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December 11, 2020

Happier Employees Equal Better Business Outcomes

By Jeffrey Fredrick

Two Simple Questions for Better Business Outcomes

Two questions I ask during 1-on-1s might strike people as a bit unusual, but they directly lead to better business outcomes: 

  1. Are you happy?
  2. Are you able to do work that you’re proud of?


A core reason is that I care about the people I work with, and I want good things for them. I want them to be happy! When I learn there are obstacles to their happiness, we generally have a productive conversation about what can be changed.

My conceit is that more often than not, we’re successful in coming up with approaches that result in them being happier, and I find that very rewarding.

More importantly—for this blog post—I believe that making employees happier results in better business outcomes.

Learn About Problems Early

These better business outcomes result from two principles working in concert. The first principle is one that I believe is generally accepted: learning about problems earlier is better than learning about problems later. The value of acting on problems early is literally proverbial (a stitch in time saves nine) so I won’t elaborate further.

Discovering Employee Unhappiness Leads to Better Business Outcomes

The second principle is that employee unhappiness is a very early indicator of problems, earlier than will show up on more traditional project management metrics. Why would this be?

The first time I saw this clearly stated was probably in Kent Beck’s 1999 book Extreme Programming Explained. In the conclusion of the book, Kent offered the insight that “all methodologies are based on fear.” The purpose of the methodology is to prevent those fears from becoming reality.

Workers Want Work that Matters

He then offered a list of his fears. The first item on the list is “doing work that doesn’t matter.” I don’t think Kent is an exception. My experience is that workers want their work to matter, they want their projects to succeed. In short, they care about their work.

Workers are on the Front Lines

This is amazingly helpful! The people doing the work are in the best position to assess how the project is progressing. And I don’t mean just “is the work getting done,” I mean something much richer than that.

They have direct access to the dynamics of the project, such as how good the collaboration is, how engaged they and the rest of the team are, if there are productive discussions of trade-offs, if there is a clear sense of purpose, and many other elements.

When those dynamics aren’t right, the project will underperform. When those dynamics aren’t right, the people on the project can sense it. Because those dynamics threaten the project, threaten the meaning of their work, they are unhappy as a result.

Are You Happy?

So when I ask “are you happy?” and the answer is anything less than a strong yes, I often learn some very valuable information that helps us get the dynamics of the project back on track.

I’ve used these questions successfully for many years now with good results. Have you asked people these questions? If so, how did it work for you? Please let me know. 

Jeffrey Fredrick is the coauthor of Agile Conversations. This blog is a follow-up to his interview on The Idealcast podcast with Gene Kim. You can listen to that interview here.

You can follow Jeffrey on Twitter and Linkedin.

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Jeffrey Fredrick

Coauthor of Agile Conversations

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