The increased focus on employee happiness makes perfect sense in a world where review sites like Glassdoor and Comparably exist. Social proof is a powerful driver, and candidates often rely on testimonials to make decisions when they have several offers on the table. Employee surveys are now the rule instead of the anomaly they once were, and executives pore over the answers to questions such as "How happy are you at the company?" 

The fact that employees have more of a voice both internally and externally -- and it's taken seriously -- is a good thing. However, I confess I cringe a bit when I hear "Happy employees are our No. 1 goal." To me, happiness is not only the wrong thing to focus on, but working too hard to make employees "happy" can actually backfire and plant seeds of dissatisfaction. 

Here's why.

Happiness is fleeting.

Let's say that M&Ms make me happy; does that mean that if my company has an ever-stocked jar on the counter that I'll leave a five-star Glassdoor review? Many studies point to the fact that happiness is not only fleeting, but can be affected by any number of trivial things. Chasing happiness sets companies up for a losing battle when an employee stubs their toe on that annoying bookshelf sticking out in the lobby and the employee survey is sent out 10 minutes later.

Happiness is personal. 

What makes you happy is probably very different than what makes me happy, yet companies have to make choices about their cultures, benefits, and perks for the majority, not for the individual. It's inevitable that some people will be displeased with decisions or offerings -- but when happiness is the goal, this is a ding against the company. 

Happiness puts the onus on the company.

One of the most unfortunate consequences of the focus on employee happiness is that it takes accountability for career satisfaction away from the individual. We are doing a huge disservice, particularly to people early in their career, if leadership sets the tone that it's the company's job to make employees happy.

When the company takes on the burden of happiness, there's no impetus for employees to reflect on what's truly important to them -- and considering that happiness is personal, this inevitably sets employees up for dissatisfaction. In my opinion, entitlement isn't a problem of too many perks, it's an issue of too little self-reflection. 

Fulfillment versus happiness.

What should companies focus on instead of employee happiness? Fulfillment. 

As for what it means for an employee to be "fulfilled" vs. happy, I often point to three simple yet key things:

  • The company is delivering on the expectations set during the interview process.

  • The employee is learning and growing.

  • Whatever else the employee defines as being fulfilling for them as an individual.

Note these three conditions can be met -- and employees can feel fulfilled overall -- even if their happiness fluctuates. Consider that growth is often uncomfortable in the moment, which can lead to temporary unhappiness. Speaking for myself, the times I grew the most in my career were also some of the hardest. Yet even though I wouldn't rate highly in "happiness" during those periods, as I reflect back, they were some of my most fulfilling -- and I wouldn't trade them.

Asking employees if they are fulfilled also triggers self-reflection. The dictionary definition of fulfillment is "the achievement of something desired, promised, or predicted." Compare that to the definition of happiness: "The state of being happy." To answer the question "Are you fulfilled?" an employee must reflect on their own desires and expectations -- and this innately places accountability jointly on the employee and the company, versus solely the latter.  

Finally, measuring fulfillment instead of happiness also incentivizes leadership and people operations teams to focus on initiatives that are truly meaningful to employees rather than flashy -- yet hollow -- perks. Free beer and candy can make employees happy, but fulfilled? I think you'd be hard-pressed to find someone who joins or leaves a company based on M&Ms. 

To measure employee fulfillment instead of happiness, consider swapping out the traditional "How happy are you at work?" for one or several of the below questions on your next employee survey:

  • How likely are you to recommend the company as a place to work, on a scale from 1 to 10?

  • How much would you say you're growing in your role at the company?

  • How well do the expectations set out in the interview process and the reality of working here align?

  • Are you glad you joined the company? Why or why not? 

  • How would you rate your fulfillment at the company, on a scale from 1 to 10?

Focusing on employee fulfillment instead of happiness might seem like a tiny semantic change, but it makes a huge difference in both employees' and business leaders' perceptions. 

Published on: Nov 19, 2019
The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.