Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Measuring happiness

I am no longer in the working world. Do I miss it? I do miss the infusion of cash and the camaraderie of my co-workers, which sadly was decreasing over recent years. What I do not miss is the decisions made by business school grads versus scientists in upper management. As time went on, more of my time was spent justifying what I have done or what I will do so my output could be measured that I had less time to do actual, productive work. Research does not mesh neatly with metrics. There is no formula that will predict success and when. One of the more ridiculous examples of this disconnect occurred in our final year: the measurement of our engagement or happiness.

Business school rule: Engaged employees are productive employees. The converse is true i.e. disengaged employees are less productive employees. So far I agree.

Assumption allegedly based on 'research' from the Gallup folks: The collective employees' engagement can be measured by conducting a survey asking eleven key questions. One of the questions was whether I had a best friend at work and I was to answer that on a scale from 0 to 5. There was no space for me to answer: You fired all my best friends: every last one of them! (Note that I didn't spell fire with a 'p' which is how it is spelled in these parts).

Assumption: Answers to these questions will be pooled according to the groups (ours was of 20 individuals) and weak spots will be identified. Focus groups will be formed in which these weak spots will be addressed. The onus of this will be on the manager of the particular group. The survey will be retaken. If the numbers don't significantly rise, the manager will be found responsible and his annual performance (which now was conducted 4 times a year to ensure objectives were continually being met-more time waste and more anxiety) would reflect it.

Assumption: Now that our key issues have been addressed, we will be happier employees and thus more productive. More return to our shareholders. All will be right with the world. So they made our cute boss responsible for our happiness and held him for ransom: Answer the way we want our we will shoot this dog! Although the boss in question was responsible for implementing the corporate will, none of us thought for a second that he was responsible for it; he was merely the messenger. This entire exercise increased cynicism even if we did improve the scores we gave. We were told that if the scores did not improve, we'd have these silly meetings until they did rise. Most of us did like the boss even if we didn't like his message.

We had some interesting assumptions of our own. How anonymous were these surveys? I can't remember if we filled them out on corporate computers or not. Wouldn't it be easier for the company to set their sights on the unhappy campers, get rid of them and then productivity will rise. We know nothing is private on their computers. Even if they kept their word about individual responses, our aggregate unhappiness might signal that this whole site is full of unhappy campers and should be excised in one fell swoop during the downsizing next year despite the more productive history. Were the other sites 'happier'? They knew how to fill out these surveys from greater past experience. Our responses were to be on a scale from 0 to 5. Many people answered 3, which unbeknownst to us, was not the desired response. We were to give all 5s. When asked why we gave 3s, some answered that since we also were graded on a scale of 1 to 5 with the majority in the 3 range, we figured 3s are good as we were continually told. To survive, you give the ones who sign your paycheck what they want: I gave 5s on the second survey. I don't know what my colleagues did.

This survey was hardly unique to our company: it is widespread. By the next year, our site was closed down. The company offered jobs at other sites to the alleged 'good' ones. Fortunately we could afford to be part of the ones 'left behind'. It was very sad to see the ones left behind without this option.

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