- Leandro Herrero - https://leandroherrero.com -

The trouble with ‘happiness’ in business: ultimate goal or oil for the machine? None of the above? Or not the business of business?

The pursue of happiness as a business goal and/or cultural goal, encounters all spectrum of emotions. For some, a naïve goal. For others, a legitimate one. For some, a fluffy and fuzzy semi ‘New Age thing’ that no serious business would have in its mission statement. For others, a true goal, and the glue for the entire company.

On the latter space, and amongst the ‘new companies’ that make headlines for their innovation or their uniqueness, is, of course Zappos, now part of Amazon, and in particular his 41 year old CEO, Tony Hsieh, who in 2010 wrote a book entitled ‘Delivering Happiness’.  Happiness is a serous business in Zappos, as much as its business as online retailer of shoes and apparel. For some, worth a pilgrimage to visit them in their downtown Las Vegas HQ. For others, simple nonsense.

There is also a particular approach to ‘happiness’ in organizations which is part of the Employee Engagement equation: happy people will deliver better results. This is the ‘Happy Cow’ model, one of the six models of employee engagement [1]that I have described.

That is the trouble with happiness. It’s only a word which has very different significance depending on the organization that uses it. The Zappos’ happiness (intrinsic value, clear focus goal of the type that prompts people to ask the question: ‘are they really serious?’; yes, that kind of question) and the average Employee Engagement happiness, that sees it as a lever, a mechanism, a vehicle, the oil for a productive business (run by happy cows), are not the same happiness.

People tend to forget that happiness as a fundamental goal has not been invented by the Zappos of this world, but has been on and off in the business arena before. The primary example is the UK based John Lewis Partnership, today a £10 billion conglomerate of upmarket department stores  and supermarkets, where employees are ‘partners’ ( and they are called like that even in the signs at their entrance to their facilities) and every employee is an owner of the firm. For their 38000 ‘partners’, their salaries are not particularly above the market, but their annual bonuses of profit distribution clearly distinguishes them well.

This is how John Spedan Lewis (1885-1963) described the firm:

The Partnership’s ultimate purpose is the happiness off all its members, through their worthwhile and satisfying employment in a successful business. Because tithe Partnership is owned in trust for its members, they share the responsibilities of ownership as well as its rewards – profit, knowledge and power.

John Lewis was certainly not a kind of Tony Hsieh of his time, but he had his own version of social responsibility, and a view to the answer to the question that Charles Handy would pose many years later: what is a company for? [2]

‘Happiness’ is worth revisiting with serious critical thinking. I really think that the new generations (of employees and customers) don’t see this question as naïve or business-irrelevant. To dismiss it today with the old ‘you must be joking, we are here to make money’ would be very unwise, to say the least.


We need a (happy) meeting point for both sceptical and converted, to exchange ideas on what happiness as a goal or culture may mean for a business in 2015. Both sides should leave preconceived ideological positions at the door and be prepared to exchange ideas and experiences. That would be a very, very happy meeting I would be very happy to attend.