according to a variety of factors.

These statistics are from the same time period as the engagement reporting above, 2020-2022.

According to the World Happiness Report, the 15 happiest countries are:

Source: World Happiness Report 2023

Some observations:

  • The only country that appears in both top 15 lists is the United States (#8 for engaged, #15 for happiness)
  • No country appears both high in engagement and high in happiness
  • A country may be high in happiness, but that doesn’t correlate to being high in engagement, and vice versa

This means that being happy in life is not the same as being engaged at work. Workers may experience high levels of happiness in life but are not engaged enough to put in their best efforts at work. On the flip side, workers may feel connected to their jobs but in life don’t feel high levels of happiness.

Engagement and happiness are not the same thing. Therefore, employers should not think that producing happy employees will produce engaged employees. Of course, don’t aim to make employees unhappy, but also don’t try to keep employees happy all of the time. Sometimes experiencing unhappiness at work can actually be good for the workplace.

When they’re unhappy, employees may:

  • Discover new solutions to ease discomfort
  • Develop grit and perseverance
  • Deepen relationships and support structures
  • Decide to find meaning and purpose at work

In an ideal world, having both engaged employees and happy employees would be the norm. But if employers must decide between initiatives and budget to drive one over the other, I would choose engagement.

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