Employee EngagementLearning & Development

The Global Job Satisfaction Crisis


Career development programs are in the enlightened self-interest of managers.
By Kevin Kruse
Steven Slater. Remember the name?
Steven Slater was the JetBlue flight attendant who burst into our collective consciousness in 2009 after he cursed out passengers, grabbed two beers, and slid down the emergency shoot in one of the most famous resignations of all time. For the next 48 hours, Slater dominated cable news headlines, became the fodder for the monologues of Jay Leno and David Letterman, and received 182,000 “Likes” on Facebook. Was he a hero or felon? The entire world apparently wanted to know. What made that story so popular?
The reason Slater’s antics captured the attention of so many people is because he tapped into the career reality of so many people. It’s the reality that we as talent professionals know from the cold hard statistics:
• Only 45 percent of workers are even just “satisfied,” according to
Conference Board research.
• 32 percent of workers hope to find a new job in the year ahead,
according to Mercer data.
Job “satisfaction” itself is a very low bar. A satisfied employee might still be one who hops up from her desk at 5:00 p.m. sharp, or takes that headhunter phone call looking for that 5 percent bump in pay, or goes home and mumbles “fine” when asked how her day was at work.
“Engagement” on the other hand, although uncommon, is very powerful and is something you can easily see when it’s present. You see it in the waiter who addresses his regular customers by name. You see it in the office worker who looks up at the clock mid-afternoon and mumbles to no one in particular, “Oh, I forgot about lunch.” You see it in the airport security officer who actually greets you with a smile and comments on the city you are traveling from. You see it in the worker who offers up the names of three friends when she learns that there is a job opening in her company. Engaged employees are ones who routinely go the extra mile—give extra discretionary effort—not just so they can succeed, but so that their organizations can succeed.
Unfortunately, in most organizations today, neither engagement nor satisfaction abounds. Comedian Drew Carey hit the mark when he quipped, “You don’t like your job? You know there’s a support group for that. Yes, it’s called ‘everybody,’ and we hold our meetings at 5 o’clock at the bar.” Job satisfaction is at a record low and it’s a crisis for both businesses and individuals alike.
Spillover and Crossover Effects
I once received what I consider to be the ultimate work compliment. It didn’t actually come from a colleague—it came from the wife of one of my team members. She said, “I really want to thank you. You made my marriage better.” Now at the time I didn’t know much about the notion of spillover, so I was a bit confused and speechless. “Paul used to be such a grump,” she continued. “Since going to work for you, he’s like a new man. I actually like having him around the house now!”
You have a bad day at work and come home and kick the dog. That’s the classic example of what psychologists call the “spillover effect.” This implies that your work-related emotions spill over into other areas of your life. It’s easy to understand, even if you don’t have a dog.
Similar to the spillover effect is the crossover effect. That’s what it’s called when one person’s emotions or attitudes “crossover” and affect another person. It’s not something most of us think about and is probably harder to believe. It means, after all, that you have a bad day at work, come home, and your spouse kicks the dog.
Our feelings about work—whether good or bad—impact our health, relationships, and even children. Consider the following:
• A New York University study shows that dissatisfied workers have
less sex in their marriage.
• A Queens University study of 189 fathers showed that children of
dissatisfied workers are more likely to misbehave in school.
• The British Medical Journal reports that dissatisfied workers weigh,
on average, five pounds more than satisfied workers.
• Researchers in Sweden found that dissatisfied workers are twice
as likely to suffer a heart attack or other cardiovascular event.
Yes, having a bad boss can apparently kill you.
Engagement Drives Growth and Profits
The engagement crisis is not just negatively affecting workers, it’s hurting companies, too. Engaged employees provide better service, are more productive, and stay in their jobs longer. All this leads to happier customers, which drives growth and profits and ultimately shareholder value.

