What Is The Truth About Job Satisfaction?

The evidence about job satisfaction seems confusing. I’ve been guided by the counsel of a 2006 meta-analysis published in one of our best research journals, The Academy of Management Journal, that found a strong relationship between job satisfaction, organizational commitment, and multiple measures of employee effectiveness (job performance, extra-role behaviors, and withdrawal behaviors). This study advised that job satisfaction and commitment are the most useful things managers can focus on to help employees be more effective at work.

A separate meta-analysis published in a good but lesser journal in 2007 concluded that the relationship between job satisfaction and performance is spurious. This study maintains that when you account for personality factors, any statistical relationship between satisfaction and performance weakens. But if you read the study very closely, even after controlling for numerous personality traits, the relationship between satisfaction and performance never disappeared.

Unfortunately, the 2007 study did not cite the 2006 study, so the author left unexplained the conflicting findings. I checked how often each study has been cited in studies of job satisfaction since they were published. The 2006 study has been cited 58 times, while the 2007 study has been cited only 9 times. The number of citations is an indicator of how other social scientists view the value of an article.

Fortunately, a new meta-analysis published in 2010 in Personnel Psychology helps settle the debate. This study found a significant relationship between unit level satisfaction and unit level performance. This confirms something I’ve been teaching for years – just because an individual is satisfied might not necessarily mean they will perform well (or vice versa), but an organization full of satisfied individuals will almost always outperform an organization full of dissatisfied individuals.

It is therefore not enough to focus on the satisfaction of individual employees (e.g. through individual training, career building, etc.); the savvy manager will recognize that it is also necessary to raise the collective satisfaction levels of the unit. (e.g. through team building exercise, group projects, etc.)….if managers want to realize the performance benefits of increased unit-level satisfaction, they may be better served in implementing policy changes that affect the unit level (e.g. casual dress Friday) rather than only the individual level (e.g. a bonus for being the top salesperson). (Whitman, et al. 2010, pp 69-70).

The relationship between satisfaction and performance is not a myth. Not only does satisfaction scale, it is also contagious. If you are accountable for performance in your organization, you would be wise to do whatever you can to “infect” your people with satisfaction.

Bret L. Simmons, Ph.D., is an Associate Professor of Management at The University of Nevada, Reno. He earned his doctorate in Business Administration at Oklahoma State University. Bret blogs about leadership and social business at his website Positive Organizational Behavior. You can also find him on TwitterFacebook, and LinkedIn.


About the author

David Burkus is an organizational psychologist, keynote speaker, and bestselling author of five books on leadership and teamwork.

2 thoughts on “What Is The Truth About Job Satisfaction?”

  1. Brett Simmons was an Air Force Sergeant and I was an Army Sergeant. We both know what the term “unit morale” means and how that concept provides the very basis for organizing all daily activities. The military emphasizes teamwork and constantly strives to ensure unit level satisfaction by promoting a spirit of cooperation. Your co-workers motivate or will demotivate you everyday. You stop thinking about your individual self interest in a highly motivated work environment and try to help others. You feel good about yourself when you are recognized as a team player. Military organizations have known for centuries that units with high morale (self satisfaction) will outperform those that don’t. High morale is infectious and leaders must be constantly involved in promoting it.

    1. Welcome, Thomas! So glad you made the point about thinking about how to help others over how to help yourself. If everyone in a group would behave that way, the group would be much more productive as well as satisfying. Thanks! Bret

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