Don't Manage For Happiness

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Don't Manage For Happiness

While you want your team to be happy, as a manager, Agile Coach, or Scrum Master your primary goal is to make them more productive, whatever their mood.

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I could be at risk of being on the receiving end of a barrage of discredit here, but the modern notion of managing for happiness, optimism, and motivation should probably stop. For a while now, I've noticed the idea causing much more harm than good.

"Heresy!" you say.

This is not the most popular opinion I hold, but hear me out. For a long time, I tried to manage for happiness and though I had some success, I'm not so sure it's all we think it is. It didn't give me the results I had hoped for.

I need to point out, that I'm not trying to knock the work that the good people of Management 3.0 are doing, in the least bit. I agree almost entirely with their approaches to line management and to business in general. This isn't a post about them and I found Jurgen Appelo's book to be well worth reading. I really like some of the ideas in there and I've used techniques like the Kudo Box and Cards approach to great effect when I think it will help the team I'm working alongside.

The Management 3.0 movement is a wonderful thing for all concerned and I wholeheartedly support it. Their words though, like so many before, are often taken at face value and subsequently misused.

That trivialisation results in a dangerously narrow-minded view of management, which forces the infinitely varied range of human behavior into a dichotomy of good-positive and bad-negative behavior. 

That dichotomy oversimplifies reality. It's not a useful measurement and it's probably quite damaging because:

  1. Positivity is only one tool.
  2. Bad things happen!
  3. Moods are unreliable.

Positivity Is Only One Tool

In our efforts to create a better workplace (which is a good cause), some cultures have grown into a state where we expect positivity from everybody we work with at all times. So much so, that negativity, skepticism, and uncertainty have started to become socially unacceptable attitudes. 

We are creating a situation where there is only room for positivity. Being happy and positive at work is considered a part of the job more than ever. If you really believe that though, you're not really managing for happiness, you're choosing to only manage happy people. That's a very poor plan if you're working with reality and it's simply not true that only positive people are productive. It's a pretty odd and unrealistic thing to expect from people too.

A real problem with the good-positive/bad-negative dichotomy is that it doesn't pay any attention to the two other possibilities: bad-positive and good-negative behavior. Bad-positive behavior is naivety or over confidence and good-negative is skepticism and objectivity. 

Good managers have skills to encourage productive behaviors and help with unproductive ones for sure, but positivity isn't inherently good and negativity isn't inherently bad. In the face of something negative, I coach differently than I would in a positive situation.

Being perpetually positive and optimistic in a leadership position is at best underutilizing and not encouraging the negative skills in your team. At the extreme end of the scale, it's neglectful.

Stuff Happens, Admit It!

When a negative thing happens, it's important to acknowledge it.

I'm not talking about blame here, but the simple pointing out of the fact that something is failing or has already failed. For an organization to work effectively, that has to happen across all levels. From individual team member contributions, right up to company-wide initiatives. When something isn't working, you need to be able to call it out without fear being treated differently.

Sometimes there really is an elephant in the room and you shouldn't ignore it. When people, plans, and organizations don't adjust to reality, trust dissolves quicker than the acid guy at the end of Robocop, and the whole process turns into a theatrical production. Smart people turn into cogs in a matter of days and it takes a lot of effort and social capital to recover from that.

Moods Are Unreliable

There's no doubt that optimism, positivity, and motivation are nice feelings we can have about our work. I love being happy and optimistic at work. They are feelings though, and that makes them pretty irrational and subjective things. Optimism, positivity, and motivation are governed by a person's mood more than anything else and a person's mood is about as difficult to predict as the weather.

Read that last bit again and think about it for a second. Are we really trying to manage for something that unpredictable?

I care about the people and teams I work with, but I'm not responsible for their mood being a happy one and I can't pretend that it's a useful method of delivery because well, that would be ludicrous!

It's pretty egotistical too, to think that a person's mood can so completely be driven by their work life.

It would be an odd thing to try to manage for. Aiming for something as unstable as happiness is not a good goal to choose. 

Moods are a completely internal experience that passes over us like waves. They change quickly and sometimes erratically. For some reason, we like to think we should be immune to that, but we simply aren't.  

Behavior is the external manifestation of mood and although it doesn't make sense to talk about happy behavior, it does make sense to manage and coach for effective behavior, regardless of the mood you happen to be in.

What to Manage For

I think there are three critical skills that we spend too little time on. Discipline, objectivity, and composure.

When negative things happen, it's not realistic or fair to expect positive, motivated people. It is fair to still expect someone to do a good job, though. If our position is that always being happy at work is a basic human right and unhappy team members are the result of bad management, then you will lose the drive and skills to do a good job. There won't be the discipline to weather difficult situations, there won't be the skepticism to make sure you don't repeat your mistakes and there will be panic-driven decision making.

Managing for happiness only creates an organization which is ill-prepared for difficult times. Encourage critical thinking.

When somebody says, "we've tried this before, and it didn't work," you can't dismiss that as a negative attitude. Instead, acknowledge the objectivity and try to understand why it didn't work before. Or at the very least, why it didn't work for them. Negative opinions don't usually come from a desire to shoot down every idea (that's just a management cop out), they need to be understood just as much, if not more, than the positive ones.

When somebody says they're not motivated at the moment, remind them it's okay to not be. That's just normal life. Our family lives work exactly the same way. When motivation fails you (and if your human, it does) you have to rely on discipline.

If discipline is tough for you, remember:

You don't have to want to do something to get it done.

You can be committed to trying something, even when you don't think it will work. 

Again, acknowledge that you think something isn't right and then crack on and do it anyway. Unless you are in a position to make a change, there and then, you'd might as well just get on and do it. If you've got to complain, do it afterward.

When it feels like someone's emotions are driving bad decisions, give them the space to reset. It's not a managers responsibility to make them happy again, but it's reasonable to expect people to have bad days. Good management involves having the skills to deal with that in a way that is effective.

It's okay for you or anybody else to not be happy and positive all the time. It's okay to feel angry about something if you don't let it consume you.

When you accept that feeling unhappy or negative about something is a necessary part of being human, and you don't judge yourself for it, your own sense of well-being improves. There's no pressure to be captain happy anymore.

When you lead teams to come to expect and understand that of each other, the group gels, politics disappears, and work gets a lot calmer.

And calmness, I think, is a much more useful thing to manage for.


Don't feel the need to be happy all the time. That's myopic nonsense. Happiness is not a measure of how good you are at your job or as a person.  

If you're an individual contributor, focus on being calm and effective.

If you're a manager, focus on creating an environment that encourages objectivity and passion without emotional over-investment. The happiness of your team is not your responsibility. Do what you can, of course, to make work easier and more effective for them; that might make them happy as a result but it can't be your only goal.

Let's not try not to create a culture where only positivity shines.

culture ,management ,agile ,agile coach ,scrum master

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