Sunday, November 7, 2010

Is it April 1st already ?

I took a few minutes to read this post which had an intriguing title. "The Social Responsibility to Generate Employee Happiness." , on the Forbes CSR blog. The article puts forward the premise that "creativity, happiness and performance enable a positive feedback loop....(Shawn) Achor calls this idea the “Pygmalion Effect,” meaning that people act how we expect them to act. Expect them to succeed, encourage and praise them accordingly, and studies show that they will. Similarly, provide them with a creative, “happy” environment, and people will find greater meaning in their jobs , regardless of what the job is .."

Stop.  Sounds a bit far-fetched to me.

How many incompetent people have been promoted to the level of their incompetence because we expected them to succeed and praised them a helluva lot? How many people have we praised even through they don't really deserve it, only to find that it doesn't make them better performers after all? And creating a "happy" environment so that people will find meaning in their jobs ... I am not convinced. Sounds like something a business scool professor might dream up. haha.

People don't perform because they are happy. People perform because they are motivated by a worthwhile purpose, have freedom to operate in the organization they work for, are shown respect and listened to by their bosses and peers, and  have the tools to do what they need to do.

Happiness is a subjective thing. I don't believe you can train happiness (though there are some well-paid happiness gurus who might claim otherwise). You can train positive attitude, which can be a developed habit, but you cannot train people to be "happy". You cannot truly measure "happiness" which is an ephemeral thing and dependent upon circumstances of the day. So the thought that companies have a social responsibility to make employees "happy" is both a non-sequitur and an abuse of the term social responsibility. And frankly, any employee who comes to work looking to be made happy is probably not an employee I would want to hire. I would hire people who want to feel fulfilled, satisfied, positive, collegiate, challenged, supported, included, belonging even. In fact, I would hire happy people. But I wouldn't hire people who expect me to make them happy.

How do you determine what makes people happy? How can you create a workplace that caters for everyones happiness needs? For some, happiness might be free coffee in the breaks. For others, it might be a promotion opportunity. Others might pefer a swimming pool in the workplace, or more pay, or a new challenging project to work on. For me, utter bliss would be free Chunky Monkey every day. Haha.

I think we have to be careful with the semantics of Corporate Social Responsibility. I believe the above article does hold some basic element of truth. People who are more positive in the workplace will certainly support better results delivery and will help create an environment in which everyone can do their best. This makes sense to me, and I can speak from experience. The opposite is also true. People who are generally negative are harder to manage, drain energy and reduce productivity. But let's not confuse this with trying to make people happy in the workplace. To the extent that it can be measured, happiness is an outcome and not an input. And I do not believe making people happy should be a serious element of any CSR strategy. Except on April 1st.

elaine cohen, CSR consultant, Sustainabilty Reporter, HR Professional, Author of CSR for HR: A necessary partnership for advancing responsible business practices. Contact me via  on Twitter or via my website

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