Let's start with some assumptions about front-line leaders. Let's also use the word "happy" as a general term to encompass engagement, satisfaction, and other buzz words that reflect positive vibes.
- Companies pay front-line leaders to deliver outcomes.
- Happy customers create desired outcomes.
- Happy employees create happy customers.
- Happy leaders create happy employees.
So, who is keeping the leaders happy? It isn't as simple as you might think.
Companies know that happiness is essential to their bottom line and often do at least three things to prove it.
- Regular touch bases. The idea is to create personal relationships that help us all feel more connected. More often, this turns into accountability.
- A system of regular praise and feedback. This only works if the recognition and feedback are specific and accurate, representing purposefully done meaningful work.
- Structured development. Mileage will vary here from an internal, curriculum-based program to sending a link to a business account for LinkedIn learning and wishing the leader luck.
If these things worked on their own, there would be happiness abound. Companies have gotten good at branding these tried-but-not-true systems and even recycling them and trying again. So, what's the problem?
Despite their best efforts, companies often don't address the cause of unhappiness in leaders.
According to Peter John Hosie, CQUniversity Australia, and Piyush Sharma and Russel PJ Kingshott, Curtin University, in their article "What makes managers happy or unhappy at work?", happiness, job stress, and job performance are all connected.
Their study of 315 managers from several sectors found three stressors: role ambiguity, role conflict, and role overload.
They defined these as follows:
- Role ambiguity. Managers are unclear about expectations.
- Role conflict. Managers believe meeting customer, team member, and supervisor expectations are impossible.
- Role overload. Managers believe there is too much work for one person.
Complicating this are the initiatives to keep managers happy. They require additional time and focus managers don't have because they are concerned about delivering outcomes, already squeezing out every available minute of the day.
The "happiness program" does work with some - companies keep doing it. Until they work through the reason for the unhappiness, efforts will unlikely translate to the bottom line.
Three things proven leaders do open the door to genuine happiness.
- Clarify expectations in writing and with a conversation. A conversation. Questions, answers... the whole thing. If someone is meeting expectations, clearly state that, and if not, state that too. Telling someone they haven't met expectations for the last six months is not productive or appropriate when it's the first time they heard about it.
- Address conflicting expectations openly. If the expectations are impossible to accomplish, they must be adjusted. Greeting every customer within 30 seconds and reducing payroll by 50% don't work together. "Figure it out" isn't a strategy.
- Reduce the workload or increase efficiency and capacity to address role overload. Be realistic here because tenure and fit matter. Get your hands dirty, look at systems, teach new frameworks, and stay close to new leaders.
Workloads are rarely defined with new managers in mind because businesses optimize for what managers "should" be able to do. If the workload is the problem, reduce it. If the leader is the problem, then training is in order. If they don't have the skill, capacity, or desire, help them find a different job. Whatever you do, don't watch them fail, then let them know you are disappointed. That helps no one.
If you lead people, you are responsible for having clear, attainable expectations for your humans.
It is essential to keep communication open and safe, helping them through modeling and teaching, and validating their success through recognition. Equally important is assisting someone forever frustrated because of a poor fit to find a better fit within or outside your organization.
Then, when you have those touch bases and development meetings, they will have the time and focus on benefiting from them. The recognition will be far more encouraging when they feel known and supported.
I know it won't solve everything, but let's start there.