The Secret to Happy Employees

About 10 years ago I was having my annual holiday party, and my niece had come with her newly minted M.B.A. boyfriend. As he looked around the room, he noted that my employees seemed happy. I told him that I thought they were.

Then, figuring I would take his new degree for a test drive, I asked him how he thought I did that. “I’m sure you treat them well,” he replied.

“That’s half of it,” I said. “Do you know what the other half is?”

He didn’t have the answer, and neither have the many other people that I have told this story. So what is the answer? I fired the unhappy people. People usually laugh at this point. I wish I were kidding.

I’m not. I have learned the long, hard and frustrating way that as a manager you cannot make everyone happy. You can try, you can listen, you can solve some problems, you can try some more. Good management requires training, counseling and patience, but there comes a point when you are robbing the business of precious time and energy.

Don’t get me wrong. This doesn’t happen a lot. There’s no joy in the act of firing someone. And it’s not always the employee’s fault — there are many bad bosses out there. Bad management can make a good employee dysfunctional. On the other hand, good management will not always make a dysfunctional employee good. And sometimes people who would be great employees somewhere else just don’t fit your company, whether it is the type of business or the company culture.

In the worst cases, the problem of a bad fit can have a bigger impact than just one employee’s performance. Being in charge does not necessarily mean you are in control, and being in control does not necessarily mean being in charge. Have you ever seen a company or department paralyzed by someone who is unhappy and wants to take hostages? It is remarkable how much damage one person can do. If you haven’t seen it, I suggest you watch “The Caine Mutiny.” Basically, one guy takes apart the ship. He was unhappy. It only takes one.

This is only my opinion. I don’t have a Ph.D., an M.B.A., or even an economics degree. What I do have is a happy company. And that makes me happy. Now I know some people argue that business is about making money, and not everyone has to be happy. That is also an opinion. Everyone has a right to his or her opinion. When you own a company, you also have the right to surround yourself with the people you choose.

I have spent the last year and a half focusing on cutting costs, figuring out how the market has changed, and worrying about the economy. Things seem to be getting better, or perhaps I am just getting used to it.

Either way, I had a good day today. Not because I got a big order, great financial reports or even an employee stopping by to tell me what an awesome boss I am. (That generally doesn’t happen. You have to tell yourself. It’s a boss thing.) I had a great day because I spent most of it walking around the company and appreciating the fact that even after a year and a half of soft sales and cutbacks and furloughs, I have wonderful people working for me. They care. They are committed. They understand the whole customer–staff–company triangle, where all of the legs support each other.

If you read books on great companies, they usually leave out a dirty little secret. It doesn’t make for good public relations — like talking about how you “empower people” or how your “greatest assets” are your people. Both of these well–worn clichés are true. What is also true is that it’s hard to build a great company with the wrong people.

When you have the right people, business is much easier. I know because I have tried it both ways.

Posted in Employment, How To.


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