Why engaging employees does not mean making them ‘happy’

The role of today’s internal communicator is not to deliver unicorns and rainbows, the author asserts, but to inspire staffers to put forth their best work—solo and in concert with others.

Beth and Mary have worked for the same company for about the same length of time.

They work at same tier of the company hierarchy. They are paid about the same, have the same benefits, have equally supportive and communicative bosses and have experienced roughly the same employee journey through their careers. Count Beth and Mary among the company’s engaged employees who are good at their jobs and do them well.

Mary is happy. She is upbeat. She loves life.

Beth? Not so much. Beth always looks as though she is in despair. She sighs a lot. Smiles appear forced. Her somber demeanor has little impact on her relationship with her staff, who admire her skills and respect the commitment she has made to them and her readiness to stand up for them. By the same token, they wouldn’t be in a hurry to have a glass of wine with her after work.

What can a good employee communications function do to make Beth happy?

Beyond making sure she knows she can take advantage of the company’s Employee Assistance Program? Nothing. Not a damn thing. What’s more, it’s not the purpose of employee communications to make Beth happy. It never has been.

Work is not necessarily at the heart of Beth’s unhappiness; work could, in fact, be a refuge. Her husband may be suffering from a horrible disease. She may be coping with a troubled teen at home. She may be in treatment for bipolar disorder or depression. Maybe her favorite band just broke up or her favorite TV show was canceled and she’s taking it hard. Perhaps she is just genetically predisposed to be despondent.

Work alone does not dictate one’s level of happiness. Even at work, if your company just laid off a boatload of employees, is it reasonable to expect the survivors to be happy? Or consider that Bob, though good at his job and loyal to his people, secretly wishes he were doing something else altogether.

The sticking point

I have been thinking about this after reading a post pointing to the dark side of high employee engagement. Although studies show that “higher levels of engagement boost employee well-being,” the authors argue that “engagement itself can be a barrier to better performance if it’s taken to an extreme. When employees are too focused on getting along, they will probably not care so much about getting ahead.”

The post notes that some leaders have found their best performing teams to be the least satisfied and suggests that engagement isn’t the only driver of performance.

This is a blinding flash of the obvious. As I’ve previously noted, I’m working on a model for employee communications in which engagement is just one of four communication-focused drivers of business performance, the others being culture, the employee experience (which includes job satisfaction) and the customer experience.

The above is a work in progress, by the way. I’m still working on other elements of the model, including channels and vectors. Yet given this understanding of what drives performance, there’s no reason that engagement should lead to complacency.

The authors of the post contend that “most leaders find that real innovation and change requires a restlessness and dissatisfaction with the status quo to drive people forward in a purposeful way.” Engagement does not have to be the enemy of restlessness.

Engagement (according to the UK-wide initiative Engage for Success) is “a workplace approach resulting in the right conditions for all members of an organisation to give of their best each day, committed to their organisation’s goals and values, motivated to contribute to organisational success, with an enhanced sense of their own well-being.”

There is nothing in this definition that rejects a complacency or satisfaction with the status quo, especially if the culture is one of uneasiness with the way things are and a desire to always be pushing forward.

Apple employees are a largely engaged group, but nobody could ever accuse them of being fat and happy with the status quo or uninterested in creating and profiting from the next big thing. (At least, not Steve Jobs’ Apple.) If they were, there would be no iPod, iPad or iPhone and the company would be struggling to keep the Macintosh relevant.

Four key factors

Engage for Success lists four enablers of engagement. Two—a strategic narrative and engaging managers—can both easily support a sense of agitation and discontentedness. The strategic narrative can relate how the company’s journey has always been one of dissatisfaction with the status quo. One trait of engaging managers is the ability to stretch their people.

The article lists other concerns with high engagement:

  • Pushing employees to burnout. The idea here is that employees are so wrapped up in their work that they let family and other parts of their lives slide. Yet a culture of work/life balance (or work/life integration, which I like even better) not only would keep that from happening, but it could even become another factor driving engagement. After all, integrity is one of the key enablers of engagement-leaders who walk the values talk-and if the importance of work/life balance is one of the company’s values, delivering on that promise bolsters the case for being engaged.
  • Giving an unfair edge to certain personality types. According to the authors’ research, engaged employees tend to be more “optimistic, positive, emotionally stable, agreeable and extroverted.” Hiring naturally happy people, they assert, doesn’t necessarily lead to better productivity or performance. I have never heard of a company choosing to hire upbeat employees (in order to boost engagement levels) instead of the best-qualified. The idea puts the cart before the horse: Engagement produces well-being, not the other way around. Engaging all employees is hard work, but there is no reason solid engagement efforts can’t be as effective with “pessimistic, introverted, demanding or moody” employees. The idea is to get them invested in helping the company achieve its goals. Happiness is not required.
  • Undermining the benefits of negative thinking. “While it’s true that positive mindsets bring openness and creativity,” the authors write, “it’s also true that more critical ones can bring focus and attention.” Again, happiness and an all-is-well attitude are not engagement prerequisites. Engaged employees will (if the culture supports it) operate just fine under stress.

“Managers need to think about how to create just enough tension in their workforce in order to trigger healthy competition and intrinsic motivation,” according to the authors. They are absolutely correct, though there is nothing in the practice of employee engagement that obstructs such behavior. The article concludes, “The common understanding of engagement as ‘happiness’ is too simplistic.”

Frankly, I have never heard that definition. It’s not just simplistic; it’s wrong. In communicating for engagement, happiness is not a goal.

If that’s your company’s engagement goal, you should rethink what engagement means in your organization.

A version of this article originally appeared on Holtz Communication + Technology.

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