Employee Engagement vs Happiness – Don’t Confuse Them

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Employee engagement

In the current “Age of Employee,” a new approach is required to not only recruit but also to retain the top talent that is needed to build a resilient, future-oriented organization. Employee engagement is no longer a luxury; it’s a critical necessity. But what exactly does employee engagement look like from an employer perspective? Are we confusing employee happiness and employee engagement?

The following piece by author Glenn Elliot was originally written for his book Build It: The Rebel Playbook for Employee Engagement, published by Wiley in December 2017. 

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A lot of people get happiness and engagement confused. The internet is full of websites, products and eBooks claiming quick fixes to employee happiness and resulting magical impacts on productivity, all of it missing the point completely.

Even my own business, Reward Gateway had “Let’s make the world a happier place to work” as it’s mission for many years before we changed it to “Let’s make the world a better place to work”.

I’d known that our mission statement was wrong for several years — our definition of engagement was solid, our understanding of why engagement mattered was solid and neither of them mentioned happiness. I knew that happiness and engagement were related but I didn’t really understand the connection properly until the summer of 2016.

I have Reward Gateway’s Head of Programme Angie Angjelovikj to thank for enlightening me. Angie had been with us since we acquired Dazines, a software engineering company back in 2014 which she ran with her husband Seb Aspland, with Seb joining us as Head of Product. The acquisition was a big success and together we grew the product & engineering team from our 10 plus their 32 to nearly 100 people that we have today, building some of our best new products as a result.

But in 2016, needing to shift the footprint of the company to the US so we could position ourselves better for what was our biggest growth opportunity, I decided to move Seb’s position to Boston, recruit someone with US industry experience over there and I cut Seb’s UK role in the process.

Angie was furious with me.

Seb’s change was part of a bigger restructure and I followed our employee communications playbook to the letter — over communicating, staying with the issues, leaning in and explaining the Why. But none of it mattered to Angie.

With a super-strong work ethic born from a Balkan upbringing, there was no strategic reasoning that Angie wanted to hear. I’d fired her husband (her words) it was clearly a slight on his work and his effort and it was grotesquely unfair.

She was too cross to speak to me for a fortnight but then, at the end of a meeting about refurbishing our new Boston office, we were alone in a conference room and she gave it me with both barrels.

“What do you think you are doing?”

“Do you even know who does all the work round here?”

“It says employee engagement on the door but this is how we treat people?”

“Seb’s given everything to this business then you just cast him aside like he’s nothing?”

“This business is big now and you’re completely out of touch?”

“Why do you only reward people who do what you want and fire people who disagree with you?”

Angie is something of a force of nature. Rarely have I ever met anyone with anything like her capacity for work.

The previous time I’d incurred her wrath was back in 2015 when I suggested hiring a project manager to help us build a new London HQ. I suggested this trying to be helpful — it seemed a bit much to have Angie running our whole software engineering programme, 7 teams and 80 people, and then also run a £1.5m office refit project at the same time. But to Angie this was a slight on her work — “Why are you taking work off me? What have I done? How have I let you down? I’m busting my ass here to learn this new area and deliver these projects and this is how you repay me?” It was a phone call I won’t forget in a hurry!

She’s a true superstar Angie. Trustworthy, dependable, insanely hard working and formidable — the sort of person you want on your side. If she left, we’d have to replace her with a team of three.

While I gave Angie a “good listening to,” challenged her points as sensitively as I could, corrected the misunderstandings and re-explained the strategy, I went home that night and slept badly.

Was she right? Was I losing touch? Had I treated Seb badly? All entrepreneurs know those awful hours of darkness when the self-doubt sets in and the simplest thing becomes a huge, sleep preventing torment.

But I did finally get to sleep and when I woke up something was clear to me. Angie was a deeply engaged member of staff. She knew what we were trying to do as a business, she knew exactly how her role was critical to that mission and she was, in her words, busting her ass to make that happen. But at the same time she was not happy — either with me or the organisation. She was angry and disappointed. And it didn’t affect her engagement or her performance one bit.

So that’s the moment when I saw first hand that you could be highly engaged and, at least temporarily, unhappy.

The inverse is also true, contrary to what some people think, I’ve found you do not need engagement to be happy — it is not a critical ingredient.

I’ve found companies that have quite happy employees based on a combination of good working conditions, low ambition and low accountability for results.

This tends to result in the best people leaving and an average group of people staying and finding meaning and self-actualisation outside of work. It’s pretty dreadful for organisational performance though, and you can guarantee those companies won’t have the durable and resilient cultures needed to navigate the tough years ahead.

We’ve spent most of the last 10 years wanting to make the world a happier place to work and I’m proud of the work we’ve done together. But as we look ahead to the next 10 years it was clear, making the world a better place to work was a deeper, more meaningful and more important challenge and one that we’re really excited about

Glenn Elliot is a keynote speaker at MassTLC’s Revolutionizing the Employee Experience conference.