In a Forbes article written by Liz Ryan, she argues that “employee happiness is the wrong goal” for a company to have.

She writes that most attempts at boosting team satisfaction are misguided: “Happiness is fleeting, but a connection to your work is a power source that gets stronger over time.” Instead of zeroing in on implementing fancy new programs designed to mobilize happy employees, employers should take the approach of creating a work environment where team members feel ownership over their work. Basically, Ryan is saying that organizations should get the foundation of culture in order first and foremost, taking priority over initiatives such as free lunch Fridays.

Employee happiness should absolutely be a goal of every business. It’s just that companies are missing another key component of the definition of happy employees at work—their level of engagement.

Degrees of employee engagement and happiness

For the most part, it’s easy to tell the difference between a content team member and a hostile team member. But there are degrees of engagement or happiness at work—and we pay a lot less attention to those nuances. For team members, happiness level means the difference between a ‘for now’ job and a ‘forever’ job. Contented employees might be swayed by extra cash or a step up the corporate ladder. But when someone is invested and truly happy in their work, their commitment to the company rests on more meaningful aspects than compensation or job title.

So what do happy employees look like? Two team members rallying at the ping-pong table? Maybe. But could it also be the one who’s visibly peeved when they receive push back on a project?

Often, we interpret a scene like this as evidence of discontentment, rather than what it really is: passion. This person, currently pulling their hair out at their desk, is passionate—why else would they care so much? This kind of invested engagement is central to employee happiness. People need a purpose, and if they find it at your company, they’ll find many reasons to stay.

When it comes to identifying happy employees, it’s not all sunshine and rainbows—companies need to look at employee happiness with a wide-view lens, rather than a microscope.

Happy employees or engaged employees?

Ryan reads examples like those above as evidence of engagement, not happiness. “He is alternately ecstatic, frustrated, transported, confused, exhausted, and lost in the zone,” she writes, describing a hypothetical, highly engaged employee. It may just seem like semantics, then—what we call happiness, she terms engagement, and what does it really matter except that this should be a goal for every company? We think it matters a great deal.

It’s worth exploring why companies are hesitant to talk about ‘happiness’ in the workplace. ‘Engagement’ seems less soft and more strategic: you can measure it, after all, with metrics like productivity or attendance. It’s harder to get a read on happiness since, as critics point out, happy employees aren’t always engaged ones.

Privileging ‘employee engagement’ over ‘employee happiness’ is just one more way language reduces team members to cogs in the machine, or resources to be consumed. Bring up ‘employee happiness’ and the conversation changes. Sure, the business benefits big time—but so do the people who come to work with you every day.

Building employer brand equity with employee happiness

By focusing on employee happiness overall, you build employer brand equity with your team members, and that informs how the hard times are interpreted.

If an employer pushes back on every idea an employee presents, a team member will move from frustrated to resigned. If there is never any compromise offered, passionate arguments will turn into one-word replies. Those are the real signs of discontentment, not fiery rebuttals or stubborn stand-offs. But create a work atmosphere of trust and compromise, where everyone is afforded creative control and liberty, and you’ll find that soon enough, you will have happy employees that are also engaged with your organization.

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