‘Engaged Employees’ and ‘Happy Employees’: Not Exactly Synonyms

Want help with your hiring? It's easy. Enter your information below, and we'll quickly reach out to discuss your hiring needs.


So your employees are happy – great. But are they being productive?

Engaged employees are happy employees,” someone recently had the misfortune of saying in front of me at a meeting. Why does this seemingly harmless statement make my ears ring and my mouth twitch?

Because it’s not true. Even when you get a great 360-degree performance review, even when your engagement scores are through the roof, even when you have the most engaged workforce in your space (and you have lots of “Best Place to Work” lists and awards to prove it), your employees might still not be happy.

Here’s why:

1. It’s a False Equivalency

People think that because disengaged employees (there are more than 70 million in the U.S. alone) are unhappy and cost the workforce a great deal of money, the ones who are engaged must be happy. Not only is this bad science, but it’s also lazy thinking.

2. It Doesn’t Mean Much

There’s no proof that happy employees will do anything great for your company. While I don’t want to deny employees happiness, I’d rather have engaged employees. Those are the people who drive the numbers up – people who are passionate and restless.

3. Happiness Isn’t the Point

Engaged employees are far more likely to become disengaged if employers only think about making them happy. Instead of offering additional educational opportunities, for example, employers might focus on increasing bonuses, thinking that a happy employee is an engaged employee. To an engaged employee, this might be a nice one-time bump in pay, but it won’t compensate for their investment in the organization in the way removing obstacles from their pet project just might.

4. Unforeseen Consequences Exist

Happy employees may be completely disengaged from the organization. Some people are very motivated by security and unemployment. Those people may be very content to fog the mirror. While these folks may not appear engaged, misinformed managers might not understand the difference between engaged employees, happy employees, and employees who are just happy to have paychecks.

BeachSo, how do you guard yourself against falling for the “happiness = engagement” myth? When you consider that low employee engagement costs the U.S. economy roughly $370 billion a year, it’s important to get this right.

1. Learn to Tell the Difference Between Happy and Engaged

Your most engaged employees might irritate you a little bit. They may propose wild ideas, get frustrated when projects are derailed, and volunteer for everything. They may rarely seem super happy, because they are busy pushing the envelope. These are people you want in your organization. In fact, you want their lack of appreciation for the status quo to infect those around them.

2. Stop Perpetuating the Myth

You don’t need to sacrifice one for the other, but you do need to stop equating happiness with engagement, and vice versa. Tell your managers and your employees that while you think their happiness is important, their engagement is crucial. Listen when they tell you how you can help them become more engaged.

3. Stop Trying to Compete

The qualities that make each workforce engaged are going to be totally unique. Zappos has worked hard to create a distinct and engaged workforce. You know what else leader Tony Hsieh has done? He’s tried to revitalize the downtown Las Vegas area. His stamp is on that project as much as it is on the way he structured the Zappos workforce. Importing programs from some other industry or business will not make your employees happy or engaged.

4. Change Attitudes, Not Programs

When faced with poor results, many executives change the program instead of the attitude. Instead of swapping out one useless campaign for another, take the time to survey and talk to your employees before selecting a new option to increase engagement. You might be surprised at what you find out.

A version of this article originally appeared on BusinessCollective.

Maren Hogan is the chief marketing brain at Red Branch Media.

Read more in Employee Engagement

Maren Hogan is a seasoned marketer and community builder in the HR and Recruiting industry. She leads Red Branch Media, an agency offering marketing strategy and content development. A consistent advocate of next generation marketing techniques, Hogan has built successful online communities, deployed brand strategies in both the B2B and B2C sectors, and been a prolific contributor of thought leadership in the global recruitment and talent space. Hogan speaks and writes on all career and workforce related subjects. Her clients include Fortune 500 companies and SMBs around the globe. Red Branch Media was formed in 2006 as a simple consultancy. Today, the firm is a full-service B2B Marketing Agency that serves clients in the U.K., Africa, China, Israel, Europe and North America. Primarily focused on the Human Resources and Global Workforce vendors, Red Branch Media handles clients of all shapes and sizes.
Google+ Profile