Ep 44: Stop Chasing Employee Happiness; Start Focusing on Employee Engagement Instead


In this episode, Bridgette and Irvine explain why focusing on employee happiness is a losing proposition for leaders, while focusing on employee engagement boosts performance, productivity and retention  



Don’t forget to check out Irvine’s You Tube channel with new videos every Wednesday on emotional intelligence, resilience, and leadership.

Check out Irvine’s new book Leadership Lessons From The Pub.

Check out Bridgette’s book which she co-authored with Bod Duggan  Resilient Leadership 2.0.

And as always, don’t forget about all the mind-blowing free resources some of which are mentioned in each episode. 


Bridgette Theurer [00:00:03]:


Hello, everybody, and welcome to the resilient leadership podcast where everything we talk about is aimed helping you to lead with a greater sense of calm, clarity and conviction, even in anxious times. My name is Bridgette. And I’m always joined by my trusty collaborator, Irvine. Irvine, how are you today?


Irvine Nugent [00:00:23]:


I’m doing great. I’m just coming off, an amazing vacation, actually. I went back to, the homeland, Ireland, with my husband, Fred, and We did a few really neat things and, one comes top of mind. It’s it’s it’s something I’ve been meaning to my whole life. I’ve tried it twice, and it’s been canceled. And there’s a visit to this little island, seven miles off the southwest coast of Ireland called Skellic Michael. And there you will find a monastic settlement from the 6th century. Those who are Star Wars fans will know the island because that’s where Luke Skywater went. But you get a little boat out in the boat docks, and you climb 650 steps to the summit of the island. And there’s this community, and it was, ethereal. It was a beautiful experience. The sun was shining. There’s a presence there. You you feel both connected with the world and isolated from the world, which is kind of, I suppose, what the monastic experience was, but, it was a very special trip. And so I’m still baking in that experience and, yeah, hoping to to stay there for a little for a little longer in my memories.


Bridgette Theurer [00:01:33]:


I love that. And did you have a few beers and a few pups along the way?


Irvine Nugent [00:01:38]:


I I may have taken a few beers and a few pups.


Bridgette Theurer [00:01:41]:


I mean — — after all, you did write a book. Leadership.


Irvine Nugent [00:01:43]:


I did write a boom, and I had a few maybe good lessons and a few new pubs that we went to. So that was fun too. Yeah.


Bridgette Theurer [00:01:49]:


Love it. Love it. Well, alright. So bringing that that wonderful monastic spirit to the conversation, why don’t you tee up our topic for today?


Irvine Nugent [00:01:59]:


Yeah. So today’s topic, interesting title. It’s called Stop chasing employee happiness and start focusing on employee engagement instead. Now as we start, let’s be clear, we are not against employees being happy. But what we are saying is that that’s not really the focus or should be the focus of leadership efforts. And what we’re gonna talk about is that really leaders are called to focus on engagement and employee engagement and In doing that, they will have greater productivity, greater profitability, greater retention because the problem with chasing employee happiness It’s a losing game. You’re never going to win at that, and it’s really not the leader’s responsibility if employees are happy. It is, however, their responsibility for engagement.


Bridgette Theurer [00:02:54]:


Mhmm. Yeah. I love that. And for our listeners, those of you who may be leaders who have a belief that employee happiness is part of your job, stay tuned because we’re gonna really debunk that, I think, quite well. So before we get into all of that, Irvin, I got a question for you, which is when you were in a senior leadership position and running a nonprofit, was ensuring employee happiness something that you Really focused on or carried either explicitly or maybe beneath conscious awareness. Was it something that you carried?


Irvine Nugent [00:03:33]:


So it’s such an interesting question. As I reflect upon that, I have to say guilty as charged. I I really did spend too much time focusing on happiness and employee and happiness. And I equated the success of an organization if employees were happy. And, of course, let me just tell you that’s emotionally exhausting. Because the ins and outs and the ups and downs every day of an organization means that there are days that employees are happy and days they won’t be happy. And then put upon that, you know, they’re bringing problems from home, which leads to happiness or unhappiness as well. And so to put yourself as the conductor of happiness in an organization really is setting yourself up for failure. And I can really I I can think of times going home, feeling totally depleted, and feeling, you know, that what I was doing wasn’t working because people are not happy. So that all resonates with me.