In fact, a study performed by the Kenexa Research Institute showed a five-fold difference in total shareholder value over five years between the companies with the most and least engaged workforces. Towers Watson research has shown that the most engaged companies increase operating income 19 percent year over year, while disengaged companies lose one-third of their operating income.
So how can we combat the engagement crisis? How do we roll back this growing epidemic that is hurting companies and families alike?
The recommendations that follow are drawn from Kenexa surveys of more than 10 million workers a year, and are based on my and my co-author’s own experiences as serial entrepreneurs. While many variables, of course, can drive engagement, and every organization is unique, in general it comes down to three things. People want recognition, they want to have trust and confidence in their leaders, and they want growth.
Recognition isn’t about annual award dinners and plaques, but rather feeling appreciated on an ongoing basis. You should give “thank yous” liberally and frequently, as long as they’re legitimately deserved. Say thank you with specifics; mention the accomplishment or activity you are specifically praising, and how that behavior ties to your company’s goals, values, or standards. Remember that the value of the thank you is often tied to the amount of time taken to deliver it—a handwritten note is more valued than an e-mail, a gift more valued than a note, a party more valued than a gift. It’s the effort that counts.
The foundation for all engagement building is trust and confidence. The basic ingredient is, of course, being honest and ethical, and unfortunately, we still have too many incidents of Enron, Madoff, and other blatant offenses. But beyond feeling that our leaders are fundamentally honest, we also need to trust that our leaders are capable of guiding us safely to our destination. In other words, we need a sense of confidence in the future. This can best be achieved by overcommunicating your company’s mission and strategic plan, and ensuring that each person knows how she fits into the big picture. It comes down to knowing where we’re going, and that there is a map that will lead us there.
When we talk about growth and development, we’re talking about how satisfied employees are with progress toward their career objectives and about their access to learning and developmental opportunities within the organization. Let’s look at growth in more detail.
Growth and Learning for Engagement
Kenexa research shows the strong link between perceptions of growth and engagement and retention. This is an important concept to think about, because when employees are satisfied with their development, they are more likely to have higher loyalty, motivation, commitment, and overall satisfaction—and all that adds to improved performance. In fact, half of all workers who feel that their skills are stagnating indicate that they will leave their employer within one to two years.
Many think growth and development simply means more “training.” In fact, this belief is at the root of many worker-employer conflicts on this issue. Senior management might look at all the time and money spent on formal training programs, which is good, but employees may be looking for more informal opportunities for growth. These can include having a mentor at the company, time on the job to pursue new interests, assignments, or tasks that are challenging, visibility to internal job openings, and a formal career path process.
In addition to specific tactics to drive growth and development, you may want to focus on managing the employee role within the reality of the organization structure and growth.
It’s always a good idea to let employees know where they stand and set realistic expectations for meeting their career objectives. This is especially true for your high-performing, promotion-ready employees when there are currently limited promotion opportunities. It is also important to develop a plan for keeping employees who are not interested in any position changes.
Managers can ask these questions of direct reports to begin a new growth process:
1. In general, do you think that most people are satisfied with
their opportunities for career growth and development within our organization? If no, why not?
2. What additional career growth or development opportunities
would you like in order to maximize your potential?
3. When was the last time you were provided the opportunity to
receive additional, job-related training?
Some specific ideas for how to increase a team member’s perceptions about your interest in their career growth and development include:
1. Make professional development the topic of one of your
meetings with your direct reports, and discuss the
following issues:
• What knowledge, skills, and abilities are most
critical to their job?
• What are the development gaps between
current and desired skills?
2. Schedule career conferences with each employee. Discuss short-
and long-term goals, potential obstacles to success, and the resources needed. Assist the employee to visualize his/her career three and five years from now, and identify the skills and opportunities needed to advance.
3. Ask your employees to set up quarterly progress meetings with
you to keep updated on their goals and how you can support them in their development.
Additionally, you may want to focus on managing the employee role within the reality of your organization’s structure and growth. Growth becomes relatively easy when the organization itself is expanding rapidly and opening up new job positions. It can be a real challenge in a small organization that isn’t growing, or even worse, in an organization that is experience downsizing. Let employees know where they stand and set realistic expectations for meeting their career objectives.
A Call to Engage
The downward trend in job satisfaction is not a recent phenomenon; it’s not tied to the Great Recession of the last few years. Satisfaction has been dropping for more than two decades across all ages, income levels, and job types. It has reached a crisis point that is stressing families and companies alike.
The engagement crisis can neither be solved by individuals nor organizations alone. Synergy occurs when the worker and the employer come together in pursuit of engagement. Company leaders must focus on creating an environment that fosters growth, recognition, and trust. Individual workers must be mindful of their careers, partner with their managers, and demand full engagement in their lives. The “we” mindset recognizes that it is a shared responsibility with mutual benefits.
When we encounter someone who is disengaged at work, we are saddened not over the loss of a single soul, but by the loss of greater potential, the loss to a team, and the impact it has on their family. And when we encounter someone completely engaged in their work, when we hear the infectious enthusiasm in their voice, we are filled with joy, knowing their sense of happiness and the impact they are having on all around them.
Your kids, your spouse, your friends, your colleagues—all of us—we need you to find meaning and be engaged at work. We need you to be committed to the engagement and alignment of the workers on your team. We need each other to reach our shared goals. We need to harmonize our lives and our work.
Kevin Kruse is the co-author, with Rudy Karsan, of The New York Times bestseller, We: How to Increase Performance and Profits Through Full Engagement, from which he adapted the preceding. Download a free chapter at www.KevinKruse.com.

Tags: Engaged Workforce, HRO Today Global, Learning

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