Does making employees satisfied and engaged motivate them to improve productivity and retention? Contrary to popular thinking, making employees satisfied and engaged does not directly motivate them. If anything, it opens the door for employees to complain about wanting more, new, and improved things to keep them satisfied.
This article discusses a bold new approach to performance improvement that, according to ASTD, is associated with a future trend that will change workplace learning—forever. I am referring to an employee's control of his or her career contentment. To understand how this approach works, it helps if you know why the current approach has not worked, or why the results of job satisfaction and engagement programs are consistently inconsistent.
Although this article uses the term employee, the ideas discussed here apply as well to the expanding population of non-traditional workers, including the self-employed, and people who work on a contract, contingency, or temporary basis.
Over the last three decades, employers have been attempting to motivate workers by making them satisfied, involved, recognized, appreciated, developed, empowered, strengthened, and engaged. Despite these and other efforts, the children of boomers are still complaining today about the same dissatisfactions that the parents of boomers complained about decades ago: long hours, rising costs, shrinking pay and benefits, lack of recognition, and poor supervision. Further, employees are still leaving their jobs when it is convenient for their career to do so. What was tried is apparently not working.
According to the American Institute of Stress, U.S. employers are spending more than $300 billion annually to fix the same problems resulting from the same complaints heard every year regarding job stress and dissatisfaction. Gallup reports that employers spend an equal amount each year to make workers engaged. Either employees are never completely satisfied, or employers are wasting billions of dollars trying what cannot be achieved, except on a temporary basis.
Psychologists have known for quite some time that employees are motivated from within by their emotions, not by their outside work conditions being made satisfying or engaging. Employees create their emotions by what they think about their work conditions. Therefore, and because employers cannot control what employees think, an employer's best motivation programs could be insignificant to employees, if that is what they choose to think. Employers can only attempt to persuade how employees think. However, those outside efforts are futile if an employee's thoughts and emotions are preoccupied with fulfilling their own purposes more than fulfilling the employer's purposes for hiring them. For example, if an employee is in a job that is meaningful to their employer's purposes, but that they think is wasting their time and talents, they will leave, and it will not matter to them what their employer does to make them satisfied or engaged.
The reality is that employees do not function in response to their outside circumstances, but in response to what they think about those circumstances. Thoughts create emotions, which in turn urge action or performance. Good performance is the result of thoughts that create performance-enhancing emotions, including contentment, joy, optimism, excitement, enthusiasm, confidence, and gratitude. Poor performance is the result of thoughts that create performance-inhibiting emotions, including fear, worry, envy, doubt, and anger.
Job satisfaction and engagement are perennially limited in their effectiveness because they are not human emotions. They are conditions created artificially by employers to persuade employees. These conditions cannot exist without employers doing something to fulfill employee expectations on a continuous basis. Employees cannot simply think to create these conditions, and because they lack control over the people and things that can make them satisfied, the probability exists that they may never be completely satisfied. Hence, the current approach to motivating workers from the outside is based on a foundation that is artificial, improbable, and one-sided, because only employers control jobs and the means to satisfy and engage.
Any earnest discussion about employee motivation must take into account the dimensions of employment that employees control independently of an employer's outside efforts to persuade them. Employees control their career choices, including what they do, where they do it, how hard they work, how long they stay, and where they go next in order to fulfill their own purposes for working. An employee's individual purposes for working may have nothing to do with an employer's purposes for hiring them. Employees act on their career choices in response to the emotion of career contentment, which they control exclusively by how they choose to think. Career contentment is an emotion created naturally by employees, which makes it a more powerful motivator than any outside conditions created artificially by employers.
Employers wrongfully assume that this employee-controlled dimension of employment is intrinsic job satisfaction. However, employees cannot control intrinsic job satisfaction, not without the job and amenities that employers control. Employees can say they have satisfaction, but they have no control over what made their job satisfying in the first place, or how long it remains that way. The only control employees have over job satisfaction is by their choice of work, through some form of bargaining, or by leaving. Otherwise, they can choose to be content, regardless if they are made satisfied or not.
The emotion of career contentment helps us to understand why some employees choose to be content with their work and continue to perform well despite their lack of job satisfaction. It also helps us to understand why some employees choose to be discontent with their work and leave the organization despite efforts to persuade them with more, new, and improved job satisfactions. Career is the pursuit of contentment derived from work that employees decide is meaningful to their own most valued purposes for working. Career is not the pursuit of an employer's purposes, or job satisfactions that employees realize are here today, but could be gone tomorrow.
