Five minutes to lifelong job satisfaction

Ozan Onay — 07 Jul 2011

Is it hard to increase somebody’s job satisfaction? It certainly seems that way, considering how much effort companies put into mitigating dissatisfaction.

But such measures—pay increases, benefits, even respect and recognition—are red herrings. For those with chronically low job satisfaction we call these things “compensation"—reparation for being forced to do undesirable work. For those with high job satisfaction we start to call the same things "perks”, recognizing that they become increasingly trivial for truly fulfilled workers. Either way, they do not substantively improve somebody’s experience at work.

So how do you dramatically increase job satisfaction (rather than mitigating dissatisfaction)? The single biggest step you can take is to ensure that the individual’s skills match the job’s challenges.

Flow theory tells us that inadequate skill leads to anxiety, inadequate challenge leads to boredom, and parity between skill and challenge leads to optimal experience. This applies as much to work as any other potentially flow-like activity—if your professional skills improve enough that you find yourself at A2 (below), you ought to increase the difficulty of your work to reattain flow, for instance by seeking greater responsibility or setting higher standards for yourself. Similarly if increasing demands at work place you at A3 you ought to refuse any increased responsibility and focus instead on training and professional development.

Take five minutes at the end of the day to ask yourself “was I a little bored today?” “Am I somewhat anxious?” If the answer to either is “yes”, then make an appropriate adjustment. Do the same thing every day, and you have a lifelong plan for ensuring job satisfaction.

If you’re a manager, do the same exercise on behalf of those you manage. “Does Alice seem somewhat bored?” “Might Bob be out of his depth?” If you’re giving increased responsibility to those who have “earned it” or providing generic training to multiple individuals, then you’re misapplying your tools—you should be doing whatever it takes to keep every employee within their respective flow channels. Do this every day for a few months and I bet you’ll feel like cutting back on a bunch of dumb compensatory perks.