Monday, 21 November 2011

The fruitless search for employee happiness

Imagine this:

It's October 2015, and England are up against reigning champions New Zealand in the final of the rugby World Cup at Twickenham. In the 79th minute, with both teams level on points, in front of a crowd of 82,000 Jonny Wilkinson steps up to take a penalty which, if converted, will almost certainly give England the victory and make amends for the team's hapless performance in 2011.

Wilkinson places the ball, takes a couple of steps backwards, clasps his hands in his trademark prayer-like gesture and focuses his gaze on the target.

Quietly, just before he begins his run-up, the HR Director of the England Team steps up to Wilkinson and asks:

"Are you happy, Jonny?"

What would Wilkinson's response be?

More than likely it would be one of puzzlement and confusion at the nature of the question. Quite probably Wilkinson would state that at that precise moment in time the question was utterly irrelevant. I imagine that he'd say words to the effect of, "Right now, all I'm bothered about it making sure that this ball gets between those posts. Whether or not I'm happy is of no interest to me. Once I've kicked the ball and scored the points, ask me again and I'll tell you how I feel. But right now I have a job to do."

The same scenario could have been repeated this year with Jenson Button on the starting grid of the Canadian Formula 1 Grand Prix in Montreal, or Stuart Broad as he prepared to attempt to claim a hat-trick against India in the second test against India at Trent Bridge.

In all these cases, the response of those in question would be to indicate that whether or not they were happy just didn't enter their mind as they prepared to undertake the task in hand, but that they simply had a job to do, and that any happiness would follow the completion of the challenge, not precede it.

So why do we seem to be obsessed with the concept of employee satisfaction and engagement? From the overwhelming range of tools and techniques available to measure and improve employee satisfaction, you could be excused for thinking that making the workforce happy was the sole purpose of HR's existence.

The pursuit of employee satisfaction seems to have become more important than ensuring that employees are fully equipped to do their jobs, and are effectively managed to enable their organisation to achieve its strategy.

Surely it's the case that happiness is a product of success, not a prerequisite for it?


  1. Now this is certainly an intriguing point of view, and one that I agree with. Thank you for articulating it! The thing I find with measuring employee satisfaction is that it will forever be a moving beast. People need to be given the best tools available to them in order that they can do a good job. Beyond that, they need the right environment to be productive, and have healthy relationships at work. Ahead of that, if they are engaged with the overall vision of the organisation they are onto a winner. But that lofty ideal shouldn't be the focal point. It's a journey which you need to evaluate specific to your organisation. No point in trying to have an engaged workforce if they don't have the right tools to even do their job.

  2. I’ve been thinking about this and the more you ask me if I’m happy or ask me questions about my engagement then the more likely I am to move from unconscious satisfaction to conscious dissatisfaction! Then, let me give you my views (time and again) and don’t act upon them and you’ll send me completely over the edge!

    So let me score my goal, win my race, not bowl any maidens over and yes, I’ll be happy.