Learning & Development

Don’t Worry, Be Happy? 3 Ways to Help Employees Find Fulfillment

I can’t quite get Bobby McFerrin’s 1988 song out of my head (by the way, I added the question mark for reasons I will get to in a minute) since reading a May 12, 2022, article in the Wall Street Journal, “Confessions of Your Company’s Chief Happiness Officer” by Callum Borchers. Let my opinion be clear at the outset: Workplace happiness is a well-intentioned idea but often poorly framed, executed, and delivered.

Ancient Greeks Had Other Ideas

“Be Happy.” As lawyers like to remark, the song title as written “assumes facts not in evidence.” In other words, the admonition presupposes happiness is a desirable state, one to which we should all aspire and, by extension, that employers should assist their employees in reaching.

Not so. In Ancient Greece, there was no word for “happiness.” Not even close. Socrates or Aristotle would have given you a quizzical look if you tried to explain it to them. Not a concept simply lost in translation, but truly an untranslatable idea.

What did the ancient Greeks know that we have now forgotten? Fulfillment. By this, they meant we should use our talents for the greatest good possible—for ourselves and for others. Happiness fluctuates, it comes and it goes. Fulfillment is steady, arriving and taking hold.

So, thusly framed, the Journal article’s illustrations of what a chief happiness office (CHO) does—from rolling up to work in a bright yellow jeep and sporting big colorful earrings and a shirt with a positive slogan to buying beer and jet skis for an employee outing to sponsoring a company volleyball team—sound, well, silly at best. They are also employer-propelled (hit-and-miss), not employee-driven (more targeted).

3 Tips to Help Others Find Fulfillment

So, how to help others become fulfilled? Here are three ideas.

Find out what employees really want. It often isn’t the money, the big items, or the extravagant gestures. The Apple TV+ show Ted Lasso revolves around an American football coach coming to England to coach a professional soccer team. Lasso asks the players to use a suggestion box to tell him their thoughts on the working conditions.

Most of the replies are profane, but one explains (yes, profanely) that the water pressure in the locker room is too low for a satisfying shower. Cut to the showers, and the players are pleasantly shocked by the new, powerful (knock-you-off-your-feet) water pressure.

The lesson: Don’t tell me you care. Show me you care. And not about what you think is important but rather what I believe is key.

Eschew barroom generalities and embrace microexpressions. Think about the last time you patted yourself on the back when you complimented a staffer with a “good job.” This “compliment” is like a sprinkle-covered doughnut: It’s pretty to view, tasty to consume, and easy to handle but contains zero nutritional value. Zero.

What’s better? Take a minute to ask how the employee learned to make the good-looking chart used in a recent memo. Mention how the words chosen for the text were very apt, and explain why you think so. Inquire about the methods used to turn around the project so quickly. Caution: Take this approach only if you are being sincere, not manipulative.

Here’s a corollary. In the mid-2000s, I was a partner at a mid-sized law firm in Dallas. Dealt with a lot of admin staff. Fast-forward to 2016: I am now a law professor. A student walks up and says: “You don’t remember me, do you?” Well, when in doubt, I resort to the truth. “No,” I smiled.

The student says, “I remember you. When you asked me to do something, you mostly, if you had the time, explained why you were asking me to do it and filled in some of the details on what you were trying to accomplish with the task. Short but illuminating. I always appreciated it.”

Well, I still didn’t remember the student. But the encounter left me with a lesson: Even the smallest things can have an outsized impact, especially with a person whom the world (and perhaps the individual himself) views as being in a power differential with you. You never, ever know.

Speak to people in a language they can understand. George Bernard Shaw wrote the problem with communication is the illusion that it has occurred. When people believe they have been heard, they therefore feel truly listened to and—you got it—fulfilled.

There are many tests to figure out how to communicate. Here are two keys:

First, the simpler the better. Study no more than five to eight communication styles to find one that’s useful.

Second, study not just to learn your style but also to figure out other people’s style so you can communicate with them in a way they best absorb the information.

I break people down into four groups based on a well-known test:

  • “Bottom line up front” (BLUF) people deal with options (no more than three) and have a decision-oriented mindset.
  • Technicians never met a fact they didn’t like, and they want models so they can take them apart and put them back together again.
  • “Self-image conscious” individuals want the fun of having several alternatives and knowing exactly how they fit into the picture, no matter how small their role.
  • Sensitives need time to think, reflect, and get to know you before they decide on anything of import.

Sensitives can be quirky and have stuff in their office such as a Slinky collection, which exasperates a BLUF, who wonders “what possible use is a slinky collection!?” The lesson is that while one size doesn’t fit all, certain sizes do fit all of us.

Bottom Line

So, if you must use a title (that’s very Technician by the way), let’s think Chief Fulfillment Officer (CFO). In the longer term, concrete fulfillment beats ephemeral happiness by a lot.

Michael P. Maslanka is a professor at the UNT-Dallas College of Law. You can reach him at michael.maslanka@untdallas.edu.