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Why Happiness Isn’t a Function of Corporate Culture

Executive Summary

For too long, organizations have saddled themselves to the idea that creating a good corporate culture serves intangible goals.

  • By believing the function of corporate culture is to cultivate employee happiness, they dismiss it in favor of more pressing issues like product and profit.
  • Mark Sanborn argues that intentional leaders focus on providing tools to facilitate individual success.
  • And if they don’t know how to improve corporate culture, they simply ask.

The inability of most organizations to create and nurture a good corporate culture has become one of the greatest business dilemmas of the world as it is. Part of the reason is that too many business leaders are trapped in old ways of thinking, of focusing more on the output of the organization—product, sales, profit—than the organization itself.

After all, if you provide a clean, safe environment for your employees and pay them at a competitive rate, then you’ve done your job. You’re not responsible for their happiness! And this is one of the great misunderstandings about culture, one that so many business leaders actively oppose. The idea that you create a culture for the benefit of the employee—so that the employee is happier—is flawed. Employee happiness is a consequence of a good corporate culture, but it’s not its purpose. Why? Because you could have the greatest corporate culture in the world, and it might not matter at all to one or more employees…Making people happy isn’t the job of an intentional leader.

Empowerment as a Primary Function of Corporate Culture

The job of an intentional leader is giving employees the tools—the philosophy, the training, the communication, and the incentives—to be successful…An employee who leaves work each day might just be a miserable person. You can’t help that. But does this miserable person feel like they were given what they needed to be successful? That’s your job.

This essential misunderstanding between happiness and success is why so many leaders get culture wrong...They make decisions that seem to be the right ones but are based on incorrect reasoning…I recently attended a talk by Judith Glaser, an author and consultant who calls herself an “organizational anthropologist.” She said something that I think hits the nail on the head: “Culture starts with conversations.”

  • Why is morale low? Ask.
  • What do your employees need to be more successful? Ask.
  • What can you do as a leader to help improve the corporate culture? Ask!

We need to understand that, at its most fundamental level, a good culture starts when a leader recognizes the employee as an individual. Everything else flows from that basic premise.

Adapted with permission from The Intention Imperative by Mark Sanborn, copyright Mark Sanborn.

Bring It Home

“Folks are usually about as happy as they make their minds up to be.” Our beloved, bearded and top-hat wearing past president, Abraham Lincoln, spotted a long time ago the crux of the corporate culture issue. My happiness fluctuates day-to-day, depending on a variety of factors which my employers could not possibly control. To expect an employer to be the source of your happiness is like asking an airline passenger to command the pilot seat. It’s not a role it was ever meant to fill. How does your company view the function of corporate culture? Do you take a holistic approach to creating your business environment? Or do you implement silos capable of one-to-one personal development? Share your strategies in the comments below.

Mark Sanborn

Mark Sanborn is a professional speaker, author and leadership strategist who has lived in the Denver area for 30+ years. His business, Sanborn & Associates, Inc. helps leaders at every level learn to lead or lead better.

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