In December 2013, Gallup researchers stunned the business world with the revelation that just three in 10 workers in the United States (US) are engaged in their jobs and willing to do all they can to help their bosses and organisations succeed.
In the nine months that followed, a hyper-focus on restoring engagement had become a fully-fledged movement in the US, with many companies committing themselves to boosting employee happiness as their chosen remedy.
Like a doctor who had made a dire diagnosis and then wasn’t consulted for proper treatment, Gallup had grown alarmed that the pursuit of happiness had so many leaders embracing a tonic that will not help businesses get better.
In 2014, I sat down with Jim Clifton, Gallup’s chief executive officer (CEO), and asked him to provide his prescription for bringing American workplaces back to full health.
Leveraging insight gained from Gallup’s decades-long global engagement and wellbeing studies, not to mention his own work with hundreds of companies across the world, he offered this often contrarian advice:
We shouldn’t be trying to make workers happy
“The idea of trying to make people happy at work is terrible,” Clifton told me emphatically.
While admiring companies like Zappos, which intentionally fosters positive workplaces, he nevertheless believes a day-to-day focus on the fun aspects of happiness greatly miss the mark.
This is because Gallup’s research shows that how a person feels about the work they do every day has the greatest impact on engagement by far.
“What companies will inevitably find is that the only way to make a person happy is to give them a job that matches well to their strengths, a boss who cares about their development, and a mission that gives them feelings of purpose,” Clifton said.
“The belief that something gets better when you come and do your job, that’s as happy as you can be.”
Studies in positive psychology help to validate this and show that true contentment is tied to human flourishing.
According to Shawn Achor, author of The Happiness Advantage: “Happiness is the experience of positive feelings of pleasure combined with deeper feelings of meaning and purpose.”
Happiness is the joy we feel when we’re striving to fulfill our potential and accomplishing something significant.
Free lunches don’t drive achievement
“Free lunches and snacks have little direct impact on human performance,” Clifton insists, “and have the real potential of being destructive to achievement.”
On a vacation to Yellowstone National Park, Clifton noticed signs saying: “Do Not Feed The Bears,” almost everywhere he went.
Concerned that all these postings were an indication that bears were mauling campers in unusual numbers, he sought out a park ranger for explanation.
“Those signs aren’t for your protection,” the ranger told him, “they’re there to protect the bears. What most people don’t understand is that when you feed a bear a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, they’ll never dig for roots again.
“Park visitors think all they’re doing is giving the bear a treat, but they end up ruining all those great animal’s lives.”
Clifton believes we need similar signs in a lot of American companies.
“Rather than looking for all the ways that actualise people, they’re focused on free food. And that’s not only what people don’t want – it’s what’s going to spoil them.
“The ultimate act in workplace leadership is human development, not a focus on happiness or entertainment.”
Perks aren’t much better at driving engagement
It’s perhaps a surprise that Clifton is not a fan of the “Best Places To Work” rankings annually published in Fortune magazine.
It’s because he believes we too often herald organisations for being generous with perks when the spotlight should be placed on the companies who make more meaningful investments in growing their people.
“Many companies like Google offer perks because they create conveniences for employees,” says Clifton.
“But there’s no cause and effect in terms of engagement and high performance. I think perks make a little bit of difference to people, but the benefit is granular compared to a focus on individual expansion.”
Clifton, nevertheless, strongly advocates that organisations provide employees with health care and on-site day care.
“Offering these is the right thing to do; both greatly enhance wellbeing, which is known to have a direct and positive impact on the bottom line.”
Engagement is driven by what many CEOs still believe are soft practices
“What businesses really want,” says Clifton, “is for employees to bring their initiative, commitment, and productivity to their jobs; but we can’t find any evidence that pay plays much, if any, role in driving this.
“The true connections are what many business leaders instinctively consider soft practices. But it’s almost as if the softer you go, the stronger the signal. The softer you go, the stronger the correlation.”
All of the questions that Gallup asks workers about their engagement, Clifton told me, “are really about a human wanting to develop, maximise their strengths, make a meaningful contribution, and feel valued. And we know that engagement happens automatically when these deeper needs get met.”
But traditional beliefs about how best to motivate human beings continue to be the key reason why 70% of the working population in the US is disengaged.
“The truth is that many CEOs have been repelled by this idea that management must incorporate more heart to be successful,” Clifton says.
“But now, many are saying: “come a little bit closer, my dear.” And this is because CEOs are desperate to win.
“They’re beginning to recognise that an authentically caring culture provides a clear and sustainable competitive advantage.”
So goes the manager, so goes engagement
When I asked Clifton where organisations should start if their objective is to build deep and lasting engagement across their enterprises, he was direct and unambiguous.
“Going forward, we must insist on hiring caring managers. Managers must be driven, love productivity, profitability, and competing,” he added, “but they must also have an inclination to maximise the potential of every person on their team.”
Gallup has discovered that organisations too often make the mistake of promoting people into managerial positions simply because they were most senior, or they’d previously been star individual performers.
But their research shows that unimaginable success comes when companies demonstrate greater discipline – and courage – by selecting people who have the proven motivation of making a difference in the lives of others, not just their own.
“The final question companies should ask each time they’re considering a managerial candidate is this: Do they offer leadership or do they need leadership? It’s a big difference,” Clifton says.
Mark spent over 25 years as a senior executive in financial services, and now is a leadership speaker and consultant. His book, Lead From The Heart, is now being taught at four American universities. Send us your thoughts about employee engagement by emailing us at firstname.lastname@example.org.