Never ask employees what would make them happy. Here’s why.

Most managers have realized by now that happy workplaces are more productive, more creative, attract better talent and make more money.

So if you were a well-meaning manager or HR person looking to capitalize on this and create a happier workplace, you might be tempted to start by asking your employees some version of this question:

“What would make you happier at work?”

It seems like a great place to start. To make people happier, ask them what they want and them give them that. Right?

Wrong.

Here’s why: We know from the research that people are notoriously bad at predicting what will make them happy.

Stop random people on the street and ask them what would make their lives happier and a lot of them will reply “Winning the lottery.” But studies of lottery winners show that they are actually only marginally happier than all of us non-lottery millionaires.

Similarly if you ask employees what will make them happier at work you will most likely get responses like:

  • A raise
  • A promotion
  • A bonus
  • A gym in the office
  • Free fruit
  • Free lunches

But while all of this sounds perfectly reasonable (indeed, you might give some of the same answers if asked the same question), we know from the research that these factors don’t make employees any happier at work. Just to be clear: We cannot ignore them when making workplaces better, because these factors can absolutely make people unhappy when they’re unfair. But once they are fair, increasing them further does not increase happiness at all.

This explains why many organizations spend a ton of time and money on every perk imaginable and employees are still not happy.

Quite simply: giving employees what they ask for is doomed to fail, if they don’t know what to ask for. And they don’t.

What we need to do instead, is help people discover for themselves what really makes them happy at work and there’s a much better question for that:

Tell me about a recent good experience at work that made you happy.

This may look like essentially the same question as the one above so why is this one better? With the previous question (What would make you happy at work) we only get at the things people think will make them happy.

With the latter question, we ask about specific previous experiences that caused happiness. This means that we get directly at what really works.

I have used this question in hundreds of speeches all over the world and never once has anyone told a story of getting a raise, a promotion or a perk. Never once has anyone said “I was really happy last Thursday because I got a free apple.”

The one exception was when I did a workshop at Lego and an employee shared this example:

Every week our team gets a new box of fruit and there’s always only one banana in it. If I get there in time to get that one banana, it makes me really happy!

I’m 98% sure he was kidding!

Invariably, when people reflect on this question their stories fall into two categories.

They either talk about doing good work, achieving great results or making a positive difference for others. This includes things like:

I had a complicated problem on a project and found a really creative solution for it.

A customer liked my work so much they sent me an email with tons of positive feedback.

I helped a coworker by sharing advice and knowledge.

Or they talk about moments of personal connection at work, like:

I came back to the office from parental leave last week and so many people on my team welcomed me back with smiles and hugs.

I had a bad day and my manager noticed and did her best to help me.

We celebrated a team member’s birthday last week with cake and coffee and had a great time together.

Very often their stories contain both elements. That’s why we talk about results and relationships being the two main sources of happiness at work.

The upshot

Don’t ask your employees what will make them happy – because they probably have completely the wrong idea and giving them what they ask for won’t work. Instead, help them connect to past positive experiences because those are a much more reliable predictor of future happiness. And then work on doing simple daily actions that promote a feeling of results and relationships.

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