With Martin G. Moore

Episode #8

Are Happy Workers Productive Workers? What really drives your people

I hope that after listening to this, you understand that unhappy workers will never deliver for you, but many happy workers won’t either. As a leader, you need to help your people to be successful in a way that grows their self-esteem and confidence, and that’s the right kind of happy.

If you’re afraid of challenging, coaching, and confronting, you can never help your people to achieve this and your team will be less than it should be!


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Episode #8 Are Happy Workers Productive Workers? What really drives your people

This could well be an episode of “MythBusters.” There’s a common misconception that has been somewhat perpetuated by recent academic research, that happy workers are productive workers, but this is not necessarily the case.

Here, we will examine the factors that drive workforce productivity and how your role as a leader influences this. We’ll go through how sometimes happy workers are just happy workers, nothing more. Then we’re going to talk about the chicken or the egg – which one of those came first, why being a permissive leader builds people who are neither happy nor productive, and then finally we’re going to talk about challenging, coaching, and confronting. That’s the path to helping people to be both happy and productive. So let’s get into it.

Sometimes happy workers are just happy workers, nothing more!

Now it’s almost intuitively obvious that not all happy workers are productive, and not all productive workers are happy, although it is quite likely that unhappy workers are not productive.

Let’s get clear first on the distinction between correlation and causality. Many things are correlated, but they don’t have a cause and effect relationship. So for example, there is a causal relationship between altitude and temperature. The higher up you ascend in terms of altitude, the colder it gets.

There’s also a causal relationship between smoking and lung cancer. That’s because smoking’s been statistically proven to cause an increase in the incidents of lung cancer. This is cause and effect. You smoke and you’re much more likely to contract lung cancer than if you don’t.

But there are also non-causal relationships around smoking. For example, the relationship between smoking and alcoholism. Now smoking is correlated with alcoholism, but that’s not to suggest that smoking causes alcoholism. As they say in the advertising industry, “We know that half of our advertising spend is wasted; we just don’t know which half.”

Now it’s much easier to establish correlation than it is to establish causality. In leadership and business, we tend to frequently assign causality when it doesn’t actually exist, so be careful of that trap. This is how we get the happy workers and productive workers fallacy.

My belief is that there’s likely correlation between happy workers and productive workers but no causal relationship between the two.

So let’s just take a look at a quick example. There is a reasonably sized business in Australia that will remain nameless for reasons that are going to become obvious shortly. This was an organisation in which the engagement score, as measured by the most widely used and respected engagement survey instrument, was extremely high. One might call it an exemplar of an engaged organisation, and you’d expect the results achieved to reflect that.

As it turns out, once you drill down below the surface, this was absolutely not the case. The people were indeed very happy because as one employee put it, “We get paid really well and the job is a total bludge. The work is really easy. The boss pretty much lets us do what we want. If we’re working night shift, there’s a place we can take turns to get some sleep. And if we ever need extra money, we just book our own overtime. I love working for this company.” 

Now, why wouldn’t they be happy? Clearly, in this case, happy workers were the antithesis of productive workers. It’s also one where trust and organisational development advisor Danny Hovey convinced me easily that we should shift to measuring culture rather than engagement.

If you’re engaged in a high-performance culture, then you do get the happy workers equals productive workers results, but I suspect this is the expectation rather than the rule for most organisations.

What comes first, the chicken or the egg?

So the obvious question is, do happy people get results, or does getting results make people happy?

Now because I’ve learned to eat my own dog food, I’m not going to claim a causal relationship here. However, my observational view is that it’s much more likely to be the latter than the former, and the levers that the leader can pull are served much better when thinking about it that way. In my experience, results and success make people happy because they can see that they make a difference.

