Job Satisfaction: Who Are We Fooling?

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Jeff Garton

Although data exists to justify the implementation of programs that reward, satisfy, develop, promote, empower, involve, recognize, retain, engage, balance and strengthen workers, every new generation entering the workforce still complains about the same dissatisfactions as the generation before them. And workers still quit regardless of whether they are made satisfied and engaged or not. Those behaviors do not consistently improve how people think, which should raise questions as to whether they improve performance.

Industrial psychologists have long suspected that making workers satisfied may not be the most effective means of motivating good performance. Workers realize that employers are not in business to satisfy them and that jobs and rewards are here today but could be gone tomorrow. But there is a deeper explanation to this problem.


This is the first of two articles that challenge traditional thinking regarding the effectiveness of satisfaction and engagement programs to improve retention and productivity. This first article reviews known challenges to these solutions. The second article reviews an alternative solution.

The point: no matter what employers do, workers are never completely satisfied, or the conditions for satisfaction to exist cannot be maintained except on a temporary basis. If this is true, employers are wasting billions of dollars trying. They are investing every year to fix the same problems they fixed the year before. If they don't, the concern exists that costs will escalate due to declining performance and retention.

The problem: Employers can no longer afford to keep fixing the same dissatisfactions. Further, our awareness of the problems just mentioned has not resulted in employers taking a different approach to managing people. Students and workers are still being encouraged to expect that employers will make them satisfied, even as employers continue to engage in activities that make them dissatisfied, i.e., layoffs, job eliminations, reducing wages and benefits, etc.

A new approach to improving performance is needed. But unfortunately, business culture is so ingrained with the idea of making workers satisfied and engaged that employers can't imagine an alternative. In fact, all the programs that were previously mentioned offer only slight variations on the same theme of influencing how people think in order to persuade how they feel, which is satisfied and engaged. Even the new human capital and talent management still rely on old-fashioned job satisfaction and engagement programs.

Here are two points that reveal why our existing approaches to improving performance will never be completely effective:

1. Dissatisfaction is inevitable. Human needs and wants are insatiable, as if continuous improvement is in our DNA. As people age and their interests evolve, they eventually expect more, something new or different to keep them satisfied, making it impossible for employers to keep all workers satisfied all the time. And because workers lack control over the people and things that can make them satisfied, or how long their satisfaction lasts, the probability exists that they may never be completely satisfied, which in turn compromises efforts to make workers engaged. It gets worse. Employers that cause workers to expect that improved satisfaction is imminent, when we know that dissatisfaction is inevitable, are creating expectations they can't fulfill and giving workers a reason to complain or quit. Employers can't control dissatisfactions caused by the failed economy, global competition, weather, war, terrorism, etc. Thus by placing so much emphasis on providing, measuring and improving job satisfaction, employers are inadvertently contributing to the very complaints they are investing in to prevent.

2. Workers can't be made satisfied or engaged unless they want to be. People act on their emotions that were caused by what they think. Because employers lack the power to control how people think, workers are able to function in an unyielding manner to programs that intend to persuade them. Any programs implemented from the outside-in will never be more powerful than a worker's thoughts about them. Once this is understood, it becomes clear why job offers are rejected regardless of how satisfying the job is made to seem. Why workers continue to complain or quit after making them satisfied and engaged, and why some people are able to stay in jobs and continue to perform well despite their lack of satisfaction. A worker's control over their thoughts and emotions to manage their life and career always trumps an employer's efforts to persuade them. Workers will take all they are given, ask for more and still complain, and then leave when they want to. Gone are the days when loyalty kept workers in their jobs and productive.

It's no secret that satisfaction and engagement programs are limited in their effectiveness, or that the intent of those programs is employer-centric to benefit the business. That's why we measure their effectiveness, and if those programs were not required, employers would reduce or eliminate the expense. We see this happening today with the elimination of jobs and the reduction of wages and benefits.

Isn't it time that we explore new approaches that are truly worker-centric? Or do we continue down the same path of fooling ourselves into thinking we can make 75 million Millennials satisfied, and then cost justify the expense of continuing to fix their same dissatisfactions just as we did their parents and grandparents?

Now that you understand the necessity and also the futility of attempting to make and keep workers satisfied and engaged, the second article introduces a low cost and truly worker-centric approach to improving performance and individual fulfillment.