Bridgette Theurer [00:04:37]:


Yeah. I can see that and the way you said it’s exhausting. I really got that. And my experience has been that whenever I’m coaching a leader who like you was chasing employee happiness, The exhaustion comes across. I’m thinking of one leader in particular, boy, was she and anxious leader. And now she had reason to be because she was a school principal during the pandemic.


Irvine Nugent [00:05:04]:


Oh, wow.


Bridgette Theurer [00:05:04]:


Yeah. And she had to make decisions about when to bring students back into the classroom. You know, and you know you’re gonna piss people off whatever decision you made about that.


Irvine Nugent [00:05:15]:




Bridgette Theurer [00:05:15]:


And so she knew that she had to face into this decision and she wasn’t gonna be able to keep everybody happy. And she said to me in one faithful call. I just want everyone to be happy. And I said, well, that’s really not your job. And she took kind of a beat and said it’s not, you know. And so ultimately she was relieved to discover that that focus was really not the right one and that there was a different place to focus in, and it really goes to what you said, which is it’s doomed to fail. So let’s talk about the pitfalls of this. Right? And that’s that’s the number one is that it’s an impossible goal.


Irvine Nugent [00:05:55]:


Yeah. I


Bridgette Theurer [00:05:56]:


mean, Who among us is capable of making everybody happy? We can’t even make ourselves happy all the time. Human happiness is fleeting and variable. It just is because it’s a feeling. Yep. And feelings come and go. So if we can’t even completely decipher our own happiness equation, how can we expect leaders to do that for an entire group of people. So, 1, it’s an impossible goal doomed to fail. Yeah. Okay. Number 2, pitfall. It’s a form of over functioning. We’ve talked about over functioning several times. I’ll remind listeners when you over function You are getting stuck for the responsibilities of others. Happiness is an inside job. I’m not responsible, Irvin, for your happiness. You’ll be glad to know. Mhmm. And you’re not responsible for mine. Now do we impact each other’s happiness? Sure. When we record a session, we we do. But that’s different. From feeling as if it’s my my responsibility. So when we over function by focusing and chasing employee happiness, you know what happens, Irvin, what always happens when the leader over functioned? What’s the reciprocal response?


Irvine Nugent [00:07:10]:


We’re gonna get some under functioning somewhere.


Bridgette Theurer [00:07:13]:


We just are. And you know what? It may be employees are kind of like at some level. Well, I don’t need to figure out what makes me happy. I got my boss worrying about that. You know? Yeah. So we don’t want that. And then I guess the last pitfall, I would say, and then Irvin, I’m curious what you would add, but is that it can lead to burnout? You said it was exhausting. Whenever we over function for any period of time, it does burn us out because it’s as if, you know, we are — having this giant backpack that we’re carrying with boulders in it than our hours to carry.


Irvine Nugent [00:07:46]:




Bridgette Theurer [00:07:46]:


that is certainly the case with employee happiness, we need to lay that burden down.


Irvine Nugent [00:07:53]:




Bridgette Theurer [00:07:54]:


What would you add to the pitch falls. Anything else that you can think of?


Irvine Nugent [00:07:57]:


Well, I one thing comes to mind, but before that, I think I just got this image, you know, of this literature and French literature, the Mythus Sisyphus. And kind of, you know, rolling that boulder up to the top. And I can kind of see myself and the boulder’s happiness of people, and I’m rolling and I get to the very top and, boom, it rolls whole way back again. And, you know, because happiness is, as you said, fleeting. Yeah. And and and there’s always more that you can do and and and just to goes with the vicitutes of life, I suppose. But, you know, when I think about, this question as well, there’s there’s one, and you kind of mentioned it in passing, but one is, you know, part of leadership is making at times difficult decisions. And there are decisions that are unpopular And there’s also decisions that in the short term, a leader, you know, a leader sometimes can have a bigger vision of where things are going. And they know in the short term, this is gonna this is not gonna be comfortable. People are not gonna like this, but in give it a chance. And And it becomes very difficult because that short term on happiness, you know, can really lead to doubt and question. Am I making the right decision? Is this right decision. Maybe I’m fooling myself. Who do I know? You know? And so I have had a few coaching sessions with people who are really struggling with some difficult decisions that will be either laying people off or, bringing in changes that will, reorgs and people have different positions and taking people out of positions they liked and All of that creates huge angst. And the reality is people will not be happy. That is just that is a given And the thing is that what’s required in leadership in that moment is the steadiness to really know that, yes, it may create short term unhappiness, but long term, people will actually be more engaged, and this is better for the overall health of the organization.


