Tech & Work

Job satisfaction: It's highly overrated

Once faced with a dissatisfied IT workforce, what should you do? Hide in your office? Fire the most disgruntled people? Pretend it isn't happening. Before making any decisions, let's ask an important question: How important is job satisfaction anyway?

Few managers are genuinely surprised when the results of an employee satisfaction survey are revealed. You really don't need the science of statistics to know that people aren't entirely pleased with every aspect of their work lives.

Given the state of our industry over the past few years, most IT managers are facing at least some degree of worker disaffection. In fact, plenty of the managers themselves are similarly discontent, as Computerworld's Job Satisfaction Survey also shows.

But once faced with a dissatisfied IT workforce, what should you do? Hide in your office? Fire the most disgruntled people? Pretend it isn't happening?

Before making any decisions, let's ask an important question: How important is job satisfaction anyway?

Of course, good leaders want their people to be reasonably happy, but how important is it, really, that they be satisfied? This may sound a bit callous, but I've never been particularly captivated by the idea of managers making job satisfaction a high-priority goal. I have a few reasons for my skepticism:

1. I'm not sure it's possible to satisfy people. Complete satisfaction just isn't part of the human condition. We are a restless and ambitious species.

2. I'm not sure it's desirable to satisfy people. Satisfaction doesn't guarantee productivity. In fact, it probably does just the opposite. Nor does satisfaction spark creativity. There's a reason why the old saying goes, "Necessity is the mother of invention," rather than, "Abundance is the mother of invention." I've also never heard people suggest that big paychecks and job security were the source of their group's outstanding performance.

3. The range of things we measure to gauge job satisfaction distracts from what's really important and distorts the true state of our organizations. I've observed that there are a few things that are critical for technical people's happiness: cool work, fair pay, good relationships and a reasonable belief that the future holds more of the same. Most of the things we measure are important only if these primary things are missing, in which case there's already a problem.

So, what should you do about a dissatisfied workforce? From the rants above, you might think that my answer would be that you should do nothing, but that's not exactly the case. It's not that workers' dissatisfaction is unimportant, but alleviating it shouldn't be your primary focus.

I suggest that you look instead at their motivation, which I believe has much more of a direct impact on what they can achieve than their satisfaction does and is also much more important for your collective success. People who are motivated are focused on their work more than on their personal satisfaction. Motivated teams can operate at many levels of job satisfaction. Motivation can also be a great source of job satisfaction.

So, given all the budgetary constraints that most of us work under today, what can you do to help motivate your staff? Here are a couple of simple suggestions that don't cost much.

First, select wisely. This is the most important thing you can do to ensure that you've got highly motivated project teams. If you want to have a motivated team, pick people to be on the team who are motivated to be on it. Take a minute to think about that, because when most of us are assigning people to projects, we do a quick assessment based on all the wrong questions. Usually managers choose based on who's available, who's got the skills and who's done something just like this before.

They're all good criteria, but none of them is likely to ensure that you've got a motivated team. Try looking also at who wants to be on this project; who wants to learn a new technology, business or project role; and who would want to work with the people who have already been selected for the team.

Second, engage the staff in improving its own motivation. No matter how busy everyone is, you should be able to carve out just a little time to encourage discussions about what would improve conditions. Try taking small groups of staffers to lunch once a week to discuss their perspectives on how things are going. At worst, they'll know that you're interested in their concerns and points of view. You'll also get the chance to explain the constraints of the situation. At best, you'll get some great ideas that can be implemented to actually make a difference and improve satisfaction, motivation and productivity.

When faced with a disaffected workforce, remember that the opposite of dissatisfaction isn't satisfaction, but motivation. If you want your employees to be productive, engaged, excited about coming to work and likely to stick around when job prospects improve, spend more time thinking about how to motivate them rather than how to satisfy them.


Paul Glen is the author of the award-winning book "Leading Geeks: How to Manage and Lead People Who Deliver Technology" (Jossey Bass Pfeiffer, 2003) and Principal of C2 Consulting. C2 Consulting helps IT management solve people problems. Paul Glen regularly speaks for corporations and national associations across North America. For more information go to He can be reached at

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