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The Complex Nature of Employee Happiness

The Complex Nature of Employee Happiness

Happiness is everywhere

As a society, we may be nearing the level of obsession. You can read about happiness as a component of emotional intelligence from the Harvard Business Review, buy services to measure employee happiness as an indicator of engagement, and even pursue happiness through mindfulness practice.

I am a student of happiness in the workplace: reading articles and books, watching videos, and even doing some testing and learning in my own organization. Reflecting on all the different theories and frameworks is somewhat overwhelming. My attempt to summarize the key factors for happiness highlights the breadth of this topic.

[Related: The Power of Knowing What You Need]

So, what makes an employee happy?

Start with the basics: I can do my work

  • My problem statement is challenging, but achievable
  • I have autonomy and am not micromanaged
  • I have the information I need to make decisions and do my job
  • My manager removes roadblocks so I can keep going

Add in a why; think Simon Sinek: I do work with meaning & purpose

  • There is an inspiring vision that I buy into
  • I believe I am doing important work
  • I have made progress against something meaningful

Layer in some real, human interactions: I have relationships

  • My manager treats me like a human, and is there when I need him or her
  • I have psychological safety and can be myself with my team
  • I have someone I can confide in at work

Speak to the deeper human need for belonging: I belong here

  • I understand where I fit in on my team, and where our work fits in with the company
  • I work in an inclusive culture, where my differences are celebrated

Don’t stop there! People want to develop: I am learning and growing

  • My work helps me build new skills
  • I get real feedback on my work that helps me grow
  • I spend much of my time in the learning zone (vs. comfort zone or terror zone)
  • I can see an opportunity to advance

And make sure people know they are appreciated: I am recognized

  • I get regular feedback, not just once or twice a year
  • I experience little moments of appreciation and gratitude with my team and manager
  • My manager knows what kind of recognition is meaningful to me

No wonder employee happiness programs can sometimes feel scattershot. This appears to be a case of “…as many opinions as there are experts” - in the words of Franklin D. Roosevelt.

Happiness is complex.

Happiness is as complicated as any character trait. Unfortunately, it doesn’t fit into a neat one-size-fits-all framework. Like personality, confidence and extraversion, happiness is a mix of nature and nurture, genes and experience. 

Imagine if we tried to synthesize all the foods in the world into one global favorite, or if we tried to combine every Myers Briggs result into just one type. It would be an impossible task, so why do we try with happiness?

Managers should solve for individuals.

As a first step, we can acknowledge the individual nature of happiness. The combination of things that make me happy likely won’t work for my deskmate. And, the things that are most important to me today may not be the same factors that drive my happiness next year.

Maybe the real answer is to address happiness on an individual level instead of for the average. To ask our employees: what needs are most important to you, today?

The result will certainly be more nuanced than any of the frameworks cited above. But, it just might work to create happy employees - one person at a time.


Kathryn Montbriand has explored leadership practices at start-ups and large corporations in the US and abroad. She has a passion for driving engagement in the teams she leads, and especially for creating an inclusive culture where all associates can thrive. She and her sister blog about leadership and life in corporate America at 10pointfont

Have more questions? Follow up with the expert herself.


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Community Discussion
Beth Steele
Beth Steele

This is a great article, and the resources cited are strong. As a business owner and prior manager, I find it imperative that employees are given individual, while department goals are cohesive, as a group. Work is very personal to people, even if they have the mindset of "it's just a job." There is a reason one works where they do, and money isn't the true basis, but something emotional that backs the drive to work there, even if the result is money. It is for retirement, or providing for the kids, or something that provides something personal. Finding the deeper level of that drive will embody mutual trust and care. I highly recommend the books Entreleadership and The Speed of Trust.

January 16, 2020