Managers Should Optimize Job Satisfaction, Not Happiness

Lord, grant me the strength to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.

Happiness was not the goal, satisfaction was the goal, as it still is. - Lydia Lunch

Managers should be optimizing people’s job satisfaction, not their happiness. Trying to make a job facilitate happiness leads to perverse incentives and unattainable goals. It’s at best a distraction. At its worst it causes teams and companies to fall apart.

Job != Life

First and foremost - it’s an anti-pattern for anyone to tie their overall happiness to their job, or to expect that the two have a totally causal relationship. Almost always, expecting your job to be a mission, a vision, a purpose, and an identity all in one leads to fraught searches and major letdowns.

When this advice is not heeded, people and companies often have tragic implosions. The most common instance of this is companies with over-promising mottos and values - places that make you drink the kool-aid. This kind of culture often leads to fleeting happiness and purpose. Nothing gold can stay, and when people tie their entire being to a company, the fall elicits an equally powerful, opposite emotion. You can probably easily think of a few companies that went from “this is the best place ever” to “I hate these hypocrites”.

Are you happy?

OK, so you’ve avoided promising or looking for a job that’s a life-in-a-box. It’s still not uncommon for managers to find themselves treating happiness as a primary goal. The bottom line is that while a manager can make someone unhappy, they have very little ability or business trying to get people to be happy.

Happiness depends on an entire life of conditions, of which a job is just one. People become unhappy for a multitude of reasons (e.g. a pandemic is happening). So right out of the gate, trying to make your team happy is a losing battle.

Furthermore, it’s not your job to make people happy. You should be trying to optimize job satisfaction. That phrase has two important, intentional words. First, the word “job”. Your core responsibility starts and ends inside the realm of this job - frame it that way, intentionally. Second, “satisfaction”. Solving hard problems, growing skillsets, delivering value to customers, collaborating with great people - these are all often satisfying and not overtly happy.

As a manager, if you expect happiness or try to optimize happiness, you confuse and distract your team. My boss keeps wondering why I’m not more happy, should I just start acting more happy? This last year was really challenging; I’m proud of what I’ve done at work but I’m not super happy, should I quit? No - your manager should just stop treating your happiness like a KPI.

Words matter. So if you’re a manager out there, really focus on improving your team’s job satisfaction. Don’t ignore happiness - notably, you should not be making people actively and regularly unhappy. But don’t make happiness a goal or a guarantee.