Employee happiness is a serious matter – an essential consideration for managers who want to retain top talent and avoid costly turnover. Yet check in with most old-school managers and ask what they believe makes their staff happy. Here’s what you will likely hear: competitive pay and benefits, pleasant office space, and a reasonable commute. While these are important, they don’t tell the entire story. Job satisfaction for many of us depends at least as much -- if not more -- on intangible factors including respect, personal growth and engagement.
In a study entitled “What motivates employees according to over 40 years of motivation surveys” published in 1995 by Carolyn Wiley of the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga, survey results indicate that a series of intangibles drive worker happiness, engendering a sense of commitment to the organization. These “little things” include: interesting work, appreciation for their work product, and a feeling of being part of things. Table III of this study ranks factors in workplace satisfaction over time.
Factors 1946 1980 1986 1992
Full appreciation of work done 1 2 2 2
Feeling of being in on things 2 3 3 9
Sympathetic help with personal problems 3 9 10 10
Job security 4 4 4 3
Good wages 5 5 5 1
Interesting work 6 1 1 5
Promotion and growth in the
organization 7 6 6 4
Personal or company loyalty to employees 8 8 8 6
Good working conditions 9 7 7 7
We can be perfectly happy with our work, but unhappy in a specific company based on combination of factors including a bad boss, a secretive and top-down corporate culture, or even a single colleague who makes our daily lives miserable. We all have different definitions of what brings us job satisfaction. That said, certain constants apply…
A sincere word of praise is where job satisfaction begins for many of us. People need to have feedback concerning their work and need to feel competent. Employees are motivated by feedback recognition for the work they perform. A well-timed word of appreciation is often all it takes. Many supervisors make a point of highlighting what has gone wrong, but don’t take enough time to show appreciation for success. We can all think of an example where a manager has taken the time to raise a small error, perhaps a typo in an email, all the while ignoring positive developments. One of my early Wall Street mentors advised me that “done is better than perfect” applies only to entrepreneurs, not Wall Street and that I had better get used to working in a culture in which that oft-cited condition of “not being able to see the forest for the trees” might apply. That said, as critical as it may be to avoid errors in most workplace environments, as managers we also need to remember to pair fair criticism with fair praise. Praise costs nothing, but its benefits are significant.
As with a willingness to express gratitude, showing respect costs nothing, yet wields a big payoff. Keeping employees happy means treating them with fairness and respect. It just seems like common sense that job dissatisfaction skyrockets when employees feel disrespected, demeaned or ignored. Respect means honoring our ideas and our time. Creating a culture of listening to one another and empowering some degree of decision-making and creativity -- these are simple incentives that makes us value our workplace.
3. Personal growth and engagement with mission
Most of us also want an opportunity to grow and learn on the job. We also want to feel a sense of purpose and engagement with the mission of our organization. Despite what management might assume about financial requirements, in fact, very few of us want to operate like robots until our daily tasks are finished. We benefit from a sense of professional and personal growth and an ability to see how our efforts make a difference to our teams and organizations. It’s not simply about the money -- or even the day-to-day work -- we need to perform. Offering a raise but keeping the job description may not be the answer. Likewise, dialing down the challenge for equal pay can have an equally negative effect if the employee is motivated by personal growth and challenge. We all benefit from a sense we are doing something we love. When we find work that uses all our capabilities and engages our values, we find happiness at work.
4. A good boss
Bosses play a key role in job satisfaction – so much so that it is fair to say that employees often leave bosses, not companies. A strong manager is a crucial element to a functional workplace. On the other hand, workplace dysfunction occurs when bosses are arbitrary, patronizing, or uncaring. Indeed, this is a rapid road to employees becoming dis-engaged and fleeing the organization. Personally, I’ve been extremely lucky to work with some bosses that would be rated “world-class.” My best bosses shared certain characteristics – characteristics that inspired us to achieve great results every day. Some of these qualities include: a contagious sense of positivity and enthusiasm; a skill for listening (up and down); a sense of purpose and engagement with our shared mission; and, most of all, a desire for his/her team to achieve new milestones of personal and shared growth.
Although I’m sure the results of job and career satisfaction surveys vary by gender, seniority, age and a host of personal characteristics, I do believe we create stronger and more functional teams and organizations by taking time to consider more complex issues of individual motivation. Great managers don’t need to read the reports or study the surveys. In my experience, they “get it” on an intuitive level and, in doing so, benefit from a more productive, stable and “happy” workplaces.