Should you measure engagement or happiness?

PUBLISHED ON: 05 December 2019 / READING TIME: 5 minutes

Is it better to measure engagement or happiness?

I met a manager recently who claimed that companies should forget all about employee happiness and focus only on employee engagement. He argued that people can be happy at work without performing well, whereas employee engagement leads directly to better performance. I’ve actually heard this claim a few times recently, but it is still wrong. In this chapter we’ll see why.

But let’s first define the two terms. Both can be defined in many different ways. However, to avoid confusion, here I will present the definitions I will base my argument on.

This is the first result that comes up when you google “employee engagement definition”:

Employee engagement is the extent to which employees feel passionate about their jobs, are committed to the organization, and put discretionary effort into their work.

And this is the definition of happiness at work that we use:

Happiness at work is the extent to which employees feel good about their jobs.

Both are clearly emotional at their core (the word “feel” appears in both) but the key difference is that engagement is more about work and less about people. It’s not really about how you feel in general, it’s how passionate you feel about your job, how committed you are at the workplace and how much extra effort you put in.

Happiness at work, as we define it, is how work makes you feel in general terms. It’s not about feeling good every second of every work day, but it is about experiencing mostly positive feelings about your job.

Just to make it clear: We think employee engagement is a useful concept and we are not arguing against it. We just want to argue that of the two, it is much more effective for a company to focus on making their employees happy than on making them engaged. Here are the four main reasons why.

1. Happiness is easier to sell to employees

Whether you’re looking to create employee happiness or engagement, you need your employees to be active partners in the process. This is not something you can do to them without their active participation or (even worse) against their will.

Being directly related to commitment and effort, employee engagement is a very easy to sell to managers and companies. Every manager wants employees who are passionate about their work and go above and beyond to do a better job.

But seen from the employee side, it’s a much harder sell. When a manager states that they want their employees to “be more engaged in their work” or “give more discretionary effort” it can easily come off as if they are simply demanding more passion and work from people, without giving anything back.

On the other hand, when a manager sets a goal to create a happy workplace, the benefits are immediately clear to employees and it’s much easier to engage them in the process.

Ironically, happiness can be a harder sell towards managers, many of whom are skeptical of “all that happiness crap”. This video covers their most common objections and why they’re wrong.

2. Engagement without happiness is unsustainable

How engaged can someone really be if they’re unhappy at work?

This happens. One of our International Partners, Sheona McGraw of Cloud 9 to 5 in Canada has seen it first hand:

Having worked in a number of charities, non-profit organizations and social enterprises, I can tell you that most of these employees are passionate and committed about their organisation’s cause. But, unfortunately, a lot of them don’t have a very happy work environment. An, truth be told, it’s not uncommon to find super engaged yet super unhappy employees working in these orgs.

This is something I talk a lot about in my discussions with potential clients. I myself have experienced this kind of situation a number of times, when I felt super engaged but miserable. However, had I been happy I would have achieved exceptional results.

A person can be incredibly passionate about their work and totally committed to the workplace, but still feel miserable at work. I’ve seen this happen for instance when people are treated badly by their coworkers or managers or when they can’t do their job in a way that satisfies their own professional standards.

In this case, two things can happen:

The employee’s unhappiness can leech away any feeling of engagement, leaving the person not caring about their work.

Or, even worse, the person remains engaged and unhappy – which leads to stress and burnout.

So even if you want an engaged workforce, you still need to focus on making them happy because engagement without happiness is not sustainable.

3. Ultimately, it’s about performance – and happiness drives better performance

As I stated above, some engagement faans argue that it matters more because it directly drives effort and performance. They also argue that employees don’t necessarily have to be happy and productive at the same time. It seems to me both of these arguments are not based on any in-depth research on happiness at work. Sure, engagement leads to better performance – but given the definition above that it includes commitment and extra effort, that boils down to a tautology.

Furthermore, according to extensive research we have conducted over the years, we can say that happy employees perform much better. Ed Diener, one of the world’s leading happiness researchers summed it up like this:

“In the workplace we know that happiness causes more-productive and more-creative workers.”

  • Productivity – happy people get more work done with the same resources.
  • Creativity – feeling good makes your mind more able to think of new ideas and approaches.
  • Intrinsic motivation – happy people don’t need constant external motivators like bonuses or threats; they want to do good work.
  • Loyalty – happy employees care about the company and stay longer in their jobs.
  • Discretionary effort – employees who like their jobs go above and beyond for the customers, their co-workers and the workplace.

So, employee happiness has been shown to directly cause increased performance.

4. Happiness leads to engagement

You’ll notice that both loyalty and discretionary effort were part of the definition of engagement that we presented above.

Given that (as we saw in the previous section) happy employees are more loyal and are more likely to go the extra mile, it’s clear that happiness doesn’t only lead to better performance – happiness also directly leads to engagement.

Of course, the effects are reciprocal and engagement and happiness will drive each other. But given the results above as well as the fact that engagement cannot last in the absence of happiness, it seems clear to me that happiness drives engagement more than engagement drives happiness.

Gallup does a lot of great work on employee engagement and their Q12 survey is one of my favorite metrics. They also point out that many factors play an important role when it comes to engagement, including happiness/well-being:

“Leaders have to think about everything from culture to well-being to purpose and meaning — and make it all come to life in a personalized way for employees.”

The upshot

Engagement is a great concept. But ignoring employee happiness in the pursuit of engagement makes no sense.

At the very least, sustainable engagement requires happiness at work, meaning you can’t ignore the happiness aspect.

When do people feel “passionate about their work, committed to the workplace and give discretionary effort?” When they’re happy at work!

So if you want engaged employees, focus on making them happy and engagement will follow.

By Alexander Kjerulf Partner

Alexander is one of the world's leading experts on happiness at work.

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