Why We Work: Job Satisfaction & Employee Engagement

For all the juicy beach reads we could have devoured this summer, we’ve been totally distracted by that thing we’re supposed to be getting away from when we sit in a beach chair reading: Work.

A Swarthmore professor named Barry Schwartz has catapulted into the spotlight with his refreshing notion that actually, human beings are wired to like working. His new book, Why We Work, was published on September 1st; an excerpt has already sparked lively debate.

Professor Schwartz credits 18th century economist Adam Smith for launching the idea that work is a job and thus a chore and thus something to be complained about and retired from as soon as possible.

“Work is structured on the assumption that we do it only because we have to,” Schwartz writes. Which is a crippling construct for a world in urgent need of corporate leadership and innovation.

“I think that this cynical and pessimistic approach to work is entirely backward. It is making us dissatisfied with our jobs — and it is also making us worse at them. For our sakes, and for the sakes of those who employ us, things need to change.”

Proof that satisfaction runs deep

Consider the example of hospital janitors whose satisfaction derived from activities nowhere mentioned on their job description:

“Many of them viewed their work as including doing whatever they could to comfort patients and their families and to assist the professional staff members with patient care. They would joke with patients, calm them down so that nurses could insert IVs, even dance for them….

“The custodians received no financial compensation for this “extra” work. But this aspect of the job, they said, was what got them out of bed every morning. “I enjoy entertaining the patients,” said one. ‘That’s what I enjoy the most.’”

We caught up with up with Professor Schwartz to learn more.

When an employer embraces a purpose that people find appealing, there’s an even greater opportunity to boost employee engagement, he told us.

“Take the company called Interface. For years this was a privately held carpeting company. One day the founder, Ray Anderson, has an epiphany. He realized that he was going to leave his grandchildren a big pile of money and an uninhabitable world. He decided then to change his whole vision, to embrace sustainability and have a zero footprint. That was in 1994. Ray Anderson didn’t care if he lost money on this, as everyone assumed he would, because he already had enough money. But guess what? Profits at Interface have done nothing but go up. The workforce is motivated, because they aren’t just making carpet any more. Now, they’re saving the planet!

“That’s ideal, when you have a genuine purpose built in to the business. People will begin to think of ingenious ways to further the vision, and as the boss if you listen to them, you will have success. It’s a spectacular outcome.”

What this means for managers

From our own research, we know two of the main drivers of engagement are purpose and relationships at work. Additionally, Gallup has found that managers account for over 70% of variance in employee engagement scores.

Okay, so it comes down to: purpose, relationships, managers.

This means that managers need to find a way to strengthen workplace relationships and capitalize on the human desire for on-the-job meaning. How do they do that?

Professor Schwartz’s four rules for leaders from Why We Work:

  1. Give employees more of a say in how they do their jobs.
  2. Make sure to offer them opportunities to learn and grow.
  3. Encourage them to suggest improvements to the work process, and listen to what they say.
  4. Emphasize the ways in which an employee’s work makes other people’s lives at least a little bit better.

No matter how large or dispersed your workforce, positive interaction with another person can be an employee engagement game-changer. This is great news for companies that are serious about long-term performance and results: a simple, social insight to engage employees and thus drive desired business outcomes.