Just how powerful is the emotion of career contentment? Employers cannot give, purchase, or persuade employees to be content or discontent. True contentment is from within and linked with a person's authenticity. Not unless employees decide first that they are content to work somewhere and stay there can employers hire them, make them satisfied or engaged, or retain them. This is a psychological fact. Career contentment trumps traditional job satisfaction.
The emotion of career contentment enables employees to function in an unyielding manner to an employer's efforts to persuade them. Employers overlook how this powerful emotion is the inner source of an employee's self-motivation, natural engagement, and enduring resilience to persevere and perform well, regardless of their circumstances. Employees can be content with their work even though they are perennially dissatisfied with their work conditions.
This is the same observation made nearly every year by researchers at the University of Chicago's National Opinion Research Center (NORC). Despite the persistently high rates of job dissatisfaction and disengagement over the last three decades, the National Social Survey published by NORC indicates that 89 percent of workers are content with their work, and have been every year since 1972. What keeps employees in their jobs and productive is not the efforts by employers to make them satisfied, which they cannot control, but their decision to be content with their choice of work, which they can control.
These revelations about career contentment raise important and timely questions for employers. For example:
- How much longer can employers afford to keep fixing the same dissatisfactions when budgets used to make employees satisfied and engaged are shrinking, and when these efforts do not directly motivate employees?
- How can employees be kept satisfied and engaged when employers are continuing to do things that make them dissatisfied and disengaged, i.e., laying people off, eliminating jobs, reducing wages and benefits, etc.?
- Should employers continue causing employees to expect that improved job satisfaction is imminent when they have no control over matters that can cause dissatisfaction, i.e., the economy, global competition, weather, natural disasters, war, and terrorism?
- By causing employees to expect satisfaction, are employers contributing to the very complaints they are investing in to prevent?
- When will employers recognize the overriding power of career contentment and find ways to capitalize on this to benefit the business?
If an employer's financial resources are unlimited and wasting their time trying to keep pace with the insatiable demands of employees is not an issue, then maintaining this same approach to motivation is not a problem. However, if reducing costs and improving productivity are important, then HR should take a new approach. Even the new human capital and talent management still rely on old-fashioned job satisfaction and engagement programs to attract, motivate, and retain employees.
The better approach involves paddling with the current, rather than against it. Rather than attempting to cause employees to feel temporarily happy and artificially enthused to fulfill purposes other than their own, help them to achieve career contentment by enabling them to fulfill their own purposes and then capitalize on their resulting self-motivation, natural engagement, and enduring resilience to benefit the business.
Harvard Medical Professor and Psychologist, Dr. Harry Levinson, proposed this same idea more than four decades ago in his now classic article, Management By Whose Objectives. Levinson's research found that self-motivation occurs when employees are enabled to pursue their individual purposes. He said the manager's job is to help employees fulfill their purposes, and then capitalize on their resulting self-motivation and natural engagement to benefit the business. However, Levinson says what happens is that managers assume that employees should adapt their purposes, or they should leave. If they choose to stay, their discontentment will be appeased by making them satisfied.
We have already discussed the problems with this faulty logic, which is still in vogue four decades after Levinson published his article. Employers cannot appease discontentment by making employees satisfied. Contentment is an emotion, which means that employers cannot cause, give, purchase, or persuade it. This is why, after decades of trying to appease employees, they still complain and quit.
The better approach to increasing productivity and retention involves teaching employees how to achieve and maintain their career contentment, while simultaneously continuing to make them satisfied and engaged. This includes helping employees to converge their individual purposes with the purposes of the organization. Google demonstrates how this approach has contributed to their amazing growth.
Google enables employees to spend up to twenty percent of their time on projects that are meaningful to them. The only caveat is that an employee's projects must ultimately contribute to the fulfillment of Google's business objectives. Google has not only enabled the career contentment of employees, they have capitalized on their good ideas. New multi-million dollar revenue streams were created thanks to employee ideas, including: Gmail, Google Talk, Google News, instant messaging, Orkut social networking, and Google Code Jam. All of these products were the result of enabling employees to pursue their individual purposes, and then converging those purposes with Google purposes.
Without training on the topic of career contentment, employees will continue to complain about what they do not have or cannot control. Even if they are content with their work, history suggests they will be predisposed to whine about what is going wrong and miss what is going right. Some will quit and take their complaining elsewhere, never reaching a point of fulfillment or peak performance. It does not have to be this way.
