The Employee Happiness Myth

I was reading a book over the weekend that said: "Without happy employees, there is no way to have happy customers." 

At first, I agreed with the statement, but as I thought about it further, I realized the comment had many flaws.

For example, people who tell you to focus on employee happiness are often the same people who tell you to hug your haters and treat every complaint as a gift. It's a sweet sentiment but not that useful.

Every complaint is not a gift if you're getting non-stop complaints because you haven't spent the time, energy, or money on fixing ongoing issues! 

Every complaint is not a gift if you've never spent the time to do something like the Hierarchy of Horrors process, or spent even a day or two considering the source of the complaints. It's more like a vicious doom loop.

Instead of Hugging Your Haters, you should be asking why do they hate you in the first place? It's usually because one of your critical processes is either broken or non-existent or because you've created too large of an Expectations Gap between what you promise them and what you deliver.

The pursuit of employee happiness gave us employers that were more concerned about touting the vending machines and ping pong tables than they were about the quality of their work.

I've been in the offices of startups where I could eat anything I could think of, bring my dog, walk around in my socks and get a good workout in after lunch… But I was only there to help the companies address the issues of unhappy customers and lousy customer retention. But they had no shortage of happy employees. 

The correlation wasn't there.

I'd rewrite the statement I read to suggest that without actively engaged employees, there is no way to have happy customers.

Don't focus on happiness–focus on engagement.  

Focus on: "Do they know what they need to be doing?"  

Focus on: "Have we given them the right tools and processes to do good work?" 

Focus on: "How do we ensure managers are catching successes and giving people credit?"

Focus on: "Are we giving our people the ability to collaborate with their peers, or to bring their ideas forward and be heard?

I'm not saying that people coming to work to find vending machines stuffed with jelly beans and gummy bears, or the latest video game consoles and food trucks aren't going to be happy to come to work. Of course they are. But are you truly getting what you need to create happier and healthier customer relationships or a more productive workplace? The jury is still out.

But being happy about their work environment is not the same as being happy about the work.

Last week I was on a call with a potential client. This was a company amid some incredibly explosive growth. I asked him, "But are you having fun?" He said, "We're having a total blast! It's great. But we realize without putting the right support structures into place now, we're never going to be able to sustain our current trajectory."

And he was right.

So your challenge for this week is this: 

Pick a department.  

Sales is a great one to do this in, but so is marketing, customer support, or operations.  

Get them in a room, hand out a piece of paper to everybody, and ask them to write down the answer to two questions.  

1. What is the most important thing for you to do every day?  

2: What does the company do that makes it hard for you to do that one thing?  

The answers will not only give you some ideas about organizational roadblocks you've inadvertently put up, but it will also tell you how much agreement there is in within the department about the most important things.  

Hint: If there's a lot of different answers, that's not a good sign.