University of Arkansas

Walton College

The Sam M. Walton College of Business

Happiness Begets Engagement

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November 09, 2023  |  By Stacey Mason

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Gallup is regarded as the authority on the topic of employee engagement. Figures show employee engagement percentages across three spectrums: actively disengaged, not engaged (referred to as just there), and engaged. The 2022 Gallup numbers came in at 18%, 50%, and 32% respectively. A full half of the workforce is merely just there. And if that’s not disturbing enough, think about the 18% that are actively disengaged. These individuals are actively and intentionally spreading dissatisfaction to others. It seems unlikely the third that are actually engaged can off-set that momentum. And maybe the worst part of all is that the numbers fluctuate only a couple of percentage points from year to year. So for all the talk on the topic, not much changes.  

From my perspective, here’s the miss. “I” am the fundamental equation in the question, and yet no one is asking me about “me.” Engagement surveys don’t inquire about personal well-being or individual levels of happiness. Shouldn’t the individual be the primary conversation? I think so.  

Generally speaking, engagement discussions tend to get lumped into three buckets. All worthy conversations, but secondary ones.  

The role of the organization 

Engagement commentary overwhelmingly implies that the organization is at fault for poor results. Apparently the organization must bear the burden. That seems unbalanced. Does the organization play a role? It does. Is the role that it plays primary to a more engaged workforce? It isn’t. I want to see organizations excel in all the ways that matter to its particular workforce, but I find it unlikely that individual engagement will be solved by the collective actions of the entity. Engagement is an individual decision that I make or don’t make.  

The influence of leadership 

After pointing to organizational gaps, another common thread is the overarching statement of, “leaders hold the key to employee engagement.” I could go along with that statement if “leader” meant “self,” as in self-leader(ship). But that’s not what it means. The statement suggests that I’ve acquiesced control of my personal engagement to another party. If I were genuinely happy, would I send in my vote by proxy? I would not.  

The financial impact 

Studies are quick to point out the negative financial impacts resulting from the roughly 70% of the workforce that is categorized at actively disengaged or just there, targeting front-line productivity to bottom-line profitability – and everything in between. Yet there is wealth beyond the P&L statement. There is untold wealth that happiness has the potential to create for mankind. The quest for individual happiness has far greater staying power. Organizations will continue to come and go over time, but humanity endures.  

For me, in the end, what is missing in all this cacophonous conversation on employee engagement is the truest, deepest, most basic human question of all: am I happy?  

And don’t dilute the question. It’s not “am I happy at work,” or “am I happy with my boss,” or “am I happy with the vision of the organization,” but – as a human being – am I happy with myself, am I happy with who I am, am I happy with the life that I lead. Happiness is the driver to a life that contains engagement. Happiness begets engagement, not the other way around.

And just maybe we’re starting to make progress on the happiness front. Greater numbers of people are embracing contemplative practices (mindfulness, meditation, centering) and creating simplified lives (less stuff, more experiences). There is a deep yearning to understand what truly brings joy and how that joy can be central to a life. I have to believe that once we get a real sense of what makes us happy, we gravitate toward work that matters, in organizations where we flourish, along side people we are genuinely excited to see every day. Once I’ve made those decisions, then ask me if I’m engaged. Actually no, don’t ask me that. Ask me if I’ve come alive. Because what we need is people who have come alive.  

Happiness is an individual decision: a choice I make. And happiness begets engagement. Let’s get to the root of the discussion. What we need is for the human race to discover happiness.  

Ancora Imparo… (Still I am learning)

A version of this article originally appeared in Arkansas Talk Business & Politics 

Stacey MasonFounder of The Improv Lab, Stacey Mason has immersed herself in the field of Applied Improvisation for the last decade after co-founding several comedy improv troupes and training with various actor-teams including Second City in Chicago. Her corporate background includes nearly 20 years at Walmart in Logistics, Global Supply Chain and Merchandising/Replenishment before shifting towards culture coaching, stewarding the Walton Institute, Walmart’s flagship culture program. She partners with Walton College Executive Education on innovation programs and other initiatives