Bridgette Theurer [00:09:49]:


Yeah. And so they have to stay the course. Right? Now this doesn’t mean that we just go around making the decision and saying too bad. You don’t like it. I mean, we have to communicate and execute our decisions with thoughtfulness and with care for the impact that they have on people.


Irvine Nugent [00:10:05]:




Bridgette Theurer [00:10:05]:


that’s different. From carrying the burden of, of employee happiness. Okay. So hopefully listeners, you get a sense of why this focus on employee happiness is a losing proposition for you. And you might be saying, okay. And what should we focus on instead? And The title suggests of this episode what that is. And that what we’re saying is focus on employee engagement instead because it has a lot of upsides. And it doesn’t have the same downsides.


Irvine Nugent [00:10:38]:




Bridgette Theurer [00:10:39]:


So, Irvin, you know, this notion of employee engagement, it can be defined in different ways. It’s very well researched. But it can be defined in different ways. Let’s start with that now. What how would you define an employee engagement?


Irvine Nugent [00:10:53]:


Yeah. So it’s an interesting question. There are many different definitions, but I think for for the purposes today, let’s just say that employee engagement is the extent to which Employees are wholeheartedly committed to their work, but also wholeheartedly committed to advancing the broader goals of their team and their organization. So it’s this this commitment to our own work, but then commitment to the the work in that it advances as well the whole organization and benefits, everyone. And I think a way of thinking about this would be it’s the difference between, you know, where do I choose to give my energy, my discretionary energy to a job rather than just going through the emotions. There’s a a very deliberate deliberateness about a choice of of a commitment of where I’m placing my energy here. What’s really interesting is that the one differentiator on between those 2, am I gonna go through the motions, or am I gonna be committed and and really give my energy, is the quality of the manager. The quality of the manager totally impacts that differentiation.


Bridgette Theurer [00:11:59]:


Mhmm. It got some research on that for years, and it always comes out the same that if you look inside organizations, and you compare highly engaged teams to less engaged teams. It’s always the the difference in manager, like you said. So why do you think that is? Why do you think managers are the key differentiator?


Irvine Nugent [00:12:18]:


Well, you know, a manager has a great impact upon us. And I think man good managers are able to generate commitment. Mhmm. Whereas you think, like, someone who’s manages this ineffective, etcetera, people may comply people may do what they’re being told to do, but the energy is not there. And I think what what a good manager is able to do is that it able to generate this energy we talked about within a team so that people wanna work harder. They wanna do their best work. They they feel a commitment to the into that manager. And really don’t wanna let the manager down. And so you see this all the time when a manager’s needs some help people stand up and they say, yeah. Absolutely. I’m able to do that. Or if they see the managers, going through a hard time or whatever, it’s like, let me help And and the the really, the manager does have to ask. It’s there because the commitment is there. And so I think that’s really, really important that you know, when leaders are intentional about giving employment engagement or or kind of boosting that, everyone benefits This is it’s it’s the shared commitment that creates an energy that that really energizes everyone on the team. And and what we know is that that engaged employees are less likely to leave the organization. They’re more creative. They’re more productive. And this was in the bottom line as well. They’re more profitable.


Bridgette Theurer [00:13:40]:




Irvine Nugent [00:13:41]:


Yeah. Then that brings us to the to the important question is then what can managers do to boost employee engagement? What what what are some of the behaviors that we would see them doing?


Bridgette Theurer [00:13:52]:


Yeah. That’s a great question. And I and I would love to share some thoughts on that, but I I’m curious, Irvin, while you were talking, I wanted to ask you this question. Have you ever worked for a manager or boss? Who really did instill that sense of high engagement. Like, you just really wanted to do great work for them and you were all in.


