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The Future of Work

Why Being Engaged At Work Isn't As Simple As "Being Happy"

The CEO of Gallup, a company whose studies on employee engagement are often cited, on why the issue comes down to more than just perks.

[Photo: Flickr user Gabriela Sakamoto]

Last December, Gallup researchers stunned the business world with the revelation that just three in 10 American workers are engaged in their jobs and willing to do all they can to help their bosses and organizations succeed.

In the nine months since, a hyper-focus on restoring engagement has become a fully fledged movement in the U.S., with many companies committing themselves to boosting employee happiness as their chosen remedy.

But like a doctor who’s made a dire diagnosis and then isn’t consulted for proper treatment, Gallup has grown alarmed that the pursuit of happiness so many leaders have embraced is a tonic that will not help businesses get better.

I recently sat down with Jim Clifton, Gallup’s CEO for the past 26 years, and asked him to provide his prescription for bringing American workplaces back to full health. Leveraging insight gained from Gallup’s decades-long global engagement and well-being studies, not to mention his own work with hundreds of companies across the world, he offered this often contrarian advice:

We Shouldn’t Be Trying To Make Workers Happy

"The idea of trying to make people happy at work is terrible," Clifton told me emphatically.

While admiring companies like Zappos, which intentionally fosters positive workplaces, he nevertheless believes a day-to-day focus on the fun aspects of happiness greatly miss the mark. This is because Gallup’s research shows that how a person feels about the work they do every day has the greatest impact on engagement by far.

"What companies will inevitably find is that the only way to make a person happy is to give them a job that matches well to their strengths, a boss who cares about their development, and a mission that gives them feelings of purpose," Clifton said. "The belief that something gets better when you come and do your job, that’s as happy as you can be."

Recent studies in positive psychology help to validate this and show that true contentment is tied to human flourishing. According to Shawn Achor, author of The Happiness Advantage, "happiness is the experience of positive feelings of pleasure combined with deeper feelings of meaning and purpose." Happiness is the joy we feel when we’re striving to fulfill our potential and accomplishing something significant.

Free Lunches Don’t Drive Achievement

"Free lunches and snacks have little direct impact on human performance," Clifton insists, "and have the real potential of being destructive to achievement."

On a recent vacation to Yellowstone National Park, Clifton noticed signs saying, "Do Not Feed The Bears," almost everywhere he went. Concerned that all these postings were an indication that bears were mauling campers in unusual numbers, he sought out a park ranger for explanation.

"Those signs aren’t for your protection," the ranger told him, "they’re here to protect the bears. What most people don’t understand is that when you feed a bear a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, they’ll never dig for roots again. Park visitors think all they’re doing is giving the bear a treat, but they end up ruining all those great animal’s lives."

Clifton believes we need similar signs in a lot of American companies. "Rather than looking for all the ways that actualize people, they’re focused on free food. And that’s not only what people don’t want—it’s what’s going to spoil them. The ultimate act in workplace leadership is human development, not a focus on happiness or entertainment."

Perks Aren’t Much Better At Driving Engagement

It’s perhaps a surprise that Clifton is not a fan of the "Best Places To Work" rankings annually published in Fortune magazine. But it’s because he believes we too often herald organizations for being generous with perks when the spotlight should be placed on the companies who make more meaningful investments in growing their people.

"Many companies, like Google, offer perks because they create conveniences for employees," says Clifton, "but there’s no cause and effect in terms of engagement and high performance. I think perks make a little bit of difference to people, but the benefit is granular compared to a focus on individual expansion."

Clifton, nevertheless, strongly advocates that organizations provide employees with health care and on-site day care. "Offering these is not only the right thing to do; both greatly enhance well-being, which is known to have a direct and positive impact on the bottom line."

Engagement Is Driven By What Many CEOs Still Believe Are Soft Practices

"What businesses really want," says Clifton, "is for employees to bring their initiative, commitment, and productivity to their jobs; but we can’t find any evidence that pay plays much if any role in driving this. The true connections are what many business leaders instinctively consider soft practices. But it’s almost as if the softer you go, the stronger the signal," he insisted. "The softer you go, the stronger the correlation."

All of the questions that Gallup asks workers about their engagement, Clifton told me, "are really about a human wanting to develop, maximize their strengths, make a meaningful contribution, and feel valued. And we know that engagement happens automatically when these deeper needs get met." But traditional beliefs about how best to motivate human beings continue to be the key reason why 70% of the working population is disengaged.

"The truth is many CEOs have been repelled by this idea that management must incorporate more heart to be successful," Clifton says. "But now many are saying, ‘come a little bit closer, my dear.’ And this is because CEOs are desperate to win. They’re beginning to recognize that an authentically caring culture provides a clear and sustainable competitive advantage."

So Goes The Manager, So Goes Engagement

When I asked Clifton where organizations should start if their objective is to build deep and lasting engagement across their enterprises, he was direct and unambiguous.

"Going forward, we must insist on hiring caring managers. Managers must be driven, love productivity, profitability, and competing," he added, "but they must also have an inclination to maximize the potential of every person on their team."

Gallup has discovered that organizations too often make the mistake of promoting people into managerial positions simply because they were most senior, or they’d previously been star individual performers.

But their research shows that unimaginable success results when companies demonstrate greater discipline—and courage—by selecting people who have the proven motivation of making a difference in the lives of others, not just their own.

"The final question companies should ask each time they’re considering a managerial candidate is this: Do they offer leadership or do they need leadership? It’s a big difference," Clifton says.