Think about starting a “get fit again” regime, which for anyone over the age of 30, I suspect you’ve done more than once. When you first start, it feels painful, awkward, and uncomfortable. If you waited to be happy or needed to be motivated before you started, you’d give up somewhere in the vicinity of day one. However, if you stick at it for several weeks, you start to see results. It becomes easier and you really start to bank the self-esteem and satisfaction benefits that come from achieving something difficult. Motivation doesn’t lead to success in this endeavour; it’s completely the other way around: success leads to motivation. A virtual circle is built up and that is self-perpetuating.

I’m a huge believer of the maxim that success drives self-esteem; it’s about overcoming difficult challenges and prevailing, and the type of self-esteem that success creates is what drives long term happiness.

As a leader, you’ll multiply your team’s productivity and effectiveness if you can lead them to achieve worthwhile and difficult goals and get a taste of success.

There’s another principle at play here as well, and that’s the principle that the harder the climb, the better the view from the top. Now, just to give you a personal example, I’ve run a few marathons. Not really fast, but fast enough to say that I went hard, so around the 3hr: 15-minute mark. Now to put that into context for those of you that don’t know marathon running, the fastest time ever run for a marathon, which is 26.2 miles or 42.2km, is just over two hours. In 1994, Oprah Winfrey ran a marathon. She ran the Marine Corp Marathon in Arlington, Virginia, and she ran it in just under four-and-a-half hours. So where I sit is smack bang in between the fastest marathon ever run by a human being and Oprah Winfrey.

My daughter and business partner, Emma, is stronger than me. She’s completed an ultra marathon, the North Face 50km, in a mountain range just west of Sydney. Now when Emma and I talk about this, we agree that the satisfaction, self-esteem, and happiness that comes from completing a challenge like this would be nowhere near as sweet, nor reinforcing, if it weren’t for the pain, the doubt, and the physical and mental barriers that have to be overcome to achieve it. If there is no struggle, there is no victory.

Now as a leader, I’ve seen time and time again that leading your people to achieve difficult goals that they weren’t sure they could achieve is the way to make them happier in their work, and this follows the productivity required to achieve it. With very few exceptions, this is the type of environment that drives the team and individual performance and success.

Why being a permissive leader builds people who are neither happy nor productive

I’ve seen the devastating effects of a laissez-faire leader. They seem to think that if you keep people “happy,” they will naturally give you their best work. In my experience, this is almost never the case.

You’ll recognise a permissive or weak leader because they’ll verbalise it in a few different ways. Just make a little note here and check off whether or not you stay these things either just to yourself or to other people around you:

  • “You catch more flies with honey than vinegar.”
    Now I actually agree with this one because what you end up with is an infestation of flies.

  • “Keeping your people happy is really important if you want to get the best out of them.”
    I think we’ve sort of covered off on that one already.

  • “I can’t discipline Jeff because he’ll become demotivated.”
    Now think about what happens to your good people if you don’t deal with underperformers like Jeff. This is still one of the top reasons given for unwelcome staff turnover; that is, people who you really want to keep leaving your organisation.

I had an executive who worked for me a little while back who was the poster child for permissive leadership. She would constantly shell her team with superlatives: wonderful, amazing, stupendous, brilliant. It was basically a walking thesaurus of sunshine and rainbows.

The only problem was her team knew all too well the areas in which they weren’t achieving results or performing the way they should. So rather than motivating them, I suspect they saw it as disingenuous and insincere. And it also created another insidious problem. When you’ve just inappropriately lavished one of your team members with effusive praise and then they need to be challenged or confronted about something, you’ve got nowhere to go. The dissonance that this creates destroys any semblance of trust and respect that the leader might have had.

Now the permissive leader knows this and will really avoid challenging, coaching, and confronting because they intuitively feel that dissonance too, and this has an effect on culture. I had a number of leaders at lower levels in CS Energy who either couldn’t understand or chose not to understand what high-performance, constructive culture actually was.

I’d hear things said like this: “We can’t say anything negative to Jodie because we’re trying to build a constructive culture.” Now make no mistake, there’s nothing soft, permissive, or laissez-faire about a constructive culture. It is only built by demanding the best from every individual in the team, and making sure as a leader you can help them bring that out.

