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A recent article by Mark Murphy on the Forbes website cautioned against the use of items on employee surveys that assess employee satisfaction. He argued that satisfaction is synonymous with contentment, and that contentment is antithetical to employees giving 100 percent at work. Rather, he argued that employees must be inspired “to give [their] best effort,” which is not achieved when they are simply content (or satisfied) with their job. Unfortunately, his perspective may be only partially accurate.

Previous research would suggest that he is correct about the difference between satisfaction and engagement. Warr and Inceoglu (2012) found that the smaller the difference between the desired and actual features of a job (in terms of a supportive environment, ethical principles, and other factors), the more satisfied they were.

This, of course, comes as a surprise to absolutely no one. However, the more interesting result was that when employees perceived their jobs to lack some of those key features (in other words, features of the job were less than desired), they actually experienced more engagement – likely because they were motivated to pursue those desired job features. In other words, employees were motivated to make their jobs fit better with their preferences.

Overall, the results point toward two phenomena that make perfect sense from a motivational standpoint:

  1. Workers can be satisfied with their actual levels of specific job features, but when they desire greater levels of those features, they experience more engagement.
  2. When their job possesses more of those key features than desired, satisfaction suffers.

Engagement is a motivational experience; we experience it when we are pursuing a desired goal or outcome. Satisfaction, on the other hand, suggests that what we have is sufficient; it is a state of contentment.

To use an example, consider the issue of control. Some people are very satisfied with the amount of control they have over their work. Their primary motivation is simply to maintain what they have. However, others may be moderately satisfied with the control they currently possess, but would prefer to have more of it. These employees may, therefore, experience engagement when they have the opportunity to utilize or pursue greater levels of control over their work.

Neither set of employees is necessarily poor-performing. However, engaged workers will be more likely to value and take advantage of new opportunities to develop themselves in their job. So, in some ways, Murphy is right. Being highly satisfied is antithetical to the experience of engagement.

If you want people to strive for more, they should not be overly satisfied with their job as it is now; they have to want something more (i.e., a goal). If employees would change nothing about their current job (everything about the job is exactly how they want it), they may be satisfied, but they are not likely going to be motivated to pursue something more. That motivation comes from some perceived disconnect between how their job is and how they would prefer their job to be.

This is an underlying principle of what researchers would call self-regulation, which is nothing but a fancy way of saying that people have goals (which are outcomes they value), and they are motivated to achieve them. It implies that what we want in the future is somehow different than what we have now, and we are motivated when we see opportunities to close the gap between our present experience and desired future. However, our desire to close this gap can necessitate a variety of behaviors.

And this is where Murphy’s argument requires some caveats. While engagement is a motivational experience stemming from a desire to achieve a valued goal (i.e., to give our best effort, as Murphy says), if our best effort fail to produce results (i.e., some level of contentment), then we may cease to give our best efforts. Instead, we may choose to withdraw our efforts, either becoming disengaged or perhaps leaving the organization.

And that creates the conundrum. Sure, you want to avoid a scenario in which workers are fully satisfied with the status quo, unmotivated to change anything. Being too satisfied can be detrimental to motivation. However, if workers see too many discrepancies between what they value and their current condition (in other words, they have too many valued goals they are trying to pursue at any point in time), you could be creating a scenario that is also detrimental to motivation.

Instead, it would seem as though the optimal approach would be to create an environment that promotes a moderate level of satisfaction, but also one that promotes the motivation to push for something more. In that way, you could benefit from both satisfied and engaged workers.

http://www.flickr.com/photos/clement127 / CC BY-NC-ND 2.0



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This page is an archive of entries from April 2016 listed from newest to oldest.

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