Trouble in paradise?

You can’t be too rich or too thin – but when it comes to workplace happiness, enough just may be enough.

Employees being the most important asset is old news. Engagement programs and Happiest Workplace contests have become rules rather than exceptions. Little by little, happiness has crawled its way to one of the organization’s top priorities, with increasing resources put into it every year.

Increasing, because when it comes to happiness, more has generally been more. Happy people are productive people, so it all does look like a clear win-win scenario.

But things change, and even employee engagement is exposed. However, there still may be a slight difference between trying to keep employees engaged and merely trying to keep a smile on their face.

Luckily so.

Sarah Lee, a co-founder of knowledge management company Stravito, wrestled a long time with employee surveys where employees overwhelmingly reported their happiness. In addition to the fact that constant happiness sounds impossible to achieve, Lee believes that solely getting positive feedback means employees are not being challenged properly.

Sarah Lee

Stravito’s Sarah Lee believes modern times have brought up the need to rethink employee engagement.

“Generally speaking, there are two categories when it comes to the development of driven, high-performing employees”, Sarah Lee explains. “Those who are proactive in seizing every opportunity they spot, and those who need a bit more of a push. The former can sometimes be described as ‘never reaching the point of happiness’, whereas the latter can come across as ‘too happy’.“

Lee adds that the challenge with ‘too happy’ in this context is the demand and requirements it puts on employers, to always be on the outlook for and have proper development and career plans in place, to never reach the point of being ‘bored and leave’.

In this light, it would be quite easy to draw a conclusion that deep down, employees and employers have formed different perceptions of what engagement really means.

“I wouldn’t say the perceptions are different, but the order of objectives is probably reversed. As a co-founder, I always need to prioritize and optimize the well-being, health, and growth of the company, the whole company”, Sarah Lee says. “In most cases that is in line with the well-being, health, and growth of employees. But in some cases not, and then I always need to stay true to the interests of the company. But then again, we wouldn’t have a company without our employees, so it is a fine balance there. And for employees, I truly believe they also have the company’s interest in mind, but I’d say that first and foremost for them is, and should, be their career development and interests.”

Obviously, this does not mean organizations should give up incentive programs or any other means they have found adequate in their efforts to enhance employee engagement. However, now that the targets have moved and the sky is no more the limit, these targets must be readjusted.

“You cannot grow your company at a high pace without structures or frameworks in place to enable the growth and development of the people”, Sarah Lee says. “Here is a trade-off between efficiency and efficacy where individualistic approaches would optimize the latter. But in a reality where there’s always a constraint on the resources, time, and money we need to work with broader strokes.”

Lee mentions that going back to the categories of proactive versus ‘need more of a push’, there are different sets of indicators and approaches. But the groundwork is the same regardless. There needs to be time set aside for regular performance and development conversations between employees and the hiring manager to set understanding, expectations, and a plan. This is to ensure and mitigate the risk of pushing employees over the edge.

Sarah Lee concludes by pointing out that organizations should always support the growth and development of its people to the fullest extent possible to ensure its own success.

“As long as there’s a match in the needs of the company with the development of our people we will, and have made sure there are sufficient career paths. And we have multiple examples of having done that. And will continue to do so. It is a perpetual belief of mine never to impede the development of people who have more to give and accomplish, just because it would be difficult to fit in an org chart. Then we’ll have to re-work the org chart instead. But again, as long as there’s a match with the needs of the company.”

Hiring employees always includes a certain amount of risk, and proper engagement is the best way to reduce that risk. The more people feel like belonging to the organization, the more they are willing to do for its well-being and success. That is why investments in employee engagement are extremely relevant also in the future.

“High-performing sports teams focus on having well-being and happiness enough for members to thrive and perform to the best of their abilities and continue developing their skills and game. They make sure to nail key elements for the team to perform together – psychological safety, trust and so on. But it’s very purposely established with the goal to perform and develop.”


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