By Sandy Seay

12/19/2011 -

Some time back in the 1970’s – I was a very young man at the time – while speaking to a banker’s convention in Virginia, I took the opportunity to listen to several of the other speakers on the program. One particular fellow spoke on the subject of, “Nobody Told Me What 45 Was Like.” While that particular chronological longboat, for your humble consultant, has long since left the loading dock, some of the fellow’s other remarks still ring true and I think about them from time to time. For example, he offered this observation -- “Someone said to me the other day, ‘My wife doesn’t make me happy.’ And I thought to myself, Doesn’t make you happy? Nobody can make you happy – you have to do that for yourself.” Indeed.

In the employment arena, one of the questions often tossed my way is, “How can I make my employees happy?” And when I hear those words, my thoughts turn back to my Virginia friend and I think, You can’t make employees happy – they have to do that for themselves. It seems to me that if an employee isn’t happy on the job, there isn’t very much management can do to make that person happy. Real happiness, I would argue, comes from within and has something to do with self-motivation, the satisfaction of knowing that you have done a good job, and that you have given your best efforts to meet the employer’s goals and objectives. It’s a character issue, like loyalty, dependability, honesty, truthfulness, courage, diligence and gratefulness. Character is formed early in life and tends not to change throughout one’s life.

Some employers think they can make employees happy with a raise in pay, but this is seldom the case. Real happiness, at least the lasting kind, doesn’t come from a raise in pay because, for the most part, when an employee receives a raise in pay, he or she says “Thank you very much,” and then immediately starts looking forward to the next one. This is human nature. Most observers would point to only one compensation plan as a real motivator and that is an incentive or commission plan that is directly related to employee productivity. That’s why compensation experts say that you can never pay employees “enough” money to make them happy. In my management workshops, I often ask, “How many of you are receiving enough money right now and you don’t want any more raises?” You know the answer – we all have the same answer. So, if we cannot ever reach the goal of paying “enough” to our employees and staff, what can we do? And the answer is that we have pay rates that are competitive. The compensation standard is “competitive” and we reach this standard by comparing our rates with those of others with whom we compete for employees, and then developing fair and equitable pay ranges.

On the other hand, we know that pay rates that are below the competitive standard can, without doubt, create dissatisfaction, which can turn into low morale and poor productivity. In this sense, we can never expect employees to be “happy” with their compensation. What we can do is see that they are not dissatisfied with their pay, by meeting the competitiveness standard. This is not a bad thing.

If Frederick Herzberg is correct, an employee handbook, a good supervisor and good working conditions fall in the same dissatisfaction category – if they are not present on the job, this can lead to enormous employee dissatisfaction and unrest. If they are present in good degree, employees do not tend to be “happy,” they tend to be “satisfied.”

On the other hand, factors that cultivate a work environment leading to motivated employees, good employee morale and higher productivity include (1) personal achievement, (2) opportunity for advancement, (3) individual responsibility and (4) recognition, especially in front of peers. It is in this kind of work environment that employees can reach their highest “happiness potential.”

Thus, one could argue, employee happiness springs from self-directed job factors coming, for the most part, from within. We must admit, however, from bitter experience, that there are employees who are never happy and there is nothing any of us can do make them happy. Some people are never happy unless they’re unhappy, and I don’t think there’s very much we can do to change them. It’s a character issue. We just have to take a deep breath, swallow hard and go on to the next thing. Someone once said – it may have been Samuel Johnson – that one should never try to teach a pig to sing because it wastes your time and it annoys the pig.

As employers, we want to frame the question a different way – rather than asking, “What can I do to make my employees happy?”, we might ask, “What can I do to create a work environment where we encourage motivation, productivity and high morale, while minimizing dissatisfaction?”

Building on Herzberg’s ideas, here are five Seay Management recommendations, otherwise knows as part of Sandy’s Suggestions for Successful Solutions:

1. Make sure your employee handbook is written in user friendly language that employees understand.

2. Be a “Ruth’s Chris” manager. I am reliably told by a former Ruth’s manager that Ruth Fertel was always around, talking to employees, making sure that everything was done at the highest level of excellence and that Ruth was universally loved and admired by her employees and staff. My sense is that, in most companies, employees don’t necessarily have to love us, but they must see us as approachable, accessible and fair.

3. Develop employee recognition programs.

a. Employee of the Month, with a special parking space, announcement on the company newsletter or intranet, etc.

b. Service Pins – employees really like the idea of seniority and this is one way we can recognize this.

c. Recognition for particularly good service or a specific accomplishment, like movie tickets or restaurant cards.

d. RAR (Random Acts of Recognition).

e. Figure out unique ways to express and show appreciation. Don’t be like the fellow who’s wife said to him, “You never tell me you love me any more,” to which he replied, “I told you I loved you when I married you 45 years ago and if I ever change my mind, you’ll be the first to know.” Appreciation must be expressed. Continuously.

4. Provide employees with an opportunity for advancement, something to look forward to, and help them with on the job training and educational programs.

5. In as much as is possible, give employees as much responsibility as you can. J.C. Penney once remarked, “A job will never be done to its highest potential until it stops being the company’s job and becomes the employee’s job.” Employees should have a vested interest.

So, while we cannot make employees happy, -- they have to do that for themselves -- we can certainly provide a work environment that fosters motivated employees, good employee morale and higher productivity. The Philosopher tells us that “Happiness, then, is something complete and self-sufficient, and is the end of action.” It’s a character issue.

As 2011 inevitably meanders toward the sunset, and as we look forward to the challenge and opportunity that 2012 offers, all of us at Seay Management Consultants want to tell you how much we appreciate having you as a valued friend and client of our firm. It’s been over 325 years since my immigrant ancestor arrived in Virginia from Ireland, but I feel that he must have said, at some point, properly fortified, Nollaig Shona agus Athbhliain faoi Mhaise Daoibh, which being translated from the Gaelic is, “With best wishes for Christmas and the New Year.”

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