Getting to the root of your job dissatisfaction

Are you dissatisfied with your job or simply lacking satisfaction?

As I researched my recent post on using the holidays to redirect your career trajectory, I read an excerpt of Clay Christensen’s latest book on Fast Company. In it, he introduced to me and heavily referenced the work of Frederick Herzberg. Herzberg is known for his two-factor theory of worker motivation (aka the motivation-hygiene theory). This theory codifies advice and conclusions I had stumbled into through my personal experience and is valuable for any modern worker.

Two-Factory Theory

Here’s how Christensen introduces the theory in his book excerpt:

Herzberg noted the common assumption that job satisfaction is one big continuous spectrum–starting with very happy on one end, and reaching all the way down to absolutely miserable on the other–is not actually the way our minds work. Instead, satisfaction and dissatisfaction are separate, independent measures.

Herzberg’s original Harvard Business Review article cites primary research covering a wide-range of workers. It outlines the primary factors that contribute to job satisfaction: the motivators. And highlights the factors that lead to job dissatisfaction: the hygiene factors. The two lists of top factors are quite different from each other.

The list of motivators is led by factors such as recognition and achievement. Complete a significant, measurable project? You’re likely to be satisfied. Are you recognized for your contributions? Again, you are likely to be satisfied.

The list of causes of dissatisfaction, the hygiene factors, is different: Company policy and administration and your supervisor lead the way. Loathe onerous policies set down by “corporate”? Do you have trouble getting along with your manager? These are the leading causes of job dissatisfaction.

Now there is some debate as to whether satisfaction and dissatisfaction are indeed separate measures. But the starkness of the difference between the two groups of factors is inescapable.

Applying the two-factor theory to your own professional satisfaction

Largely, this study is referenced in other writings in order to help managers and leaders create a good working environment. It was published by the Harvard Business Review after all. Instead, I think it is especially valuable to  individuals as they are examine their own unhappiness in the workplace.

Are you unhappy because of the absence of the key factors that drive satisfaction like achievement and recognition? You are grappling with a vacuum. And a vacuum can be filled. In that case, I would argue that you have a good chance of turning things around in your current position. You can, without hesitation, try to position yourself for a better project, for example.

You can salvage that situation and realistically hope to turn it around when satisfaction is lacking.

But what if you are dissatisfied based on the presence of poor hygiene traits? Are there onerous policies or do you have a sour relationship with your manager?

That is most certainly not a vacuum.

There is inertia, political pressure and personality traits at play. Changing these hygiene factors yourself will be hard. It is likely to be too hard for an individual employee to change these traits in your manager and your organization in a timely fashion.

Take, for example, a situation where you are unhappy with your manager. You might find him unqualified or lacking key skills. But trying to get him moved out of his role is not a tactic I would recommend. Likely your supervisor was placed there by his supervisor. There will be a variety of  human factors (political and otherwise) that prevent an individual contributor from cleaning poor hygiene in your company. It often will backfire on you.

If you find yourself actively dissatisfied by hygiene factors, it is likely time to find a new job (either internally or at a new company) because you’ll be fighting a tough fight. Acting unilaterally in your own best interests is often the best option. Not the only option, but often the best option.

These issues can be tough to sort out on your own. This framework is just a start. Need help sorting out your job dissatisfaction?


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