The Cost of Happiness for Education Leaders

“You can’t make everyone happy.” The adage is so pervasive that it’s lost nearly all meaning, yet I’ve caught myself saying it to colleagues at the slightest provocation:
“That's terrible people are complaining about your new program. You can't make everyone happy.”
“I’m sorry the meeting devolved into a shouting match. You can’t make everyone happy.”
“I saw that nasty reply to your tweet. You can't make everyone happy.”
It’s turned into a way for us to shrug off our hurt feelings when others complain, contradict, or outright explode at us. The phrase, though, points to a chronic headache education leaders face: You try to please the highest number of people without compromising your efficacy.
It’s a game of Whac-A-Mole that ensues when you make what you believe will be a well-received change in response to widespread concerns, which then triggers anger from some people, which causes you to make further changes to placate this second group, which in turn infuriates a third group, and on and on.
The worst part is that this can happen even when you introduce a collaboratively constructed plan vetted by stakeholders from all major groups. Someone will still dislike the change. They may even go out of their way to rally others into voicing complaints, and you, as a leader, have to figure out whether and how to respond.

Moving Beyond Glossy Mottos

In 2023, as teachers are fleeing the profession,  of course you’re going to try to make people happy and improve staff culture. You want your team to see you responding to their concerns, listening to their feedback, and attending to their needs. 
This is part of what good leaders do: They care about morale and satisfaction, and they listen to their team’s input when making major decisions. It’s not inherently wrong to try to please people, even if this means occasionally indulging the dream of trying to please everyone. 
But indulge too much, and you will damage your own morale, not to mention your effectiveness as a leader. The quest to make everyone happy is doomed to fail, so you’ll feel like a failure. Pleasing other people will become more important than achieving your goals, so you won’t achieve them. This is not how you want things to end up. So, where do you draw the line between trying to please the greatest number of people and whacking down moles all day?
The conventional response—the one you and I could probably recite from some grad school manual—is: Stay true to your mission and vision. It’s the “right answer” here because it provides an incontrovertible approach. It is what ideal leaders do. Duly noted. Me, though, I’m not an ideal leader. I’m an everyday practitioner navigating reality, which is why I find this glossy motto to be out of touch. 
It’s out of touch especially now, when your mission has probably been committee-d beyond recognition and when your vision is clouded by a constant fear of who you will anger, or have already angered, or are currently angering. Sometimes leadership isn’t as simple as holding steadfast to noble ideals. Sometimes you just want to get through the day without a fight. Your mission and vision might need to wait until you’ve untangled a political knot or smoothed over a PR nightmare.

Reassessing Your Responsibility Toward Others’ Feelings

When we think of the axiom “You can’t make everyone happy,” we usually focus on the words “everyone” or “happy,” but I propose we focus on the word “make.” You can’t make everyone happy. To be more precise, you can’t make anyone happy—or sad, fulfilled, furious, hopeful, pessimistic, cheerful, cruel, or eager. You can’t make them respond to circumstances in any particular way; this is why two people can have opposite responses to the same crisis, setback, or windfall. It’s why we hear inspiring stories of people maintaining joy throughout horrific experiences. In the words of Marcus Aurelius, “If you are distressed by anything external, the pain is not due to the thing itself, but to your estimate of it, and this you have the power to revoke at any moment.” Plainly put, people choose their reactions, consciously or otherwise.
While the quest to please everyone has no endpoint, the good news is you don’t even have to embark on it. Some people will simply be discontented, cantankerous, or downright furious. What I suggest is to accept this reality without accepting responsibility. I don’t mean denying responsibility for your own actions, of course, but I do mean that other people’s feelings are not your responsibility since they aren’t within your power to control.
Rather than trying to simply please the highest number of people, why not strive to build a culture where outcomes, not emotions, are the priority? Maybe “climate and culture” doesn’t have to refer to people’s contentment but to an environment of professional norms, high expectations, and consistent results. For instance, if you are currently assessing your building culture by measuring employees’ overall satisfaction, perhaps you could, instead, try measuring their sense of accomplishment relative to team goals. Focusing on achievements and progress will bind your team together. Moreover, shifting everyone’s eyes onto shared accomplishments will naturally improve morale, thus reducing the moles popping up every day.
If you feel like a leaf blowing in the wind, completely subject to the gusts of other people’s demands, you probably appear that way to your staff. But it doesn’t have to be that way. The change process starts entirely in your mind. Do you see other people’s happiness as your responsibility or as theirs? Do you see them as having a choice when responding to professional obligations and school initiatives? Do you hold them responsible for the way they speak, write, and behave? Your belief in other people’s agency will impact the way you react to them—even to their anger—and it will help you to actually follow that proper, if lofty, advice: Stay true to your mission and vision. If this sounds impossible, I have another Marcus Aurelius quote for you: “If any man despises me, that is his problem. My only concern is not doing or saying anything deserving of contempt.”
Elizabeth Dampf is the director of professional learning at Round Lake Area Schools 116 in the Chicago area.