The Secret to Keeping Your Team Happy

Keeping project teams engagedI was recently asked if it is possible to keep everyone around you–your team, your family, your friends–happy all the time.

The obvious short answer is “No”. You cannot make or keep everyone happy all the time. But my reason for the answer may not be as obvious.

The problem is not keeping everyone happy or all the time. The question to consider is, “Can we make anyone happy, ever?” I suggest the answer is likewise “No”.

My point is that people have to make a choice to be happy. Just this year I was involved with a program that brought groups of leaders from all over the world to a beautiful downtown Chicago hotel. For the record, these employees are from an industry that has made deep sacrifices during the recession so there are plenty of participants that were not “happy” when they showed up.

Realizing this, we did all that we could to “wine and dine” them, and give each person top-notch service and great respect.  The entire event was done so well that it would be fair to say most participants appeared to leave “happy”.

Yet did we make them happy? No. We only set the conditions under which most people individually chose to leave with a smile and a sense that their company appreciated them.

To be clear, I love being happy! I enjoy trying to help other people feel happy!

That said, as crazy as it sounds, I’m not sure our goal is to have  happy team members, customers, or perhaps even children.

How about Engaged? Or motivated? Inspired. Impressed. Committed. Focused. Satisfied. Excelling. Reaching full potential. Raving fans. Having ownership.

Happy is good, but could it be these alternatives are even more worthy to strive for as goals? Happy is fun, but often short-lived. Engaged and excelling, taking ownership and growing: these can last far longer than an emotion. Yet even these we cannot make happen or keep them sustained.

It ultimately comes down to individuals choosing to engage, motivate themselves, and stay focused. Our job as leaders is to create the conditions that make it easy for people to choose to be satisfied, growing, and bought in.

This requires us as leaders to know them each individually, being intentional to understand their unique needs and problems and then customizing a response that exceeds their expectations.

For more on this, I recommend two interviews I had on our podcast that discuss employee engagement in more detail: Ken Thomas (author of Intrinsic Motivation at Work), and Brad Federman (author of Employee Engagement: A Roadmap for Creating Profits, Optimizing Performance, and Increasing Loyalty). At least from a work perspective, these two experts have great insights to help us lead our teams more effectively.

The secret to keeping your team happy? Don’t try to make them happy. But work diligently at knowing them individually, creating an environment that makes it easier for each person to choose to engage. And when necessary, get out of the way and let them do what they do best.

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  1. Totally agreed, Andy. To me, it’s less about keeping everyone happy than keeping key people happy most of the time. If I lose business because I walk away from impossible projects, then that’s better for me across the board. Only a newbie will try to accede to everyone’s wishes. It’s an exercise in futility.

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