What is job satisfaction?

What is job satisfaction?
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Today, we’re going to look at job satisfaction: what it is, why you may not have it and, possibly, how you can obtain it.

The importance of job satisfaction is a relatively new concept.  Dr Ryan T Hartwig in his brilliant TED Talk on ‘The Myth of Meaningful Work’ argues that work used to be meaningful but that, since the end of the industrial revolution, it has slowly transformed into alienating labour as a result of the introduction of scientific management theory. 

As job satisfaction theories go, it’s a good one.  But what are the causes of job satisfaction?  What is job satisfaction?  Let me tell you a little tale about what happens when you don’t have it.

I hate my job

I was on holiday in France, enjoying a cold lager in a sunny spot outside a cafe.  My wife and I know the area well and had built up a small network of acquaintances one of whom, Steve, was also having a beer at an adjacent table.  Steve is British and lives and works in the Dordogne along with a whole community of ex-pats.  Like most of the ex-pat working population, Steve is a builder and handyman.  In previous lives these people were accountants, teachers, civil servants, policemen, captains of industry – you name it.  As they forge new lives in foreign climes, status is subordinate to lifestyle and careers give way to jobs.

We got chatting and inevitably, we got on to the subject of how he ended up living abroad.

Importance of job satisfaction

Steve used to work as a quantity surveyor and would commute to work every day on the train. Steve’s life was pretty unremarkable by all accounts: wife, family, nice house etc.  But he was harbouring a growing dissatisfaction with the direction that his life was taking, emphasised by the passing of his 45th birthday.  

He couldn’t put his finger on it, but something wasn’t right.  The more he contemplated, the more he admitted to himself that it hadn’t been right for a very long time.

When Steve got up that Monday he was oblivious to significance that this day would forever occupy in the narrative of his life.  He drove to the station, sat on the bench, boarded the train, got out his book and settled back.  It was a stopping train.  Three stops up the line Steve looked out of the window as the train slowed and pulled in under the footbridge.  The train nudged to a stop and, in that instant, Steve found himself in the grip of a decision that had descended upon him, seemingly from nowhere.   

An overwhelmingly powerful decision.  

He quickly collected up his book and briefcase, leaving his half-slurped coffee on the table.  He shuffled past the standing commuters and squeezed out of the doors just as they slid shut behind him.

Steve stood on the platform and watched the train pull away and lumber off up the tracks. He stood there until the last remnants of diesel fumes evaporated into the cold mist of the morning air, the whine of the engines faded and the silence descended.  He was alone on the platform.  In that moment, life made sense.  More sense than it had made for a very long time.  

He walked slowly back along the platform, up the stairs of the footbridge, over the two railway lines, and down the other side.  He sat and waited on the opposite platforms for the 20 minutes until the homeward-bound train appeared in the distance.  He got on it and went back home.

Steve never went back to his job again.

The importance of job satisfaction

So what motivated Steve into such decisive, and some might say, drastic action?  How did he know that something wasn’t right?  How did he know that he wasn’t satisfied in his job?  Back to the question then, what is job satisfaction?

Well, that depends upon what you mean by ‘satisfaction’ I guess.  ‘Satisfaction’ is unique to you as is the importance of job satisfaction.  Whilst there may be certain consensus as to which jobs are generally regarded as more desirable than others, the principal determinant of ‘satisfaction’ will be governed by how you feel towards your job.

What makes you feel a certain way about your work?  

The two conditions of job satisfaction

The importance of job satisfaction

By my reckoning, there are two conditions that need to be met if you are to feel positively towards your job and career.  If both conditions are met then, lucky you!  You are rare.  Gallup would have it that you are part of an elite group of people that constitute less than 18% of the population.  People that really love their job.  Gallup would describe these people as ‘actively engaged’.  Are you actively engaged in your work?  You can read more here

So what are the two conditions? 

Firstly your work must be conducive to your temperament and, secondly, it must be meaningful.

Conducive to temperament

Let me start with the first, which is not as immediately obvious as the second.  In this context, ‘conducive to temperament’ means that you derive physical and mental satisfaction from the work that you do.  To give a simple example, if you like being outside, you’ll find working as a farmer or a gardener physically energising and stimulating.  But the reasons you feel this way run deeper than simply a thirst for fresh air.  Understanding your personality traits a little more deeply can give you insights that can help explain these feelings.  And importantly they can be quite accurate predictors in ways which become self-evident.  

