Whose Job Is It To Make Me Happy?

Who is responsible for making sure I’m happy at work? Many managers will assume the answer is supposed to be them. With engagement surveys, pressures to reduce turnover, and assumptions from employees, the finger seems to point to leaders to make sure everyone is happy in their jobs, right? I’m not so sure.

Happiness is elusive and workplace happiness appears to be hard to come by for many workers. Well-intentioned organizations design workplace cultures intended to promote greater satisfaction on the job. SAS, Google, Qualcomm, Edward Jones and W.L. Gore all seem to be getting things right.

The Gallup Organization has found that

Happy employees are better equipped to handle workplace relationships, stress, and change. Companies that understand this, and help employees improve their wellbeing, can boost their productivity.

So it’s the company’s job to make employees happy? While an organization can provide meaningful work, opportunities to grow and develop, and programs to help manage “work-life balance” I wonder how much an organization can ultimately influence happiness and wellbeing in its employees.

I think the answer has to be that it’s the job of every employee to make themselves happy. Happiness is a choice, and each individual has to make the decision to be happy despite (or perhaps in spite of) circumstances. Shawn Achor writes about this choice in The Happiness Advantage, stating that it is possible to change our mindsets and adopt a happier outlook. Achor says

The most successful people adopt a mindset that not only makes their workdays more bearable, but also helps them work longer, harder, and faster than their negative mindset peers.

Achor describes how we can change our mindsets, including thinking about tedious tasks differently. We lose out on joy when every task becomes something we “have” to do instead of something we “get” to do. The good news is that we really can rewire our brains to see menial tasks and even dreaded meetings as positive events by changing the way we think about them!

When we get work assignments that don’t thrill us, when we are asked to do one thing when we think something else would be more useful, and when we find our work dull to the point of painful, we have a choice.

  1. We can suffer through, grudgingly getting our work done but aware of how much its sucking the life out of us each minute.
  2. We can decide to start looking for a new job that provides more satisfaction. There’s nothing wrong with seeking a better fit for our skills and aspirations.
  3. We can choose to change the way we think about the work. It means creating new habits that replace our default perspectives and attitudes with more useful ones.

Robert Louis Stevenson said

The habit of being happy enables one to be freed, or largely freed, from the domination of outward conditions.

Creating happiness is not about a mystical “I think happy thoughts so I am happy” new-age mindset. Not that there aren’t spiritual components to being happy, which are very important. For instance, the Apostle Paul did not have any easy life as he faced hardships and persecution on his missionary journeys. In his letter to the Philippian church, however, he says,

I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty. I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want.

Paul’s secret to happiness was his perspective based on his faith. “I can do all things through him who gives me strength.” So maybe the key to happiness is a combination of faith-based positivity (aka hope) and the science of creating new maps for our minds that give us perspective beyond the moment and connect us to a larger purpose.

It is important for organizations to develop an engaging culture where individuals are assigned meaningful work that gives them the opportunity to do what they do best every day. Leaders should care about creating an environment that promotes satisfaction and minimizes frustrations. These types of initiatives will set the tone for happiness. But it really comes down to the individual making choices to be happy no matter the circumstances.

Tommy Newberry, a life coach and author, writes in The 4:8 Principle:

When you focus on the good, you not only notice more good but you actually create more good. Focusing on positive things causes you to search for more that’s positive. As a result, you perceive and appreciate more good, which sets the stage for even more positive circumstances. Eventually, you will have more joy, more enthusiasm, and more gratitude. This outlook draws the best out of other people and situations, creating a virtuous cycle (rather than a vicious cycle) in which you continually find and multiply what you’re looking for.

Nobody else can do that for us. So it’s my job to make myself happy by continuously choosing to think positively about my circumstances, even when my boss may be driving me crazy, I can’t seem to get certain things off my to-do list, and I’m still a work in progress.

Managing Your Crazy Employees

If you’ve been a manager for any length of time, you probably have your share of crazy employee stories– the employees you probably inherited and didn’t hire yourself, although I’ve been fooled a few times and created my own nightmare! Several faces and experiences come to mind, raising my heart rate just to think about them! Crazy may not be a politically correct term, but there’s really no better way to describe that employee that’s like the static-charged shrink wrap that you can’t get off your hand.

