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May 7, 2013

I’ve never thought of it this way before, but is your workforce happy because they’re performing well and at a high level, or, are they happy because HR is doing a lot of silly things that masquerade for being happy?

I know; the concept of managing for a happy workforce isn’t exactly in anyone’s MBA studies, but The New York Times’ You’re the Boss blog brings it up in a post titled Where the Happy Talk About Corporate Culture Is Wrong. It’s an interesting discussion because it gets to the issues of performance and workplace happiness (or more correctly, satisfaction) in a way I haven’t seen before.

Here’s the key issue, from the blog post:

Don’t get me wrong — I want happy employees, too. But I think there are two types of happiness in a work culture: Human Resources Happy and High Performance Happy. Fast-growth success has everything to do with the latter and nothing to do with the former. Unfortunately, 99 percent of the discussion and solutions are focused on Human Resources Happy.

Here’s how I define HR Happy: Bosses are at least superficially nice and periodically pretend to be interested in employees as people. These employees can count on birthday-cake celebrations and shallow conversations about what their hobbies are outside of work. This approach allows HR people to do the job they love — compliance and regulations — instead of the job they should be doing — finding and recruiting the best available talent.

And this may work in a call-center environment or in a second-rate corporate culture where people resign themselves to the fact that they will get more if they accept being treated like children. But these HR Happy employees can have a rough time at fast-growth companies when they meet people who are High Performance Happy. Think of an Olympic athlete jumping into the pool for those 4:30 a.m. laps. High Performance Happy is an attitude with a skill set that says we are on a mission that is bigger than any one of us. We find our happiness in being on a world class team that is making a difference.

HR Happy says we should do what pleases us first — bring your dog to work! High Performance Happy says I will fight for every inch. I will be there at 4:30 a.m. no matter what and until the last dog dies. Respect is core to the success of High Performance Happy, and it is based on what you are giving not on what you are taking. For example, if one person has a sick child, we all have a sick child, and we all give more that day. And this is why High Performance Happy builds deeper bonds.”

A cavalier stereotype

I get what this blog is trying to say, and I generally agree with the notion that people who are focused on performance and accomplishing high-level workplace goals are going to be more satisfied and connected to the organization than they would be if they were simply getting birthday celebrations and other such workplace pablum.

But, I also think this blog does a terrible disservice to HR by cavalierly stereotyping everything HR does as mindless, low-performance drivel.

In fact, this argument seems to take the position that ALL that HR is doing is centered around making employees “happy” and has nothing whatsoever to do with organizational accomplishments, strategy, and a high-performance workplace culture.

In other words, it’s just another example of how old stereotypes die hard, and that HR is going to have to continue to keep pushing to make it clear how smart people management practices can help an organization to perform at a high level AND meet its larger strategic goals.

Former General Electric CEO Jack Welch used to say that, “HR matters enormously in good times. It defines you in the bad,” and I think that’s still true today. Human Resources IS a huge differentiator in an organization, and it has a major impact on a business whether times are good or not so good.

Yes, “high performance” and “HR” should be connected and not separated by some notion that all HR is doing is running around mindlessly trying to just make employees happy. You should know this to be true, even if the author of The New York Times’ You’re the Boss blog doesn’t.

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