Happy Employees Does Not Mean They Are Engaged Employees

The notion of happy workers being engaged workers has always struck me as odd.  The assumption is that a happy employee must be an engaged employee.

Maybe a better alternative is ‘happy employees are more likely to be engaged than unhappy employees’?

This I would be more comfortable with.  It does concern me to see so much written about ‘happiness’ and the, supposed, links with engagement.  So, why do I have such a problem with these?

Well, the reasoning and rationale is actually very simple:

  1. Happy employees can easily be focused on the wrong things

In our research work (be it one to one interviews, group sessions/ activities or discussion or our survey work) we like to link back our findings to key business metrics.  This can be anything from staff turnover and sickness and absence to the more commercial aspects such as sales levels, profit, turnover, productivity etc.

What we see, on a regular basis, is that ‘happy’ employees, or more importantly, teams that define themselves as happy are not only not engaged but can actually be some of the worst performing areas of an organisation.

I’ll give you two examples of this, firstly with a retail client – two stores that really stood out in terms of happy, enthusiastic employees who loved their job, manager and organisation were the two worst performing stores in the UK, by some margin.  How could this be possible?

Simple – poor performance management.  The guys in the store really enjoyed their jobs, loved their manager, thought it was a great place to work, would recommend it to friends and family as a great place to work etc., but they were not delivering from a turnover and profit perspective.  Their manager was effectively protecting them – they had no idea they were not performing as they should.

In a similar, very recent piece of work, we found that a team in a software development company to (again) be very happy and engaged but they were engaged in the wrong aspects of their job, were not client focused and were performing quite badly – again, due to poor performance management.  Yet the team described itself as working exceptionally well, delivering great software and support to its internal customers.

  1. Engagement includes (in no small part) being challenged, stretched but supported by colleagues, managers and the organisation

Now, we have spoken to numerous people (during our workshops and focus groups) and asked them to think about and describe times in their careers (or personal lives for that matter) when they felt they have been highly engaged.  More often than not, they describe times when they have been ‘pushed outside their comfort zone’ – they’ve been under a degree of pressure and stress (manageable levels and not long term).  This can be when they’ve been promoted, seconded onto project work or just at really busy times.

What is interesting is that none of them spoke about being or feeling ‘happy’ under those circumstances – in fact, some described the polar opposite.  For nearly all, it wasn’t until sometime after that period, that they looked back on the time with a degree of happiness.

So, at best, happiness might be an outcome and or indicator that a person was, fairly recently, engaged.

  1. You can have engaged employees but what if they are engaged in the wrong things?

Happiness doesn’t mean that your employees are engaged (in the sense of true employee engagement) and even if they exhibit signs of being engaged – they may not be engaged in the areas you (as an organisation) need them to be.

Again, we have found highly engaged, motivated individuals working away like troopers but completely and utterly focusing their efforts in the wrong areas.

This is often down to a lack of direction set by Directors or Managers – we have also seen situations where individuals have read the situation somewhat differently and head off in a completely different direction.  Here, again, they have not been managed and supported correctly.

Happiness is important however

The reality is that ‘happiness’ at work is important.  I don’t think anyone would want to work at an organisation where they are ‘unhappy’ nor would any organisation want their employees to be unhappy at work.

The opposite is true, we all wish to enjoy our work and be happy doing it.

The danger is in making the assumption that ‘happiness = engagement’ – it simply doesn’t and to make that assumption can be very damaging for an organisation.  Conceivably it could end up focusing on making the organisation a happy place to work and find it has almost no effect on the levels of engagement.

So, what do we want?

Going forward, happiness does need to be part of the engagement mix and, as explained above, it can be a good indicator to the levels of engagement people might have had in the near past.  Don’t rely on happiness as an indicator of engagement.  Sense check your findings from your engagement work and compare that against key business metrics to see if there are links.  Are your happiest people the most productive?  Are your unhappiest the least?

We all feel unhappy with our work at some point or other (if you don’t then I do rather envy you).  Given the factors that affect a person’s level of engagement (again, as stated above) you can’t expect everyone to be happy all the time, nor can you expect everyone to be engaged all of the time (that’s another piece mind!).

If you would like more information on employee engagement, then please contact us on +44 (0) 1255 850051.