Why challenging, coaching, and confronting is the way to get the best out of your team

So let’s talk about why challenging, coaching, and confronting is going to get the best out of your team and ultimately make your productive workers happy workers.

I’ve probably lost some of you on this stuff because of your natural bent to optimism and positivity, which, don’t get me wrong, are important facets for a great leader to have, but having led a huge variety of different people in different industries and organisations in the last 30 years or so, I believe this in a way that I can’t convey strongly enough to you.

Let’s go with my assertion for the moment that people with self-esteem who feel that they have impact and control and regularly taste success with difficult and worthwhile challenges are going to be your productive workers. How would you achieve this? I’ve got four things for you to take note of here:

1) Maintain the discipline of regular feedback

By this, I mean feedback that is good, bad, and neutral. Remember, when people come into the organisation each day, they want to know three things from their leader:

  • “What are your expectations of me?”

  • “How am I performing against those expectations?”

  • “What does my future hold?”

You achieve this over dozens of incremental conversations that we call the leadership dialogue. This bridges predominantly work issues, but with a growing personal connection as you get to know each other better. Now if you’re not 100% comfortable with giving feedback, check out Episode #6: The Psychology of Feedback. You have to get your head around this and make it a personal habit.

2) Set challenging but achievable goals, and help your people to deliver the goods

This builds the self-esteem that makes your people both happy and productive. It’s not that short-term, sugar hit of joy, but a deeper and more sustainable version of happy. But how do you know whether a goal is being set with the right level of challenge?

My own high-performance coach, an incredible human by the name of Rachel Vicary, put me onto a book that has a very useful perspective on this. The book is called “The Rise of Superman” by Steven Kotler, and he talks about the ratio between challenge and skill. I’m just going to quote a passage from this book,

“This idea behind the challenge to skill ratio is that attention is most engaged when there’s a very specific relationship between the difficulty of a task and our ability to perform that task. If the challenge is too great, fear swamps the system. If the challenge is too easy, we stop paying attention. So the state of flow or getting into the zone appears near the emotional midpoint between boredom and anxiety; the spot where the task is hard enough to make a stretch, but not hard enough to make a snap. How hard is that? Answers vary, but the general thinking is about 4%. That’s it. That’s the sweet spot. If you want to trigger flow, the challenge should be 4% greater than the skills. In technical terms, the sweet spot is the end result of what is known as the Yerkes-Dodson Law, the fact that increased stress leads to increased performance up to a certain intensity, beyond which performance levels off or declines.”

3) Give people the gift of clarity

In my experience, people hate uncertainty more than anything else, and this includes bad news. At least with clarity, even if the news is bad, people can get on with it, and they can go through their coping cycles to eventually arrive at an answer. But as a leader, you really need to work on your communication skills, and this requires not just the technical capability to communicate, but also the emotional intelligence to work out how to deliver messages to different people. I have seen more than one executive career completely derailed because of poor communication skills.

4) Challenge, coach and confront

At the risk of oversimplifying this, once you have these other three things in play, you are then in a position to challenge, coach, and confront.

This is the rocket fuel that, as a leader, drives your people to optimum performance, but you can’t do this until you’ve built some trust, set the goals at the right level of challenge, and made sure your people have real clarity about what’s required.

Sometimes these conversations can be difficult, but if you have the right people on your team, they’ll be totally receptive to any feedback you want to give them.

The most fun conversations are with high performers who you can help to improve even more. They love the fact that they get useful information to help them perform better and to grow. High performers are more likely to try to implement your feedback. This helps them to achieve more success, drive better results, and thereby lift their self-esteem, and that is, in my view, what makes productive workers.

In summary, unhappy workers will never deliver for you, but many happy workers won’t either. As a leader, you need to help your people to be successful in a way that grows their self-esteem and confidence, and that’s the right kind of happy. If you’re afraid of challenging, coaching, and confronting, you can never help your people to achieve this and your team will be less than it should be.


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