I’ve classified crazy employees into four categories:

  • The Manipulator
  • The Clueless
  • The Paranoid
  • The Drama Queen/King

Maybe you can come up with some additional categories based on your experience! Does the uber-creative type, the outstandingly nerdy, or the socially awkward employees require their own classification? What about the ones who are a combination of several categories? You can draw your own conclusions, but here’s a look at the four I identify:

The Manipulator is smart. He knows what he’s doing and approaches every interaction as a game of cat and mouse. Some manipulators have no ill motives, they just enjoy seeing what they can get away with and how far they can push you until you snap. They play everyone and are hard to catch because they’ve spun a web that is hard to untangle. ‘Terry’ was an expert storyteller and could weasel his way out of any situation. But when I tried to verify his story it quickly unraveled.

Solution: Resist making on-the-spot decisions or judgments. Check the facts, get different perspectives. Most importantly, make sure the Manipulator understands the expectations and consequences. Avoid getting into emotional arguments, which is the genius with manipulators. If possible, pair them up with someone you trust and who is manipulation-resistant. Stick to your guns and repeat your expectations in a matter-of-fact manner. Put the burden on them – often they want to make you the ‘bad guy’- involve them in solving their own problem and the issue may quickly disappear. 

The Clueless employee is simple. She’s the one you wonder about how she got hired in the first place, and even how she gets from her house to the office every day. You pull out all of your tricks to explain things in a way she can understand, but still there are mistakes in the books, or miscommunications to customers. It’s hard not to be sympathetic, but it’s exasperating to put so much effort into someone who clearly is out of their element. ‘Shirley’ had a great heart, really wanted to succeed, and made me want to help her with her sincerity, but the business was suffering because of her inability to perform at the lowest requirements of her job.

Solution: Spend some time trying to figure them out. If it’s a matter of learning style, then be creative. Ask them how they like to learn things. Ask them what their perspective is to see if they ‘get’ that they have a problem in learning & retaining knowledge/directions. For some it may be a simple solution, like allowing them to make step-by-step drawings of the process they’re supposed to follow. If all of your creative solutions don’t work and you don’t have another position to move them to for which they might be better suited, you may have to let them go. Always document the steps you’ve taken!

The Paranoid staff member thinks everyone is out to get them. He is the conspiracy theorist that sees hidden motives behind every action and looks for trouble under every rock. You spend a lot of time trying to convince him that the new computer software is not a means to get rid of him. You can almost bet that any announcement of a change in policy or procedure will result in a visit to your office by the paranoid employee. ‘Daniel’ was a trainer that would share his paranoid thoughts with new hire trainees about how he was sure we were trying to fire him. Well…he may have been right!

Solution: First, you need to determine if the paranoid behavior is getting in the way of their performance, or negatively impacting their coworkers. If it is, then you have to clearly communicate your expectations. Do what you can to assure them that you’re not out to get them and ask them what would help them feel more secure. They have to understand that you will hold them accountable, but that it isn’t personal and you don’t expect perfection. Consider a simple ‘contract’ to spell out what can be expected on both sides – just make sure there is no language that sounds like you’re guaranteeing them a job. This is a ‘rules of engagement’ document, not a job contract.

The Drama Queen/King seems to have crisis follow them day in and day out. Whether it’s a personal crisis (boyfriend/girlfriend troubles, financial setbacks, and transportation breakdowns are the top three), or work related challenges, this type of crazy employee can wear out a manager between tear-filled counseling sessions, documenting performance and attendance problems, and trying to find someone to cover their shift at the last minute. ‘Debbie’ had an eventful life, and sometimes the drama wasn’t created by her so it was hard to administer discipline without seeming heartless.

Solution: Separate work issues from personal issues. Offer sympathy and general advice, but don’t get roped into solving all of their problems for them. Do what makes sense for the business without enabling them to rely on you every time they get into a bind. Address the work issues and show them the impact to the business when they are absent, late, or disengaged because of outside drama. If they’re making drama in the workplace amongst co-worker or customers, clearly communicate your expectations and spell out the consequences if they can’t keep things under control. Let them know of benefits or resources that may help (employee assistance program, leave of absence, etc.).

You may have picked up on the common thread in the solutions for each type:

  • Clearly communicated expectations
  • Reasonable solutions, empathy & concern for the individual
  • Accountability, with burden on the employee
  • Documentation of what you’ve done and the results
  • Ultimately do what’s right for your business AND the employee