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Job satisfaction versus being happy at work

Updated: May 23


I was attending Happiness at Work conference a few weeks ago. Right at the beginning we talked about Daniel Kahneman’s teachings, the author of Thinking Fast and Slow and a Nobel Prize Winner. Alexander Kjerulf, founder of Woohoo Inc., who was delivering the course made a distinction about job satisfaction versus being happy at work. I think it is important to know the difference since many organizations I see are struggling with that.

Job satisfaction comes from things like compensation, bonuses, office space, table tennis corner, free snacks, gym and all the perks we see at many offices.

When leaders see the morale is low or people leave, these are the first things they provide. Sounds fun and appealing. They may increase the job satisfaction for sure. Most leaders want more innovation, creativity, engagement, productivity, loyalty though. Unfortunately, those perks do not lead to what they want.

People need something more at work to be more engaged, more productive, more loyal:

  • They want more meaning in what they do.

  • They want to know what they do on a daily basis contributes to a bigger cause.

  • They want to be acknowledged not only for bringing more sales but things like helping another coworker, representing the values of the organization, being a great team player.

  • They want to see their work matters.

  • They want to feel they matter.

  • They want to have good relationships at work.

These are the things that make people happy at work. Results of being happy at work are very different than what job satisfaction can bring. Happy people are more engaged, more productive, more creative, more loyal. There are so many studies now that we cannot even list here. (I will keep on writing to refer to them.)

Job satisfaction is like what you think about your job. It is more like how you evaluate it. Happiness is what you feel about your job. It is more about your experience. Two very distinctive perspectives.

I will never forget a CEO I met who was so frustrated seeing his people leave. When I asked him a few questions I found out, he was never at the office and when he was, his door was always closed and he left at 3PM. He was not interacting with his people unless he really had to. He was always trying to keep his people by giving more money and was shocked to see them leave. This is unfortunately not a rare incidence; most of the workplaces use perks to keep their people. They do not realize those perks give only short term boosts. After a while they become a normal part of the job.

There is nothing wrong with giving people nice office spaces, free coffee and a gym, however people need more emotional rewards at work. If you make them feel like a human being first, they can put up with a bad office and buy their own coffee, but they will be happy.

I personally had this exact experience. I had a great office space, great title, great compensation, great gym (when no other company had it), great cafeteria with amazing food for free, great-everything but I left that company because my work was not aligned with who I am. I was not a human being first, I was a number. A couple years later, I joined a very small company, at an office so sloppy I thought I would never work there, where there were no perks, I made less money but I was happy every Monday and every other day. The biggest difference was how they made me feel: they treated me as a human being and like a family member first. They had 100% trust in me on the first day. I lived this. I know the feeling. I am a hard working person wherever I work but my performance and my results were amazing in that second job. I have never poured my heart and soul into a company like I did for that one. You never know what people can do for you when you treat them with trust, dignity, and make them know their loved ones come first. I was 100% myself every single day. That is an amazing feeling. I always wanted to do more for them, gave back to them, stayed loyal because of how they made me feel.

Leaders cannot expect engagement rates to go up or productivity to increase with tangible stuff. People want something that speaks to their hearts as well as their minds to be happy at work. Happy people work better and stay longer. As we care more about how people feel about their jobs instead of what they think about them, we will create a better world for all of us. Thank you Alexander for making me think about what #HappyatWork means all over again.

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