Leader.co.za - Management, Training and Career Advice for Business Leaders







01 FEBRUARY 2021
Are happy employees good for business?

by Mike Stopforth: Entrepreneur and investor. Sometimes writer and speaker. Exploring how we lead, and how we should lead, in an increasingly complex world.


I recently had the pleasure and privilege of talking to Ian Fuhr, best known for starting and growing the Sorbet Group from the ground up, and more recently for his work at the Hatch Institute, on the One-Eyed Man podcast (episode here).

We spoke about the power of inclusive cultures, and the impact happy employees have on the customer. After our discussion, I thought about this statement in light of my experience at Cerebra, and realised it may not be completely true. In fact, I’d go so far as to say that happy employees could be really bad for business.

Now before you think I’m dismissing Ian’s view on this, I’m not. I’m certain he’ll agree with what I’m about to suggest, and that any difference is largely semantic. With that caveat:

It’s easy to make employees happy, and a shortcut or cookie cutter approach to doing so can bear bad fruit, especially in the long term. Rather strive to create a company in which employees can be fulfilled.

Happiness is one-dimensional. Fulfilment is complex. Happiness is a derivative of fulfilment. But so is safety. So is growth. So is connectedness.

As a parent, keeping my kids happy is easy. I need only feed them ice cream and fizzers, and stream Netflix for them all day. They’ll be exceedingly happy, in the short term. But the medium to long-term effects may not only cause unhappiness, but permanent damage. Raising fulfilled children is a much harder challenge.

Hand out exceptional increases, give extra leave, knock off early, and telling everyone they’re doing a great job will certainly make employees happy. But will it be in the best interests of the collective in the long term? Will it be sustainable? Will it really mean your most critical customer interface (your people-facing people) will do better work? I think not.

So how do we create companies that fulfil people?

Google and Oxford Languages tell me that to be fulfilled is to be “satisfied or happy because of fully developing one’s abilities or character.” I think there are five ways conscious and impactful leaders can create the types of organisations that foster individual and collective fulfillment.

Recognise achievement, not existence

You don’t get a cookie for doing your job.

You don’t get a bonus for doing your job.

You don’t get a high five for doing your job.

You get a salary for doing your job.

Creating cultures that reward mediocrity, and recognise simply showing up, will breed mediocrity and people who just show up. Cultures that acknowledge and reward tenacity and initiative bake those principles into behaviour. I’m not suggesting internal competition – that can work under the right conditions. I’m suggesting that magic happens when employees realise that going above and beyond what is expected and explicit in their contracts, is what is also rewarded by you.

Fulfilment comes from achieving more than you thought you were capable of, even if it costs something.

Establish identity, not institutionalism

There’s that wonderful scene in The Shawshank Redemption where Red, Andy and friends discuss the notion of being “institutionalised”, just after senior inmate Brooks, on news of his probation, takes a fellow prisoner hostage in the hope of remaining incarcerated:





Staff crave something to belong to – a sense that the hours and days spent with you, and away from family and friends, are meaningful. But there is a fine line between creating a place where people belong, and where people feel trapped. Parenting has this same tension – one wants to create a space where children feel safe and secure, but also where they understand boundaries and discipline. Too rigorous an environment diminishes individuality and promotes conformity.

One of the most powerful tools I discovered for promoting identity rather than institutionalism is focusing on defining, communicating, and exemplifying relatable values. Values are no use if they are window dressing, but can be extraordinarily powerful if they speak to the brand, the unique DNA of the organisation, and are linked in some way to notion of exceeding expectations that I outlined in point one.

Fulfilment comes from belonging, and sensing you are integral to something greater than the sum of its parts.

Create parameters, not policing

If you want a teenager to do something, make a rule for it. Most of us, especially those with some degree of personality and ambition, love to bend and even break rules.

I used to explain this idea to my senior staff using a football field as an example. The parameters of a football field are extremely well defined, extremely rigid, and completely binary in nature: when the ball is out, play is over. But within those borders, anything is possible. Any combination, any collaboration, any expression of talent. Of course, like in football, there are some rules of the game (usually industry dependent) that are important to understand and recognise, but as long as staff understood the parameters, and the basic rules of the game, they could be free to create magic in any way they saw fit, and often surprised us in doing so.

It’s worth saying that not everybody enjoys this type of environment though. Some people far prefer more rigour and structure, and respond well to micro-management. In my line of work these personality types were more rare, hence my bias to a more open style of management and leadership.

Fulfilment comes from the balance between security and expression.

Build accountability, not adherence

Over the last few decades we’ve become more and more critical of hierarchies and silos, and I think this is a leadership mistake. Flat management structures can be just as disastrous, and especially as organisations grow. I think hierarchies are a natural state for organisations, and extremely powerful if they relate to accountability, and not to power. In Cerebra we would say that s#*t flows uphill – the higher you are, sure, you get the perks, but you also take the most on your shoulders. You can tell so much about an organisation from who it blames when things go wrong.

Fulfilment comes from responsibility and progression.

Create direction, not dictatorships

This is fairly self explanatory and obvious, but without vision – a direction in which to point all the efforts I’ve just outlined – employees will find it difficult to be fulfilled.

Vision must be ambitious.

Vision must be easily understandable.

Vision must be measurable.

If employees can’t imagine their place in your vision, they will become detached and disinvested.

Fulfilment comes from purpose.
Useful resources:

Mike Stopforth
Entrepreneur, writer and speaker. Host of the One-Eyed Man podcast: https://pod.link/oem. Exploring how we should lead in an increasingly complex world. Visit our website.

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