Nobody truly knows what makes people happy at work

We can't really measure happiness at work

Here’s a new article on Fast Company purporting, yet again, to conclusively determine what makes people happy at work. This article is based on research from a joint called ‘Expert Market’ and it seems like the four key factors are:

  • Location of the company
  • Gender equity in the workplace/leadership positions
  • Good diversity policies and inclusivity
  • The size and ability to compensate well

If you take this at face value, then take any number of other concepts at face value, it’s clear that no one really knows what makes people happy at work. Let me explain.

1. This is logical: People are individuals; all these studies are aggregates. It’s very hard to say “This is why X-Person does or doesn’t like work!” off a survey. This is the essence of the micro-macro problem in business.

2. What about training? Some of the best-known “Where are the best places to work?” studies and research indicate that organizations which train their employees more — i.e. give them access to skill sets — are usually the places with the happiest employees. That didn’t seem to pop on this Expert Market research.

3. The role of diversity: In reality, we all seek out like-minded, similar individuals — even though we should be pursuing relationships with different kinds of people and exposing ourselves to different ideas. In this SHRM research from earlier in 2015, diversity was way down the list in terms of things that make employees happy or more engaged. I’d assume that’s true. I like working with different kinds of people, but I’d never list diversity at the top of any grouping of “What makes me happy about a job?”

4. Should we even be happy at work? It might be a huge scam, and maybe the point isn’t “being happy” or “having fun” — maybe the point is finding some kind of purpose in the work you do. (That’s not good, because most companies have no idea how to define purpose for their employees.)

5. Is this all a consultant-driven scam? It might be.

Here’s the bottom line on the whole idea of ‘being happy at work’ for me:

  • To most people, work is transactional; you come in, you do a job, they pay you, and you leave and pursue the other aspects of your life with that money.
  • If people wanted work to be transformative, they’d care about things like on-boarding people, promoting people, letting people push ideas or have impact on decisions, etc.
  • Most people want to come, get paid above market, bitch about how busy and important they are, and leave.
  • People might like their co-workers or their boss but I don’t think anyone is trying to use “work” as a source of “happiness,” generally speaking.
  • It’s impossible to study happiness at work conclusively because what defines happiness — or being content — is so different for everyone.

I think organizations have two responsibilities back to the individual at base:

  • Pay them the agreed-upon salary at the agreed-upon times.
  • At the managerial level, attempt to connect the individual’s work back to the bigger work of the organization without just saying “Generating revenue.”

If I had to add a third, it would be:

  • Letting individual employees have a stake in ideation and decision-making

Out of those three, most organizations get the first one right — and that’s about it (and not even all the time!). So again, we come back to a place where really that all that matters is money, finding more money, pursuing money, chasing money, digging for money, paying people more (or not!), and everything that isn’t money-tied falls back by the wayside of “Oh, yea … I think I saw some study about that! But I don’t have time for that stuff; I’m out here chasing revenue targets!”

Until that latter attitude changes among managers — for lack of a better term, until we can inject empathy into management — then very little will change about how “happy” or “engaged” employees are.

Ted Bauer