The most important KPI should be employee satisfaction

It is a common misconception that the most important KPI in a business is customer satisfaction. I am sure a lot of managers will fall out of their seats when reading that sentence. But I am serious.

What I mean is: Customer satisfaction is important. But it is more important how your employees are feeling. It is not really that complicated. If you have employees who thrive, feel seen, heard and successful, they will work better. And that means that your customers will receive the best possible service, deliverable or product, and that will improve your customer satisfaction score. Success breeds success.

However, employee satisfaction is only one part of what it means to work with leadership, and we should therefore include far more elements when we talk about working with “the whole human being” as part of the leadership discipline.

When working with people, there is not just one right answer and consequently more than one way you can do the right thing as a leader. My best advice is therefore to keep hitting the books and being inspired. Never trust one theory blindly, and allow yourself to develop as a leader and change the way you lead depending on new learnings and on your employees.

My recommendations in the following is therefore just one view and one possible source of inspiration for working with the whole human being as a leadership discipline.

Happiness is the new black in leadership

Every year, The Happiness Research Institute, which is an independent thinktank, publishes their annual survey on countries’ ”Happiness”, ”Wellbeing” and ”Quality of Life”. The report ”The World Happiness Report”[1] is based on guidelines and benchmarks from OECD and consists of a number of dimensions. 156 countries are included in the report, and the Scandinavian countries have consistently been at the top of the list since the inception of the report.

In layman terms, you could say that the Scandinavian countries have the happiest people in the world.

As a Scandinavian, you may think that you do not exactly flit about in constant daze of happiness. But I would still dare to argue that all Scandinavians can recognise these parameters as fundamental to our societies.

The parameters at which the Scandinavian countries receive a high score include:

  • Democracy
  • Political rights
  • Corruption
  • Security
  • Mutual trust
  • Equality in income

But if you take a closer look at the above parameters from the happiness report, you will find that there is nothing specific mentioned about e.g. job content, career development, salary, title or any of the other prestige parameters that come with your job. In other words, according to science, these are not parameters crucial to our sense of happiness. This is interesting as we spend five out of seven days of the week at work, and as your job is typically what we identify ourselves with.

On the other hand, the report also tells us that as Scandinavian leaders, we have a head start if we want to have happy employees as all the fundamentals in society already are in place. But if we want to improve the welfare and happiness of our employees, we need to look beyond the parameters included in today’s employee satisfaction surveys. We need to look at the whole human being.

Let me illustrate why with a short story:

Imagine that your six-year-old daughter just started in school. You know that she is bright and she received top assessments in kindergarten, where she also had a lot of playmates. She has not been able to make any friends in her new class. She feels left out, and her development has halted. Her teachers state that she had a good start and seemed bright, but after a couple of months, they are beginning to have doubts about her abilities. They also tell you that she has a hard time joining in at when the other kids are playing during recess.

As her parent, are you thinking that her academic and social skills have vanished? Or are you thinking that she is unhappy in her class and that this is the reason why she is not showing the skills that you know she has?

I am guessing the latter.

We are not talking curriculum, homework and exams. We are talking happiness, welfare and quality of life as the triggers for bringing out the best possible girl, playmate and pupil in your daughter.

If we, both as leaders and as companies, have the courage to go beyond working with and measuring our employee’s job satisfaction and performance to also working with happiness and quality of life, i.e. the whole human being, everyone will benefit. Studies show that happy employees who thrive and have a high quality of life, both privately and professionally, are likely to be more productive, innovative and strong at cooperation.

Leading “the whole human being” at work

So how do you actually work with the whole human being as a leadership discipline?

The most comprehensive path is to set the happiness of your employees and consequently of the company as one of your overall corporate objectives. This will not only require anchoring at the executive level but also that a project, framework and budget are defined, and that mandate is given for executing initiatives on the topic both before, during and after. It is also important to understand that this is not a one-off project but rather a cultural project that will require change leadership at the highest levels of the organisation if the changes are to be anchored in the company DNA.

One way to get started is to simply expand your employee satisfaction surveys with additional questions aimed at identifying what works and what doesn’t work with respect to happiness. This is the long haul and a drastic move that the executive team has to have faith in and be truly committed to, but this is definitely also the approach that will result in the strongest effect in the long run.

You may be thinking that this is too much to take on. Is there an easier approach?

The answer is yes. The above approach can be adjusted depending on your company size and characteristics from functions and departments all the way down to your role as manager. Irrespective of whether you have two or 100 employees, you are free to decide that this is to be your leadership style. That you want to make room for your employees to be whole human beings in your department.

There is inspiration to be had in the reports from The Happiness Research Institute. These are a selection of the parameters that I have personal experience working with and which you can incorporate in your personal leadership style.

Evaluation of your life

Imagine a ladder with steps going from zero to ten with ten being the best possible life for you. Where on the ladder are you right now?

Emotional state

How are you feeling right now? Keywords for emotions Active, afraid, attentive, shameful, determined, concerned, enthusiastic, angry, guilty, hostile, inspired, interested, irritated, excited, anxious, proud, afraid, strong and agitated.

Is your life meaningful?

Do you generally feel that your life is meaningful?

Use the above questions on a continuous basis in your daily work with your employees. Maybe not always as direct questions, but listen to how your employees express themselves and whether their statements change over time. Ask questions when you sense that there is room for it. Look them in the eye Monday morning and ask about their weekend with genuine curiosity. Be attentive and interested in their answers.

Make time during your regular meetings one on one to talk about them and about how they are doing – a 360-degree talk about their lives. At the end of the day, the simple essence of the above is that you can contribute to your employees’ sense of happiness by showing that they are being seen and acknowledged as individuals with their own personal joys and sorrows and ambitions. Not just as their professional performance.

You have to dare to show your true self

Whew, you may think. That is a lot to take on for just me in my department. But it is basically just about good leadership: visible leadership, honest leadership and attentive leadership.

My best piece of advice for you who is looking for ways to improve the happiness of your employees is to make their leadership a priority and to show them that there is room for them as whole human beings at the workplace. It is not about paying a high salary and offering your employees champagne every Friday afternoon (this probably won’t hurt though). It is about bringing out the best in each individual. Listen to them, talk to them, ask them how they are doing, include them and be available to them. Make it a priority to set the best team and bring out the best in all of your employees through tasks and development. Give feedback – lots of feedback.

And remember that you also have to dare to show your true self and show your employees that you are a whole human being. A whole human being who shows emotions, shares life stories and experiences and who is authentic in the workplace.

If you do that, you will demonstrate to your employees that it is allowed and valued to be a whole human being, and that will make us all happier. Everybody wins!





This article was originally published in Ledelse i Udvikling.