The ‘Big Five’ personality traits cover openness to experience, conscientiousness, extroversion, agreeableness and neuroticism.  There are others but these are the primary factors that govern the way you feel and conduct yourself in the world.  If you are low in extroversion (towards introversion) and high in conscientiousness (very industrious and disciplined) then gardening may be the ideal job. You need to be disciplined, there is always a ton of jobs to be done and you don’t have to deal with people all day.  It makes sense.

It’s also worth knowing that these traits are what they call ‘stable’ traits. It means that if you measure someone’s level of neuroticism or agreeableness when they are 20, it won’t have changed significantly by the time they are 50.  That’s not to say you can’t flex out of your natural range to meet the demands of daily life – we all do this every day – but continually flexing, and pushing way beyond your boundaries, will ultimately lead to stress and anxiety. And coupled with other factors, it can eventually lead to burnout.  A topic for another day.

In some senses, every job will have its own personality profile, that is, a model set of personality traits that would be optimal for the role. When the job says, ‘would be ideal for outgoing self-starter…’, what they mean is that we’re looking for someone high in extroversion and high in conscientiousness.  If you happen to know that you tend more towards introversion and openness say, then whilst you may well be able to do the job, mentally and physically, over time, it will take its toll.

When your job feels wrong, it’s very likely that there is a mismatch between your own personality trait profile and that of the job that you are doing.  There are a myriad of tests and assessments that can help you understand your own personality better and how it correlates to your job.  Myers-Briggs is a great personality test and one of the most well-known.  It will help you build a profile that uses categories such as extroversion/introversion, sense/intuition, thinking/feeling and judging/perceiving. 

Personality testing is not an exact science, but it is a science nonetheless – and it can be remarkably enlightening.  Many employers use it to predict the extent to which new candidates will be successful in a role, or fit well into the company culture.  This doesn’t necessarily help you though if you are already in the wrong role, but it might help you make better decisions about the next one!

A calling in life eludes 99% of us.  As Alain de Botton elegantly puts it, ‘…we don’t hear a commanding, God-like voice directing us to accounting or packaging and distribution,’ and ‘not having a plan quickly puts us at the mercy of those that do have one.’  So unlike knowing what food we like, or what people we are attracted to, we don’t generally know what work will satisfy us.  We need to work harder on understanding ourselves before we can arrive at an answer that approximates the truth.  Know thyself as the saying goes. 

Helping us to understand the importance of job satisfaction


The second condition is much simpler in concept.  Your work needs to be meaningful.  This all depends upon how you define meaning of course, and this will be very personal to you.  Software company, and pioneers of big data, PayScale, tell us that the top 10 most meaningful jobs in the US are dominated exclusively by the church, education and the medical profession.  Car park attendants are bottom!  This doesn’t come as a surprise perhaps.  But when we feel as though our job is not contributing to the betterment of society in some way, it is not worthwhile, or it is not representing time well spent, then it can have a profound effect on our mental wellbeing.

Think about your own relationship to your work in terms of meaning and conduciveness to temperament.  Many are prepared to tolerate a low correlation on the conduciveness to temperament scale if the meaning factor is high.  Why do teachers put up with gruelling timetables, endless extra-curricular demands and ungrateful children?  Why do paramedics tolerate abusive patients, harrowing experiences, long shifts and physically-demanding working conditions?  It’s obvious. 

By contrast, even some of those jobs that may not be obviously characterised as significant or worthwhile can present happy fits for people where their personality traits match the requirements and duties of the role.  If you like being outdoors, meeting people and driving, then a bailiff might be an eminently tolerable career choice.  More seriously, you may struggle to describe a hedge fund manager as worthwhile an occupation as a paediatric surgeon, but if you thrive on pressure, are low in neuroticism and highly conscientious then you are likely to relish and find fulfilment in the role.  Richard Peterson, MD of behavioural finance consultancy MarketPsych, says, ‘To be successful, short-term traders need to score low on the emotional scale. They need to recognize their emotions, but not let them affect their judgment.’  So there you have it.

My point is this: these two determining conditions are a bit like kidneys – you can survive perfectly well on one but, given the choice, you’d rather have both.  If you have none, you’re in trouble. 

Think about your own job.  Do you have one or both.  Or neither.  Too many of us are living out our lives on career dialysis. 

Ultimately, job satisfaction is about finding the balance between meaning and personality alignment.  But it is not a given.  The fact that it eludes so many of us is testament to the fact that it is not obvious.  Blindly looking for another job or career is very unlikely to yield a change in the way you feel.  You need to start inside.  Before you even start to look at the job listings take time to understand yourself. 

You never know, you may discover that meaningful work and job satisfaction was right in front of you all along.

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