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Francis Wade | How efforts to make employees happy kill productivity

Published:Sunday | August 28, 2016 | 8:00 AMFrancis Wade

Recent research shows that there's a big difference between (H)appiness and (h)appiness. If, as a manager, you know how to separate the two, you can avoid the mistake of demotivating your employees.

(H)appiness is defined as employee satisfaction, the kind of overarching experience someone reports after a look back at the past year on the job. It's all about selected, recaptured memories.

It's quite different from (h)appiness, the immediate, moment-by-moment experience which flows from one minute to the next. This experience is, for the first time, being uncovered by social scientists who are pinging employees via smartphones and laptops. They are discovering some surprising results.

One is that lots of (h)appy moments are not necessarily correlated with (H)appiness. It explains why executives are confused when their (H)appiness survey scores go up and down without apparent rhyme or reason.

Yet, even if they don't know what to do, most leaders still believe that increasing happy feelings at both levels is a good thing for the individual and the bottomline.

Recent research from Microsoft Corporation challenges this notion. The study shows that if, as a manager, you try to increase (h)appiness, you can make things worse for yourself, your employee, and the company. Here's why.

1 People admit they are (h)appiest doing rote work.

Rote work is defined as "mechanical or unthinking routine or repetition." It's necessary stuff, but produces little value, requiring almost no creativity.

Most positions in the real world include some rote work. Recently, I spent several hours manually cleaning up an Excel database. As boring as the chore was, it could not be delegated. In spite of my lack of enthusiasm and the absence of any fun or creative element, I had to pay full attention in order to avoid making a mistake.

When asked, employees report that they are (h)appiest doing this kind of work, even though the company derives a minimal benefit. If, as a manager, you focus on trying to increase this feeling, prepare yourself for behaviours that lead to low productivity.

2 The best work is sometimes stressful.

The fact is, you want more than (h)appiness. Instead, you want employees to show up at the office ready to do their best work. In prior columns, I shared the notion that this work occurs during the flow state: the times when an employee becomes deeply engrossed in a challenging task which requires their best skills. The result is high performance.

The Microsoft researchers argue that we are wrong to believe that the flow state requires (h)appiness. In fact, when people are in this particular zone, they may experience high stress. Just imagine a child who puts forth his/her best during a GSAT exam. As a parent, you would be quite worried if he/she were to walk out and report a (h)appy experience. It doesn't happen. Yet, it's often a moment of life-changing, peak performance. Consider it to be the same one you, as a manager, are being asked to create.

3 Cure the problem of boredom with stress.

It gets worse. When you focus on (h)appiness, you disengage your staff.

A recent Gallup study shows that 55 per cent of millennials are "not engaged at work", with another 16 per cent being "actively disengaged". Compared to Gen Xers and baby boomers, they are the least engaged.

It's no surprise. After all, they grew up surrounded by deeply absorbing technologies. Apps like Snapchat, Instagram and Facebook are specifically engineered to command their attention and keep it for hours.

College, with its extreme demands, also occupies them fully. However, when millennials graduate into the working world, they are shocked - the office is full of demotivated zombies. Often, managers show up as tyrants who demand that people "do it my way or else". This toxic brew, so adverse to the engaging world they have taken for granted, deadens their souls.

The answer is certainly not to add in a dose of attempted (h)appiness.

Instead, as a manager, look to borrow the emerging principles that app and game designers are using to make software engaging. The core 'gamified' actions they apply are:

1. Crafting objective goals

2. Setting unambiguous scores

3. Creating feedback mechanisms

4. Giving employees the autonomy to make certain choices

5. Offering coaching

Work hard to fix any weak spots as you look to craft an environment that's as engaging as a smartphone app or a game. Keep in mind that human beings naturally love to learn and enjoy being intrinsically motivated.

So, your job is not to make employees artificially (h)appy. Instead, add in the kind of stress that challenges them to be engaged. They can handle it. It's more likely to produce the (H)appy results everyone wants.

- Francis Wade is a management consultant and author. To receive a summary of links to past columns or give feedback, email: columns@fwconsulting.com.