Beyond teaching employees how to create their contentment, leaders must also begin to acknowledge that there are four dimensions of employment, not just the two dimensions they control: a) employees are dissatisfied, or b) they are made satisfied in exchange for fulfilling the employer's purposes. In addition to these dimensions, employees control their decision to be: a) content with their work, or b) discontent with their work—regardless of whether they are made satisfied or not. The following illustration and points reveal how all four dimensions are essential to understanding employee motivation.
- Dimension 1 describes the optimum situation, in which employees have both career contentment and job satisfaction. They are in the jobs they want, and employers are making them satisfied. This dimension exists only temporarily, because as people age and their purposes evolve they eventually expect more or something new or different to keep them satisfied.
- Dimension 2 is where employees spend the majority of their careers. They have career contentment without job satisfaction. They are in jobs they want but their work conditions are less than satisfying due to long hours, low pay, lack of recognition, a bad boss, or other reasons. Career contentment enables their resilience to persevere and perform well until their circumstances improve. Unfortunately, employees were never trained how to be content with their work without complaining about their work conditions.
- Dimension 3 describes when employees are in jobs they need but do not want on a long-term basis. They have job satisfaction without career contentment. They are receiving a new calling to a different job, or they knowingly accepted an interim job for the money until they find a better one. In either case, the employer is continuing to make them satisfied with income, benefits, and so forth. However, it is only a matter of time before their lack of contentment and authenticity compels them to make a move.
- Dimension 4 is the least desirable scenario for employees. They are in jobs they need but do not want. They lack career contentment, and the employer is not making them satisfied. It is just a job.
The additional dimensions created by an employee's control of his or her career contentment opens a new frontier for performance improvement training. Training on this worker-centric topic teaches employees how to do what they love, but also how to love what they do without complaining. They learn how to achieve career contentment in either dimension by intentionally focusing on the fulfillment of their individual purposes, which they can control, as opposed to focusing on the rewards and work conditions, which they cannot control, except by leveraging their career contentment as a source of emotional resilience.
Consider the example of the struggling actor. As he develops his craft and strives for a break, he takes a variety of interim jobs that he does not like but which he needs to pay bills and put food on the table. While those interim jobs have nothing to do with his chosen career path, they do enable him to fulfill his short-term purposes. He does not care about interim job satisfaction. He cares about his immediate purposes and longer-term career contentment, which those interim jobs help to enable. Why complain about a job that is enabling him, and when complaining would not make a difference except to exacerbate his difficult circumstances and struggles?
How do you create a career contentment culture? Here are a few tips on how to get started, but with the understanding that only employees can create their career contentment:
- Stop causing employees to expect that employers are responsible to make them happy.
- Begin training employees on how to recognize their career contentment, and to leverage it.
- Provide work that they decide is meaningful to the fulfillment of their purposes.
- Give them control over what they do and how they do it.
- Recognize and reward their decision to be content without complaining.
Do not do this:
- Assume that employees should be happy just to have a job.
- Assume they should forfeit or adapt their purposes to fulfill the employer's purposes.
- Offer engagement programs in situations where engagement cannot occur naturally.
- Disrupt flow in situations where employees are passionate, self-motivated and competent.
- Credit yourself or others for the contributions that employees are making.
Making employees satisfied and engaged to fulfill purposes other than their own does not improve their productivity or retention. The effects of those efforts are temporary at best, and do not directly motivate employees. Employees are motivated by their emotions, which are caused by what they think—something employers cannot control. Employees manage their career to fulfill their individual purposes by controlling their thoughts to create the emotion of career contentment or discontentment.
By leveraging these emotions, employees empower themselves with increased self-motivation, natural engagement and resilience to persevere and perform well, regardless if their work conditions are made satisfying or engaging, or not. Employers fail to notice how this happens because their focus is preoccupied with keeping employees satisfied and engaged. Nor do employees realize how they do this, they just do. Unfortunately, we forgot to teach employees how to be content with their work without complaining about their work conditions. This is the focus of training on the topic of career contentment.
If employers want to improve productivity and retention, simply making employees satisfied and engaged is not enough. They must also train employees how to do their part by creating their career contentment and leveraging it to persevere, despite circumstances that are not always easy, ideal, or satisfying. The combination of efforts by employers and employees creates a win-win scenario that enhances productivity and retention. Alternatively, employers can keep trying to fulfill the insatiable demands of employees for more, new, and improved things to keep them satisfied, but this will not directly motivate them to do anything.
- Garton, Jeffrey, 2008. Career Contentment: Don't Settle For Anything Less, ASTD Press.
- Levinson, Harry, 1970 & 2003. Management by Whose Objectives, Harvard Business Review.
- Maslow, Abraham, 1943, A Theory Of Human Motivation, Psychological Review, Vol. 50.