Is Employee Happiness Your Responsibility?

By Kevin G. Armstrong

Are your employees happy? To be honest, I don’t care and you shouldn’t either.

Have you ever climbed the “Golden Stairs” on the Chilkoot Trail in Alaska wearing a 70-pound backpack in warm, 80-degree weather? Well I have, with five others, and none of us felt “happy” while doing it. None of us were getting paid to climb; in fact, we all paid to do it, one rock at a time. As we hiked, all I could think about were the gold rush settlers who climbed this very trail in 40-below weather with far less sophisticated gear and very outdated clothing. I can assure you they weren’t happy either, and they, too, weren’t getting paid unless they found gold.

How about the brave people who climb Everest? Expeditioners today pay upwards of $100,000 to climb to altitudes with the most brutal conditions conceivable, where you can’t breathe properly without supplemental oxygen. From one base camp to the next, you become more nauseous, cold, tired, and while you are sleeping on the rocks, the only thing that takes your mind off your achy bones and muscles is when you throw up from altitude sickness. You will never see smiling, happy people doing these insane things until they have accomplished what they set out to do.

The bottom line is, happiness is a state of mind. Some people say they’ll be happy when they get married, others say they’ll be happy when they finally get divorced. Some say they’ll be happy when they have kids, others look forward to the day when the kids have grown up and left. Some of us make material possessions a condition of happiness, others need very little to feel completely fulfilled. The point is, you can’t “make” everybody happy because we all define it differently for ourselves and we all have different issues we are dealing with. Some struggle with depression or other mental health issues, and as an employer, you cannot solve those issues.

The new buzz phrase in business is, “Are your employees ‘happy’?” My answer is, “Who cares?”

The number one reason employees leave their jobs is not because of happiness. It’s because they don’t feel valued, and that is a feeling you can do something about. Do your employees know how their work impacts the overall purpose of why your company exists? Do they know what you are trying to build and how their work is helping you get there? Does their manager provide them with clear expectations and regular feedback so they know they are on the right track, or are they ignored unless they do something wrong? Are they working for a manager who cares about them or only cares about himself?

Suppose you have an employee on your team who meets your company’s core values, is really good at what she does, is committed and dependable, but is never going to be happy no matter what you do. Does that mean you are doing something wrong? Not necessarily.

Meet Fletcher. Fletcher lives alone because he likes it that way, and frankly, nobody really wants to live with him. His passion is golfing, and that’s all he talks about. Even though golf is his passion, it doesn’t make him happy. In fact, it’s safe to assume that nothing makes Fletcher happy.

But every day for the past 20 years Fletcher has come into your office on time, driven your truck safely, and made his deliveries. He is respectful to your customers and his fellow employees, he never creates problems, and he has never had an accident. He leaves work every day at 3:00pm to go golfing. Finding employees like Fletcher is not easy.

So why are we concerned with Fletcher’s happiness? There are people who go through life unhappy but that doesn’t mean they don’t want to be accepted, that they don’t need purpose, and that they can’t be highly productive employees. So for those of you who are now on the “happiness” bandwagon, don’t waste your time. Instead, ensure you are not contributing to an employee’s unhappiness; make sure that every person on your team knows their role, that they are being held accountable, and that they are receiving regular, specific and positive feedback on how they are contributing to the big picture.

Forget “happy!”


Kevin G. Armstrong is a speaker, business advisor, disruptor, and author of The Miracle Manager: Why True Leaders Rarely Make Great Managers with ForbesBooks. Learn more at kevingarmstrong.com.

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