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Dear CEO: Your Job Is Not To Make Your Employees Happy

By February 11, 2021 No Comments

“Everyone is feeling overwhelmed, stretched thin and burned out…we need to do something for morale.” So said the COO of a $100m technology services firm at a recent senior executive retreat.

Immediately the his colleagues started throwing out ideas…

“Spot bonuses?”

“Team party?”

“Starbucks gift cards?”

In other words, they tried to identify levers to pull – things they could do, or offer, to get the team to work harder, care more and feel better about their job.

The unasked question in the room: What can we do to make them feel happier (and make us feel less guilty), about the current workload?

Compassion and caring is an attractive value in any senior executive. We love leaders who love their people. That said, there is a fine line between caring, and coddling, and it’s critical that you know where that line is.

Simply put, it is not your job is not to make people “happy.”

The truth: Happiness is both a personal responsibility and a personal choice. Happiness is the delta between what our life is ACTUALLY like today and the expectations we have about what our life SHOULD be like today.

How happy a person feels is far more dependent on that person’s values, biases and beliefs, than it is on their objective environment or conditions.

Just ask Viktor Frankl, the now deceased psychologist who witnessed, among the horrifying conditions of a World War II concentration camp, extraordinary acts of courage and joy.

Or ask 15 year-old Carlo Acutis who said that he “wasn’t afraid of death” after being diagnosed with Stage 4 lymphoma because, as he put it, “I haven’t wasted a minute of my life on anything unimportant.”

The happiness of an individual has nothing to do with what has objectively happened (e.g. they get a spot bonus) and everything to do with the story they tell themselves to explain it.

For example, an employee who receives a $100 spot bonus from her manager could choose to believe “wow, this $100 reflects how much this organization really values me and the work that I am doing to serve our customers” or, just as easily, could believe “wow, this is just another token gesture to try and get me forget that I am grossly overworked and underpaid.

Finally, in this same meeting the COO identified one team member in particular, as being near exhaustion and suggested that she struggles with “perfectionism.” Sadly worrying about producing high-quality work is different from producing high-quality work. Her manager can’t help her by plying her with free caffeine, she needs coaching.

If making people happy is not your job as a senior leader, then what is?

Simple: your responsibility is to objectively and deeply understand the environment in which you and your team must operate, and find people who have the beliefs and skills required to grow and thrive under those conditions. For most high-performing organizations uncertainty, high expectations and rapid growth is the steady state – not just a moment in time.

Your job is to attract people who want the pace and pressure you offer.

As a good leader you must know when the team is feeling stressed and strained but don’t take that as a demand to solve the problem. Not only can’t you make everyone happy, often its exactly opposite what’s best for the business. Sometimes we need stress – pressure, deadlines, angry customers – to force us to re-examine what we are doing and how we’re doing it.

Resilience is the ability to grow, when things get hard. Most leaders whom I work with want their teams to be “more” resilient. The question is: are you willing to allow them to be uncomfortable (and, dare I say, unhappy), for long enough to allow it to happen?

Ben Sands

Author Ben Sands

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