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Do We Want Happy or Engaged Employees?

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Robert Lavigna
October 5, 2018

I recently attended a conference of government leaders which featured a speaker who spoke about why we need to make sure that our employees are happy. The speaker was very good – a very effective presenter. He also seemed very happy.

He argued that happy employees make productive and effective employees, and described ways to make sure employees are happy.

But I can’t say I completely buy this happiness message. In fact, when I speak about employee engagement (which he mentioned only in passing as “also a good thing”), I argue that engagement is what we really should be trying to foster – not happiness.

Don’t get me wrong – I’m not against happy workplaces. Far from it. We want our employees to be happy, at least most of the time. Certainly beats the alternative. No one wants to spend half of their waking hours with a bunch of people who are miserable.

My concern is about suggesting that our main goal is to make our employees happy. It seems to me that leaders who strive for this may be focusing on the wrong factors. What makes employees happy? A gregarious leader who creates a fun workplace? Lots of socialization for employees, including frequent employer-sponsored social activities? Less work and more play?

Sure, these things can have their place. But not every leader is cut out to create this kind of environment. Plus, how do we measure happiness, and how do we know it delivers results?

Reminds me of a study in which public-sector HR leaders were asked what percentage of employees in their organizations were engaged. One director replied that 90 percent of the employees in her agency were engaged. The explanation for such a high percentage? “When I walk down the hallways, people seem happy.”

On the other hand, I once attended a meeting of state government leaders in which a consultant announced that the state’s entire workforce was in deep trouble. She based this on, “The expressions I see on employees’ faces as I walk around this building.” This was how she evaluated a workforce of tens of thousands of employees in hundreds of different jobs and locations across the state.

We need to do better than these two examples.

I think we should be trying for something deeper than happiness. I think that “something” is engagement. Engaged employees have a personal commitment to their organization and what it is trying to achieve. The research is clear – high-engagement organizations outperform low-engagement organizations, including in government. Not sure about the research on happiness.

And engagement does not always correlate with happiness. As I wrote in my book “Engaging Government Employees” (pardon the plug), “Free pizza and Coke on a Friday afternoon is not an engagement strategy.” I’ll go even further – free pizza and beer after work on a Friday isn’t an engagement strategy either. Might be fun and make folks happy for the moment, but probably won’t create long-term engagement.

But don’t just take my word for it. According to the Gallup organization’s 2017 “State of the American Workforce” report:

Organizations falter in creating a culture of engagement when they solely approach engagement as an exercise in making their employees fell happy … Happiness is a great starting point, but … often fails to achieve the underlying goal of employee engagement:  improve business outcomes.

Or, in the business of public service – improve outcomes for the people government serves.

For example, I recently heard about an organization that has, as its preeminent value, never missing a deadline. Everyone in the organization buys into this value. So what does that mean operationally? For one thing, it means that there are times when employees have to go above and beyond to live up to this value. When these employees work late or over a weekend, they’re probably not always happy, but they do it because they are highly engaged. Despite what some critics say, this kind of behavior is not unusual in government agencies.

Of course, we have to be careful. if employees have to work like this too often, we can have some turnover problems.

Rather than focusing on making public-sector employees happy, we should be measuring engagement (ideally through regular employee surveys), analyzing the results, and then taking action on these results to improve engagement. There isn’t a one-size-fits-all solution to boosting engagement. Actions must be based on what influences employees’ level of engagement. These influences—or drivers—vary from organization to organization, and even within an organization.

However, research conducted by our Institute and other organizations has revealed that engagement is often driven by the work itself, effective leadership and change management, a focus on employee development, good supervision and recognizing employee contributions.

These factors may make employees happy but, more important, they can create the conditions for a high-level of engagement – and therefore a high level of performance in government.


Author: Bob Lavigna is director of the Institute for Public Sector Employee Engagement, a unit of CPS HR Consulting, an independent government agency. Previously, he was assistant vice chancellor and director of human resources for the University of Wisconsin and VP-research at the Partnership for Public Service. Email: [email protected].

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The American Society for Public Administration is the largest and most prominent professional association for public administration. It is dedicated to advancing the art, science, teaching and practice of public and non-profit administration.

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