Leadership Tip 8: Stop Focusing on Happiness & Measure Satisfaction Instead

Do you or your managers want people to be happy at work? That's a laudable goal. And, in my experience, unrealistic. That's because happiness is an outcome of a person's current life context.

Instead of happiness, let's consider satisfaction. When we consider satisfaction, we might discover ways to create a great work environment. That satisfaction might offer more opportunities for happiness.

Let's look at the possible outcomes that contribute to happiness.

Happiness Is an Outcome

According to the Valcon Happiness Lab, we experience happiness as an outcome of these factors:

  • Stress. (Some stress might be good or okay. However, too much stress, and the less happy you might be.)
  • Social relations. (The fewer satisfactory relationships you have, the less happy you might be. I know I've experienced too few nonfamily social relations over this past year!)
  • Job satisfaction. (The more job satisfaction you feel, the happier you might be.)
  • Self-esteem. (The lower your self-esteem, the lower your possible happiness.)

We've experienced challenges in all four of these areas this past year. For example, if your manager has not maintained their one-on-ones with you? You might feel stress, a lack of social relationships, worry that your job satisfaction doesn't match what your manager thinks. Which will dash your self-esteem into the ground. (Even if you use the growth mindset on yourself.)

Okay, since happiness is an outcome of these four factors, we need another way to think about it.

When I think about changing outcomes, I think about culture change. Of the four factors, how can we create a culture that encourages happiness? We might create that culture this way:

  • Create the “good” kind of stress.
  • Work to increase collaboration and relationships across the organization.
  • Focus on job satisfaction.
  • Increase self-esteem.

Let me start with good stress.

What Might “Good Stress” Be?

I like agile approaches because I can separate lots of deliverables into small, coherent pieces. I can then work on those pieces, one at a time. To me, that's “good” stress. I might not know how to achieve what I want yet. However, I can work myself there.

For me, “bad” stress consists of:

  • Large and convoluted deliverables.
  • Long deadlines with no interim deliverables.
  • I worry that I have no idea how to achieve those deliverables for those deadlines.

This means that for me (and I suspect other people), the smaller the work and the shorter the time, the more I have the “right” amount of stress. I like to learn, especially with other people. (That relationship thing.)

Which leads me to job satisfaction.

How I Define Job Satisfaction

I use these three dimensions to define my job satisfaction:

  • My learning.  Have I learned something useful today?
  • My delivery. Have I delivered something people can use?
  • My fun. Did I manage to smile at some point today?

Clearly, this definition reflects my values. Those are my values and may not correlate with yours.

Let me explain a little more about each. You might want to think in terms of autonomy, mastery, and purpose.

  • Learning requires I experiment. The experimentation increases my mastery. Or, it exposes my lack of mastery. I can then decide if I want to master this area more.
  • Delivery often requires I work with other people. Or that I experiment. For example, I deliver my blog posts. And I depend on my readers to read—and with any luck—comment on what I wrote. When I want to deliver books, I need a team to create a final delivery. Same with workshops or consulting. I can decide on my purpose and then decide how much autonomy I need to deliver.
  • Fun: I have fun when I learn and when I show myself I've mastered a skill. I had a blast when I first learned to write code. I didn't master that skill in time for the exams, but I had a ton of fun with the challenges. Now, as I challenge myself with more writing and consulting, I have fun as I learn how to explain and support my readers and clients.  I can enjoy the fun of the challenge without being overall-happy.

Even more importantly, I don't need to learn, deliver, or have fun every single day to be satisfied. I need enough autonomy, mastery, and purpose.

Might you use other dimensions? Sure. (If you do, please comment so I can learn from you.)

Can We Set the Stage for Satisfaction and Happiness?

We can't “make” people happy (or unhappy). However, we can measure satisfaction and work towards more satisfaction every day.

Here are ways to increase satisfaction:

  • Create more opportunities for autonomy, mastery, and purpose. That often means the manager explains the purpose. The team decides how to work.
  • Encourage more collaboration. (See the Flow Efficiency series.)
  • Ask the team how satisfied they feel—as a team and as individuals. You might need to make this anonymous until people trust you enough.

I like asking the team how satisfied they feel every day. Yes, that's a qualitative measurement. I tend to use a 5-point scale, from not satisfied at all, to totally satisfied. As with most of these measures, the trend matters more to me than any single day's satisfaction data.

If we say that culture is:

  • What we can discuss
  • How we treat each other
  • What we reward

Then we can see many ways to reduce stress, increase social relations and job satisfaction, and increase self-esteem. In fact, agile approaches make this kind of culture possible.

Why do you want to measure happiness? When I ask my clients, they tell me they think happier people are more engaged and work harder. It's possible. I do not see any correlation between a person's happiness and their engagement or hard work. Happiness has many more facets. However, I have seen people become more satisfied — and engaged — as a result of hard work.

If you want to measure happiness, I won't stop you. However, you can't control people's happiness. You have many levers to increase their satisfaction. I prefer to work on what I can control.

(I wrote about working hard in Practical Ways to Lead and Serve Others. See Practical Ways to Lead an Innovative Organization for my writing about engagement. Satisfaction is one way to engage people and support them through their challenging work.)

This is a part of the series of leadership tips.

Update: Read A Simple Way to Measure Work Satisfaction and See Trends to see how I measure satisfaction.

9 thoughts on “Leadership Tip 8: Stop Focusing on Happiness & Measure Satisfaction Instead”

  1. Pingback: Five Blogs – 24 June 2021 – 5blogs

  2. I heard you speak of your definition of culture on a podcast. You gave someone’s name as the source (Edgar?). Would you provide the source?
    (PS I consult as well. And what we can say is oh so powerful. I’m often told that I’m the person who says what everyone else is thinking. clients who think that’s a good think work well. Clients who can’t accept that tend not be clients for long.)

    1. Edgar Schein created three “levels” of culture: basic assumptions (what you think), espouse values (what you say), and behaviors and artifacts (what you do). See Organizational Culture and Leadership.

      While I agree with him that assumptions color our values, what really matters is what we do. And there are three dimensions that matter the most (to me):
      – What we can and cannot discuss
      – How we treat each other
      – What we reward (and by extension, punish)

      Notice that all three of these are in the “behaviors and artifacts” category. The more I consult and work with people, the more I realize we can think something and behave contrary to it, assuming the rewards skew us that way.

      Yes, as consultants, we often make visible what everyone else thinks, whispers, or perceives. Great insight.

      1. thanks for your reply.
        Often times, what I’m saying is calling out the difference between what people say they are doing and what is actually happening.
        PS I’ve bought several of your books. Thanks for all your work.

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