Engagement is Not About Being Happy

Engagement is Not About Being Happy

I was at a great session yesterday at the SXSW conference, moderated by William Tincup, on the subject of organizational culture. The official title was “Quantifying Workplace Happiness and Culture Fit,” and the panelists talked a lot about culture, hiring for cultural fit, and some of the challenges within the HR field as it balances administrative duties with working on culture internally.

Many of the participants were from large companies, who are clearly struggling with this. In fact, one panelist stated that this issue is what all the CEOs are worrying about. But several of the questions focused on what those companies could do to make their employees more happy. This frustrates me, because I don’t think it’s really about “happiness.”

I know employee “engagement” has hit buzzword status, and everyone defines it differently, but this “happiness” frame is taking us in the wrong direction. Creating a workplace that people truly love is not about making people happy. Happy is a mood. It’s a feeling–sometimes even a fleeting one. But engagement is about a deep connection between the individual and the organization. It is an alignment of purpose and passion and career. It is  a relationship–even if it is only a short-term one.

I’m not suggesting that we ignore happiness or unhappiness among employees. That can be an important data point for understanding our culture. But don’t try to fix the happiness problem. As an organization, you don’t actually control people’s happiness anyway. Focus on what it takes to be awesome as a company. Focus on how to grow a system where everyone is growing, contributing, and collaborating more naturally. Figure out what it takes to create a stronger culture, and the engagement (and even the happiness) will be the natural byproduct.


  1. 16.03.2015 at 1:19 pm

    Very true, Jamie. Just one thing with which I disagree. The relationship between employers and employees is long-term – as long as employees are with the company. Employees are happier when they are honored, their voices matter, and they are respected and appreciated. And… that doesn’t even take a heap of money either!

    Just happened to write about this in my new, yet-to-be published book. 🙂

    • 18.03.2015 at 10:27 am

      Thanks for weighing in Elaine! By short term, I just meant that not everyone stays at your company for the long haul, and that’s fine. It’s still an engagement relationship if you just work there for one or two years.

      • 18.03.2015 at 12:15 pm

        Got it, Jamie! Then, we are both on the same page. 🙂

  2. Catherine Claridge
    16.04.2015 at 8:03 pm

    Great perspective, and this needed to be said. I’d counter, however, that happiness is more a state of mind than a mood. There are people with low emotional intelligence who aren’t capable of achieving a happy state of mind, yet they connect deeply with the purpose of the organization and can maintain a certain level of engagement. Also the length of time an employee remains engaged will often depend on their generation. We know Millennials tend to change jobs often, but can be very highly engaged while they’re in the role.