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You can’t force employees to be happy

Dec 04, 2016 Management, Sunday Nation

An employee of Trader Joe’s recently filed an unfair labour practices charge against the company in the US. Thomas Nagle was reportedly fired by Trader Joe’s in September; his offences apparently included an “overly negative attitude” and not smiling warmly enough. In his performance reviews Nagle had been criticized for not greeting a manager with “sufficient feeling.”

As the world wakes up to the fact that great customer experience drives great business results, many firms are trying to ensure that they stand out by showing themselves to be irresistibly friendly and lively. It’s become a thing. And many, I fear, are getting this horribly wrong.

A decade or so ago, I noticed that the frontline employees of one our leading corporations here in Kenya had all started wearing badges labelled “I Smile”. With, of course, a smiley emoticon depicted. This was part of a training programme employees had apparently undergone to remind them to smile at all times with customers.

There was a problem, though. You would rarely encounter one of these employees actually smiling at you. I once pointed out the badge on her lapel to a particularly surly employee; she scowled back in reply. Not long after, the business in question ran into serious headwinds. It began making record losses and its staff relations deteriorated to some of the worst levels we have ever seen.

Here’s the thing: it may be a great thing to have your employees looking happy all the time, but you can’t fake it. It just doesn’t work. If any business wants its business to be founded on employee happiness, those employees need actually to be happy. It cannot be done by edict; it cannot be a performance requirement; it cannot be demanded.

There are three reasons for this. First, fake happiness shows. Customers know when they are seeing a masquerade of happiness and willingness, and they don’t like it. The desired effect – deeper bonding – doesn’t happen.

A second reason is that employees who are forced to put on a show of artificial bonhomie and cheerfulness actually feel great emotional strain. A fake happy-clappy act is very draining and causes burnout. It actually puts employees under intense pressure, and causes more churn, not less.

And lastly, the idea that employee happiness is manifested as a loud and gregarious cheerfulness is false, something put out by extroverted trainers. Personally, I find assistants who are spouting insincere greetings and memorized lines very irritating. Give me a calm, pleasant, efficient – but sincere – person to deal with any time. Customer service is not a circus act.

So if you are a business leader who wants employees to actually be positive and happy at work, how do you go about it? The answer is very simple. You don’t need a consultant, trainer, professor, book or theory to give you the answer. Employees are happy for the same reasons human beings are happy. Duh.

Humans feel joy and positivity when they feel they have control over their lives; when they feel a sense of belonging; when they feel the absence of fear and uncertainty; when they encounter personal growth and development; and when they feel they are contributing and being appreciated.

Happiness in the workplace is no different. Give people working conditions that make them enjoy coming to work; Allow them some decisions over how to do their jobs; Give them a genuine chance to grow and get better rewards; allow them to feel a sense of kinship and harmony with their coworkers. The happiness will take care of itself.

Or you could be like most employers and do very different things. Put employees at the mercy of bad supervisors. Allow them to see no connection to the purpose of the organization. Make every working day a dreary, soulless grind. Force them to put on an insincere act of some sort every day. Now you have no chance of creating a happy workplace. None.

In short: you can’t make workers happy. You can only create the conditions in which happiness is allowed to occur.

And remember: ‘always happy’ is nonsense. No one is always happy in their lives. All joy is short-lived. Life is full of challenges and reversals. It’s perfectly acceptable for any of us to go through periods of sorrow and reflection. Those times are as natural and necessary as happy times are. A good employer supports workers through trying personal times. That way, a much deeper bond is created.

Go for smiles and warmth in the workplace, by all means. You will create a better business. But know how to go about it. It’s a feeling, not a performance target.

(Sunday Nation, 4 December 2016)

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