Why Focusing on Workplace Happiness is Harming Your Company

Many decades ago, an artist and deep-pocketed co-conspirators thought it wise to erect an homage to some of their characters in the middle of a Florida swamp. The stated motivation for this effort was to create a place where anyone could find inspiration. Visitors unlock imagination and have a great time.

Today, the Walt Disney Corporation is in the business of making family fun (and a great deal of profits via a diversified portfolio).

I took my first-ever trip to Walt Disney World just a few months ago. Their creative investment in making fun is like nothing else I’ve ever experienced. However, not every visitor to “The Most Magical Place on Earth” feels the same.

Upon entering the Magic Kingdom, we were slowly moseying through a makeshift Main Street America. Costumed Imagineers roamed among filigreed buildings. The kettle corn and stuffed animals rounded out a county fair feel. In the distance, the minarets of Cinderella’s Castle became visible. Instantly, I was transported into a state of childhood wonder.

“All right you two, smile! This is supposed to be the ‘Happiest Place on Earth.’ C’mon. This is for Facebook,” said the phone-wielding woman backing away from her two boys. I had not seen her reverse approach toward me. She had stepped on my feet, and I nearly fell. Her boys had clearly been crying. It was the beginning of the day, and it seemed to me they had already had all the fun they were going to have.

This scene was a microcosm of something I had witnessed repeatedly in the park. Despite the investment in manufactured fun, there are lots of slow-moving people and strollers in tight areas. There is the Florida heat. This setting exposes the nerves of 20 years worth of backlogged family drama. And it is played out for every Mickey-painted face to witness.

This is how well deep investment performs at making happy. And how many times do we try to create Disney-like fun experiences in our companies? And how fair is it to expect we will be more successful sans deep-pocketed investors?

If you think about the most meaningful moments in your life, they were rarely characterized by just happiness. They were full of fear, sadness, anticipation and challenge.

Workplace experts have clogged conference schedules with happiness seminars. While the intentions are righteous, there is little evidence to support manufactured happiness is effective for increasing productivity. Recent studies cited in the Harvard Business Review have found that happiness doesn’t increase productivity. It can be exhausting and damage your relationships with your team. It can even make you appear selfish.

The reasons for the focus on workplace happiness — despite this evidence — are largely aesthetic. No conscientious leader wants to create an unhappy environment. So, in reaction, most companies will do their utmost to make happy. These efforts fall flat. Why? If you think about the most meaningful moments in your life, they were rarely characterized by just happiness. They were full of fear, sadness, anticipation and challenge. Requiring that people be happy is essentially asking them to not be humans.

Here is what you can do instead: Focus on fulfillment.

Amazing customer experience and an aligned workforce have been shown to create more productivity and profits. If those sound appealing, then offer your people the chance to be challenged and to grow. It is likely this will not make everyone happy. That’s okay. If you put the focus on accomplishing something great together, you unlock the potential for spontaneous joy and fulfillment. You allow people to be more human.

Try this: Gather your team, and share your vision for where you want your business to be in 20 years (Note: That means you have to craft a vision first). Allow them to create personal challenges that will allow them to make a difference in your team to get there. And then provide them the needed resources for them to accomplish their challenges.