Engagement at Work Derives From Happiness

Stuff or vision? Money or meaning? These are the questions every leader needs to ponder when trying to motivate employees.

Last week Talent Management kicked off a series of reports exploring whether satisfying employees or engaging them drives the highest level of performance. In several posts our editor Deanna Hartley parsed the similarities and differences between the two after reeling me in with this headline teaser: “Human Psychology Plays Its Part.”

As regular readers of “Psychology at Work” know, a basic knowledge of modern psychology needs to be in the toolkit of every talent manager and human resources executive, particularly when the subject turns to motivation. The good news is that for the last 10 or 15 years a raft of social scientists in a variety of disciplines including psychology have been studying human motivation. Often these studies are lumped under the broad heading of “happiness science,” and can be translated into workplace practices if you – and your leadership – understand their inner workings. Today we will look at terms like satisfaction and engagement as scientists might.

I have been to several academic conferences on these topics of late, and later this month will be filing reports for TM and tweeting (@BowlingDan) from the World Conference of Positive Psychology in Los Angeles. One takeaway from these conferences is that a precise definition of happiness is quite elusive, and when you try to bring employee happiness into the workplace through descriptors such as satisfaction, engagement and involvement, things can get even murkier, because no one has a clue what you are really talking about.

Philosopher Daniel Haybron, a truly nice person (not just for a philosophy professor), offers this in a forthcoming paper, “The Nature and Significance of Happiness”:

There is no point trying to define ‘happiness’ once and for all: the word has too many meanings for that … (but if pressed) there are three main answers on offer: a favorable attitude toward one’s life (the life satisfaction theory); a favorable emotional condition (the emotional state theory); or pleasure (hedonism).

Simple enough, right? But trying to translate this into the business world, and adopting practices and policies to encourage employee happiness, is like dumping bull sharks in the kid’s pool. It’s dangerous. As Haybron warns: But they (the three views of happiness) are not at all equivalent, and in fact have radically different kinds of practical import.

Let’s put Haybron’s summary of happiness science into HR language to keep the sharks away. I am going to use each of his definitions, then pair it up with how we talk about at work:

1. Life (Work) Satisfaction Theory: I make little distinction between life and work in this column, at least when we are talking about happiness. It is impossible to be truly satisfied with your life if you aren’t also satisfied with your job. Therefore, I will use life and work satisfaction interchangeably.

Satisfaction as used by scientists and philosophers is very different from how HR types use it. The latter look at satisfaction as a short-term, hedonistic benefit (see No. 3 below). To happiness experts, satisfaction is a high-order, reflective feeling, the kind that Mother Teresa probably enjoyed even during her worst deprivations. Or the feeling you enjoyed after pulling a series of all-nighters to get a big deal completed, or when a team welcomes you into their midst. You look back, tired and maybe suffering a bit, but feel pretty good about yourself and the meaning of what you are doing. You also feel engaged.

2. Emotional State Theory: This is also close to the modern usage of engagement, a condition that exists when you are involved and energized by your work and feel like you are making a difference. Engaged workers are those whose tasks absorb them, and they experience positive emotions even during tough times.

3. Hedonism: This is characterized by short-term pleasure inducing moments. Stuff, in other words – ballgame tickets, time off, bonuses and awards. Hedonism has very little to do with long-term engagement or providing meaning at work, and is easy for intellectual sophisticates to dismiss, but it certainly has its place in any comprehensive theory of employee happiness. Indeed, when we look at the Human Capital Media data provided by Deanna, most corporate engagement programs are hedonistic in nature: recognition programs, time-off policies and the like.

My takeaway? Just as Aristotle wrote in his Ethics, “the aim of human existence is happiness,” and the “pursuit of happiness” is enshrined in our Declaration of Independence. I think companies are best off when they focus on hiring, training and developing HAPPY employees. Satisfaction and engagement will automatically follow. However, as I have tried to outline here, happiness is a very complicated thing and involves all three of the mental and emotional states listed above. It is important for you and every leader in your company to get a solid understanding of these issues.

We will spend more time on these ideas during the next few weeks. In the meantime, enjoy your summer and be happy! And stay away from the bull sharks.