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You Can’t Make Unhappy People Happy

No matter what they bring in, toxic high performers still hurt your business.

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Do you have anyone in your organization who always sees the downside of every conversation or never seems happy no matter what? Do you see a lot of potential in these people and try in vain to change your organization to make them happy? I have some bad news. Unhappy people are unhappy and unlikely to become happy because of anything you’re doing.

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According to Yuval Noah Harari’s book, Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, we all have a setpoint similar to the HVAC settings in our homes. When we experience euphoria or despair, it’s always relative to our own setpoint, and any short-term exhilaration will ultimately glide back to our natural equilibrium. (Harari says it’s a function of Serotonin levels, which is why antidepressants like Zoloft, etc. are Serotonin boosters.) In other words, while that quick pay raise you gave your unhappy, low-setpoint employee, may have spiked his level for a few days to within range of a normal happy person’s setpoint, he’s heading back down to his lower setting sooner or later.

What’s the solution? Someone famously asked the CEO of Southwest Airlines how they get their people to smile all the time. “We just hire people who smile all the time,” he replied. Sounds easy enough, right? Not so much. We’ve all had toxic high performers come through our doors who are amazing programmers, installers, or salespeople. We’re willing to overlook their low setpoint because their skills trump their core-values fit in the moment. That’s the same moment where your company culture takes a hit. When we make short-term decisions and let unhappy people in the door, we justify it to ourselves. Maybe their last job made them unhappy? Our culture will brighten them right up! If you’re listening, the low-setpoint candidate will tell you everything you need to know during the interview if you can resist the urge to overlook the red flags.

Low-setpoint people tend to externalize their problems. If there’s an issue, the low-setpoint candidate will likely frame the conversation around someone else falling short. An easy screening question here is, “Tell me about the last time you were treated unfairly.” Open-ended questions like these can cut right through the noise if we can just sit there and shut up.

At this point, I’m guessing you might be thinking of your last low-setpoint hire or your unhappiest employee. I’m also guessing you’re reluctant to fire them because they’re a high performer and you worry about what might happen to the business if they leave. What will happen to your business if you allow them to stay?

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Since we can’t make unhappy people happy, consider making your company a beacon for happy people. Happy employees make happy customers. Round and round we go. By focusing on things within your control like building a strong culture and not hiring unhappy employees to begin with, you’ll start to transform your business into a happy-person magnet. Happy people will make your life as an owner much easier — they don’t need micromanagement, they come up with zany ways to enliven your office culture, and they’re fun to be around. Do you like being around unhappy people? I didn’t think so. I’m sure there are jobs out there suited for unhappy people, but I don’t know of any within the CI world.

I also want to be clear that I’m all for unhappy people doing whatever it takes to help them develop the tools to help them cope with their issues. There are a ton of mental health resources and medications out there that can help take a low-setpoint personality and adjust it up. I speak from experience. I’m a low-setpoint person addicted to endurance running, which injects a ton of setpoint-raising neurotransmitters into my bloodstream on a daily basis. Being unhappy isn’t the crime. Not doing something about it and infecting others with your unhappiness certainly is.

What are you doing to protect your house from unhappy people?

Stay frosty, and see you in the field.