07/17/2014 04:37 pm ET Updated Sep 16, 2014

Why Employee Happiness Shouldn't Be Your No. 1 Goal

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We've all heard about the companies that offer napping rooms, lunchtime yoga and an on-site concierge in an effort to boost productivity and satisfy employees.

In theory, it makes perfect sense. Keep employees happy, and they'll stick around. And if you're lucky, the best and the brightest in the industry might catch wind, too.

As employers strive to become the company of choice, some are focusing recruitment and retention strategies around employee happiness. With happiness as the goal, businesses both big and small now advertise unconventional benefits in the hope of luring top talent.

But can massages and yoga really lead to genuine, long-term workplace morale?

Matt Sirmans, president of Garner & Glover Company, sees striving for employee happiness as a shallow pursuit. He tried to position his company as an exceptional workplace by emphasizing employee happiness but soon discovered he couldn't please everyone. Instead, he challenged employees and raised expectations, which instilled pride and passion in staff members.

While bonuses might improve employees' short-term moods, they're not the foundation of a fulfilling workplace.

Your company can still make efforts to promote a "happy" environment, but happiness comes from a culture that values and challenges employees, not perks.

The Pitfalls of a Happiness-Centric Environment

Wanting your employees to be happy is fine, but emphasizing the things that make employees happy will only result in surface-level contentment and may lead to foundational problems in the future. Some of these potential risks include:

  • Failing to address performance issues. Instead of challenging employees and encouraging them to grow, leaders accept subpar work and set judgment aside to fulfill the happiness quota. This diminishes their authority and whittles away any respect employees have for them.
  • Overlooking the importance of setting high expectations. When we describe performance in terms of what's minimally acceptable, it drives a trend toward mediocrity -- even for excellent employees.
  • Creating a "feed the bear" mentality. Shallow perks create a dynamic where team members fixate on the question "What has the company done for me lately?" In this type of culture, employees become dissatisfied if they don't get everything they want, and the list of demands never ends. The employee's focus shifts to "me and my happiness" rather than contributing to a winning team.

It's not that you shouldn't care about satisfying employees' wants and needs; it's that a focus on employee happiness is an imbalanced and unrealistic business goal. Genuine happiness stems from fulfillment in life and work, and that's the perk companies should strive to provide.

How to Redirect Your Focus

Challenging employees and acknowledging their efforts will motivate them to exceed expectations and bring meaning to their work. This is the type of culture that encourages long-term happiness.

To create a motivating atmosphere, commit to these four practices every day:

  1. Treat Employees Like Adults
  2. Recognize that good people want to actively contribute to a successful team. And when you treat your employees like the adults they are, they'll see that you appreciate their opinions, which will foster mutual respect.

    If there are opportunities for performance improvements and development, for example, use adult-to-adult communication and approaches. Avoiding the discussion will only perpetuate the problem. Lori Bishop, vice president of human resources at Research Now, utilizes problem-solving rather than a progressive discipline system.

    "Our employees want to excel," says Bishop. "If a performance problem occurs, we engage them in a positive process that leads to a solution rather than demoralizes them with punishment."

  3. Challenge Their Abilities
  4. People love working for visionaries who challenge them to be better. Have faith in your employees' ability to complete demanding tasks. Elevate your expectations, and they will rise to meet them. When you have confidence in people, they will go to great lengths to prove you right.

    There are organizations, like the Great Work Cultures movement, that are committed to changing the work culture norm so people feel respected and empowered in their workplaces. It makes sense -- I've asked hundreds of leaders to identify their favorite employers and what made them so great. People often say things like "They believed in me" or "They challenged me." But they never mention perks like free lunches. People want to be inspired, not bought.

  5. Involve and Empower
  6. Who knows the job the best? Obviously, it's the person who's doing it every day. Yet companies often disregard this reality.

    As a leader, you have to acknowledge your employees' contributions every day because they're your biggest assets. As a rule of thumb, involve employees in every decision that affects them and pass on responsibilities and decision-making power whenever it makes sense. This will empower your employees to aim higher.

    Unlocking strengths means unlocking performance. Gallup reports that Generation X, Millennials, and Baby Boomers engage best when they have the opportunity to practice their strong suits daily.

  7. Invest in the Individual
  8. Too often, companies give disproportionate attention to technology and facilities rather than to people. For example, time and money are freely spent on equipment maintenance, but little is spent on training and developing the people who utilize the equipment.

    Take the focus away from equipment and technology and put it back on the employees. Investing in your employees' development will have a bigger payoff in the long run. After all, without them, your business simply won't survive.

    Investments in individual success and growth reflect an organization's value for its people. Didion Milling CEO John Didion knows that employee happiness stems from feeling valued.

    "We strongly believe that our people are our competitive advantage," says Didion. "As a result, a key priority is to continually invest in human development."

    If you follow this formula, employee happiness will naturally follow. When people are part of an organization that believes in their abilities and recognizes their contributions, they can't help but wake up happy and eager to make an impact.


This post is part of a series produced by The Huffington Post and Great Work Cultures. The latter is creating a new norm of work cultures that optimize worker effectiveness and human happiness. For more info on Great Work Cultures, read here.