Irvine Nugent [00:14:14]:


Yes. Absolutely. I was honored to do that a few times. One of them was very early in my career. This person just had an innate sense. First of all, you felt that they listened that they cared. So there was there was a care there And although they had to make some really difficult decisions because it was we were going through some change, and then this was a government agency that I worked in, and there was some pretty hard decisions coming down the road. You could see their angst that they really debated this and they tried to implement these changes to the best of their ability. Yeah. But, you know, everyone really respected this person. And we went through a period. There have been short staffed, etcetera. And and without even asking people volunteer to work more, people volunteer to step in And that was extraordinary. And it just it happened, you know, and it’s that whole thing of not even having to ask people volunteer. They wanna get involved.


Bridgette Theurer [00:15:14]:


Yeah. That’s so cool that you had that experience. So and maybe some of our listeners have worked for managers like that. And then we also know what it’s like to work for managers who aren’t like that.


Irvine Nugent [00:15:24]:




Bridgette Theurer [00:15:25]:


And, yeah, we do the job. You know, we show up. We comply. But we might not give that discretionary energy that you talked about. So I’m gonna share a few thoughts on how to focus on intentionally and boost employee engagement. I’ll be curious, Irvin, as you listen to these, think of this manager again. And and how well did they do these things?


Irvine Nugent [00:15:48]:




Bridgette Theurer [00:15:48]:


So I think the very first thing is that context for the work matters so much. In other words, making sure employees understand why their work matters, how it connects to bigger picture goals and objectives, Who does it impact downstream? Right? You connect the dots for them because without that work is just tasks to complete, and it can become a grind. So when you provide context as a as a leader, as a manager, you infuse the work with a greater sense of purpose. Right? And and that draws forth more of employees best efforts undoubtedly. Another thing very simple to do but can be overlooked is that you’re constantly working to build shared understanding of roles, responsibilities, and expectations. So you’re on the same page with the people that you’re managing, and they know what you’re looking for. And, you know, they understand their role. It’s really hard to commit wholeheartedly to an ambiguous role. You know? Or to meet expectations that you aren’t really aware of. So I think that helps boost employee engagement. And then giving people both autonomy, and accountability. So, you know, you give people the freedom. You you share with them what the job is, how it mat why it matters, what the role is, what the responsibilities are, and then you set them free to do their work, but you also hold them accountable, and you hold their colleagues accountable. Right? Yeah. Those I think are really good starters because they provide a foundation upon which you can generate wholehearted commitment. Right? Yep. So, Irvin, I’m curious, did this manager do some of those things, and what would you add to the list?


Irvine Nugent [00:17:38]:


Yeah. Absolutely. They they were an expert in providing context. I mean, one of the things that they did so well was helping. Like, we were a cog in the government machine. But they were able to really help us understand why our work was important and where it fit in in the whole scheme of things. And I thought that was he did that brilliantly. And then I think, you know, especially because we were going through so much change, there was an understanding from him that he would have to be patient and really revisit time and time again, people’s understanding of their roles and what happening, etcetera, and he did that really well. Yeah. 2 other things come to mind when I think of this person as well. I think in general, one is they provided he provided great feedback and coaching. So, you know, time and time again, I think and survey after survey tells us that people wanna grow. We don’t wanna feel static in a job. We wanna feel that we’re making progress and we’re developing ourselves. And so I think you know, there’s nothing worse than being in a job and and silence on on feedback on how are we doing? Like, once a year of being called in and saying, you’re doing a great job. Keep it up type of thing. People really wanna grow. And so I think we get engagement from managers who are providing really good feedback. Feedback. That’s precise. Feedback that is challenging. Feedback that’s not always like, oh, yeah. You’re rah rah rah, but it’s like, hey, I’ve got some feedback for you that you could do better, and this is what you could do. So feedback is also challenging. And then also feedback that includes a coaching element. And, you know, what what we mean when we talk about coaching is that coaching is able to draw out the best of a person. So it’s able to to bring out some of that inner wisdom and kind of draw out some of their best thinking. So in other words, a good manager is not always giving the answers. Yeah. But it’s actually helping people as and teams and organizations bring out the answers, draw out their thinking, and develop that and mature it. So I think that’s a really important point. And then I think the final one is is demonstrating that you care. I mean, people want to know that the person they’re working for cares about them. You know, this can be just simple things of remembering things that they’ve said. I mean, I remember this person as well. Was just fantastic about if you had mentioned something about a relative being ill or or or something that was happening like a graduation or something they would just always come back and just say, you know, like, how’s your aunt doing? I know she’d be ill. Yeah. And and so there was there was something like that this person took time to care. And I think people people like that. People want that and and to feel that we’re part of we’re human beings and we’re relating to each other as human beings.


