We’re obsessed with measuring happiness within our organisations. For the most part, this is well-intentioned: we want to identify room for improvement, and address it. Sometimes, plotting the data can also give us actionable information, for instance if we observe happiness trending downwards. But the more we turn it into a numbers game, the more it becomes empirical data rather than a means for improvement.

Observe what happens when we tie our happiness scores into objectives, for example (“Attain a 90% team happiness score in Q1”) or advertise our happiness scores externally to encourage new hires. Will people give honest feedback if they think it could adversely affect their bonuses or make it harder to recruit? And what do raw numbers even mean?

The perils of turning people into numbers

Measuring happiness - both in and out of the workplace - is immeasurably difficult, especially among Brits: if a Brit tells you that they’re “not bad” then it could be anything from recovering from a major disease, to feeling the best they’ve been in months. And given our inherent politeness and our desire to not rock the boat, even somebody who’s actively looking for a new role might rate their happiness as a 9 out of 10.

Such is the challenge of many workplace happiness checks (sometimes referred to as “pulse scores”). These can range from the simple (such as an Employee Net Promoter Score: “How likely are you to recommend us as a place to work?”) to multiple pages of granular questions. They might be regular weekly check-ins, or a quarterly or half-yearly survey. Regardless of the size or scale, anything measurable can be manipulated, and we often see this in “engagement scores”, where individual departments are measured on their response rate. The marketing team achieved a 100% response rate for the third quarter in a row! And they’ve all given glowing reports! Great, well maybe they were pressured into doing that, and underlying issues are being hidden; and a lower response rate doesn’t tell us anything useful either. Maybe a team is too focused on achieving a key goal, and they’re actually very happy; or, more likely, people who are too busy/stressed to fill-in a survey are being excluded from the counting.

We often insist that this feedback will be given anonymously, but you can often drill into data to the extent that anonymity may be lost along the way: for instance, if you can filter the results of your survey by team and job role, and there’s only one person doing that job role. Or, as with one survey which I participated in, announcing afterwards that “we’ve decided to publish all of the anonymous comments for transparency”, even though the phraseology and subject matter of the responses made it very clear who several of the comments came from.

Giving feedback in this manner is also especially difficult if you’re in a team where uptake is low. For instance, I was once in a team where often only two of us (out of 7 or 8) were responding to weekly pulse checks, and I tended to vote low. What this meant was, the numbers seemed to show that the team were happier whenever I went on holiday! The assumption was made that people who weren’t responding should be treated as giving an average mark, when it’s the people who aren’t engaging in your processes who might be unhappiest of all.

How to take actionable measurements

When it comes to happiness, the common wisdom is to “Keep measuring”, although that wisdom often comes from the suppliers of tools which are designed to do the measuring! But the solution shouldn’t be “more surveys” - it should be “more conversations”. Managers should be having regular, meaningful conversations with their direct reports anyway, and the information gathered in these sessions (What’s going well? What’s going badly? What specific challenges are they facing?) should be highly actionable, and often correlates directly to happiness. It’s often hard to convert qualitative information like this into numbers; in which case, don’t try! If people are asking for information about your team’s happiness - give them qualitative information in return.

It’s important to create a safe environment which fosters honesty and transparency in feedback. Be authentic in your communication, and unafraid of showing weakness yourself: make sure it’s clear that you care, you’re not just asking because you have to. That said, there is certain information that people may not want to share in a face-to-face setting, maybe due to embarrassment, feeling intimidated or weak, or coming from a cultural background which does not encourage speaking up. Therefore it’s vital that you have a way for anonymous feedback to be submitted, even if the anonymity makes it harder to pursue a fix with an individual.

Whatever approach you take, it’s critical to avoid putting up barriers to feedback. Someone who’s suffering from one key problem, might be put off from revealing that information if they have to slog through five pages of questions in order to find the correct textbox to write it in. The more we enable our teams to give us real examples of how we can make their lives better, the more we can act upon it - and if your teams are genuinely happy, there’s less need to obsess over barometers or trend lines.

Key takeaways 📝

  • Dry numbers might be able to tell you about happiness trends, but not how to resolve problems.
  • Be somebody who people want to talk to about their issues.
  • Don’t get in the way of actionable feedback - allow it anonymously if necessary.