Career Coach: A little change in job satisfaction goes a long way

By Gilad Chen
Monday, December 20, 2010

Don't make the mistake of thinking the economy and job market have left people captive in their current jobs. It's important for managers to remember that employee satisfaction is key to whether people stay with an organization and whether they are fully engaged at work. However, it's not just how satisfied employees are that matters -- it is also whether satisfaction is rising or trending down that offers clues to whether employees are planning to stay at or leave your firm.

A few colleagues and I recently studied levels of job satisfaction among four sample groups -- two military and two managerial. We found that regardless of age, length of service at an organization and the absolute level of satisfaction, the thing that mattered most in whether an employee planned to stay or leave was if the person's satisfaction was rising or declining, even by a little. Think of it as an investment decision and how you might consider whether to buy or sell a stock: If a stock you own is losing value, you will likely think it'll continue to drop in value and decide to sell now. The same goes for employees' view of their jobs -- when they experience declining job satisfaction they expect to become even less satisfied with their jobs in the future, and hence decide to leave their jobs.

As a manager, this leaves you with some important to-dos. And if you're one of those employees with slipping levels of satisfaction, read on -- there are things you can do to reverse the trend, too.

For managers:

Measure satisfaction. Make sure you really understand what's going on at your firm. Don't just ask how satisfied employees are right now; ask about their satisfaction over time and the evolution of their particular attitudes. Are they becoming happier or slowly more dissatisfied with their work? If your employees become increasingly less satisfied, you are in danger of losing them -- even if their overall level of satisfaction has not reached rock-bottom. Conversely, even if your employees are generally unhappy with their jobs, they might decide to stay if their satisfaction improves from very low to moderate levels.

Move the needle. When you find people are unsatisfied, even making small improvements can really help. If you can't offer raises or bonuses, offering some other performance-based recognition can go a long way. Think about the types of projects you offer your team and offer employees more challenging, interesting work to keep them engaged. Satisfaction is closely tied to how effective people feel their work is and how they feel they are contributing to the organization. Give them enough challenging, exciting work to do -- but make sure you strike a balance and don't overload employees.

Make a commitment. If you do things to improve satisfaction, make sure you keep up the improvements. If you offer a one-time bonus, award or other recognition, you could see another dip in satisfaction if you never offer it again.

Don't unload all your weapons at once. Think about the timing of your rewards and efforts to boost morale and satisfaction. Keep your employees motivated and feeling valued by offering opportunities to increase satisfaction at intervals throughout the year. Don't let your team forget the things they like about their jobs, and keep them engaged by providing them with interesting and meaningful future opportunities.

If you're playing the role of "unsatisfied employee," there are still ways to improve the outlook in your current position:

Be proactive. If you're not satisfied with your work, let your manager know you'd like a new challenge. Volunteer to lead a project that is outside of your normal role. New types of assignments can be opportunities for improvement and renewed vigor at work.

Get the full picture. If things are changing at work, make sure you understand the impact, especially if you're relatively new to the organization. Employees who have been at a firm for few years often have a much different perspective and can provide context for recent hires on company announcements, new policies, changes and other things that could cause fluctuations in employee satisfaction. If you're not sure of something's impact, ask your manager or co-workers.

Things could be looking up. If you're in a rut now, remember, your job satisfaction can change at any time. Take the long view on your time with an organization before you jump to conclusions and make decisions based on how satisfied you feel today.

Gilad Chen is a professor of management and organization at the University of Maryland's Robert H. Smith School of Business. This column is based on research that will be published in the Academy of Management Journal in February. Chen's research focuses on work motivation, adaptation, teams and leadership.

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