Bridgette Theurer [00:20:26]:


That’s so lovely. You know, I’m I’m working with somebody right now that I did a 3 64. And one of the things that was said time and time again in this 360 is how much this person cared about each person as a human being? To your point, like, they would ask questions about their personal life. You know, they would show and demonstrate a genuine authentic sense of care for them beyond the role that they played at work.


Irvine Nugent [00:20:55]:




Bridgette Theurer [00:20:55]:


And these employees were willing to move mountains you know, for this person as a result. Now that does not mean that they were showing that care and concern because they were anxiously focused on their happiness, but just because they genuinely cared about these people as human beings. Yeah. That’s lovely.


Irvine Nugent [00:21:16]:


So, Bridgette, we always try and end with a practice. What have you got in mind today as we think about this employee engagement versus employee happiness? What comes to mind for you?


Bridgette Theurer [00:21:27]:


Yeah. So this is a really simple reframing exercise, and I’m just gonna call from happiness to engage And it just works like this.


Irvine Nugent [00:21:36]:


So maybe the next time


Bridgette Theurer [00:21:36]:


you find yourself being or feeling a bit anxious and concerned about employees. And when you tune into that, you kind of recognize You’re focusing on their happiness. You’re worried about their happiness. And you pause right there. And then you just try changing the question that you’re asking yourself because undoubtedly there’s a question in there that goes something like this What can I do to make sure my employees are happy? Mhmm. And you catch that question and you reframe it to something like this. What can I do this week to help my employees do more of their own best thinking? And you just listen to the question and see what surfaces and response. They’re really different questions. Aren’t they, Irvin?


Irvine Nugent [00:22:26]:


No. The energy of those questions are very difficult. I can almost feel the stress of that first question. I’ve asked that first question.


Bridgette Theurer [00:22:32]:




Irvine Nugent [00:22:33]:


Yeah. Absolutely.


Bridgette Theurer [00:22:34]:


And at the end of the day, that’s another way to look at them fully engagement is simply that we’re there to create an environment in which people can do their best thinking.


Irvine Nugent [00:22:44]:




Bridgette Theurer [00:22:44]:


And if we focus on that, they’re gonna grow. Gonna commit. They’re gonna risk things. And who knows? They might be happier, but that’s not the point.


Irvine Nugent [00:22:55]:


Well, Bridget, this has been a fascinating conversation. This has brought up a lot of memories for me as well and kind of, help me frame situations that I feel a lot of you just get into. And I kinda we’ve talked a little bit about, you know, this this this emotional feeling, this this stress of having this burden of happiness on our shoulders, which is just doomed to fail. It’s never going to win and probably will lead to your own over functioning and and for some people burnout and then really honing in on, you know, what do I need to do to really focus on engagement and providing context and coaching and feedback and autonomy and accountability. I love all those things and really showing that you care. So this has been really helpful, and I’m sure for many listeners as well, it’s it’s a enables them to kind of zoom out a little bit and just really look. What kind of manager am I


Bridgette Theurer [00:23:43]:


being? Mhmm. Love it.


Irvine Nugent [00:23:45]:


Yeah. And am I focused more on happiness or on engagement?


Bridgette Theurer [00:23:50]:


Well, ever thanks for playing with me as always. Our conversations are always an opportunity for me to learn something new. Appreciate that very much. And listeners to you, Thank you as always for joining us in these conversations, and we hope to see you next time.


Irvine Nugent [00:24:05]:


Absolutely. Have a wonderful time. Bye now.

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