Experts Were Wrong About Intrinsic Job Satisfaction

By Jeff Garton
Jeff Garton
Jeff Garton
June 20, 2019 Updated: June 30, 2019

Whoever linked the word “intrinsic” to “job satisfaction” was grasping at straws in trying to explain how employees relate to their work. The word intrinsic is defined as inherent, inborn, and originating naturally, which makes it irrelevant to job satisfaction.

Job satisfaction is not intrinsic because it is a condition in response to an external situation outside of your control. You can be satisfied or dissatisfied in regards to things that your employer controls.

The concept of job satisfaction was first proposed over a century ago when our knowledge of employee motivation was limited. A more accurate and powerful term is career contentment.

You don’t control the job your employer asks of you, nor the people or processes in your workplace. And yet, you depend on these things to make you satisfied intrinsically or extrinsically.

What you control are your thoughts about work. This is your inner work life. These thoughts are a choice, even if one that is sometimes difficult to exercise.

The thoughts you generate give you the means to create the emotions you rely on. These emotions fuel your self-motivation. In other words, your ability to choose your thoughts gives you the ability to choose your emotions. Contentment with your career is a genuine human emotion you control exclusively.

To put it another way: You are satisfied with a sandwich, but you are content with your decision to buy it and eat it. You might even be dissatisfied with the sandwich but still content with your decision to eat it because of your thoughts about the price, the other available options, or the fact that you restrained yourself from eating the high-fat double cheeseburger.

People wrongly assume job satisfaction is an emotion. If this were true, you would be able to create and increase your job satisfaction with the control of your thoughts. But because job satisfaction is a reaction to circumstances, you’re much better off focusing on the thing you can control: your contentment.

Some people may consider this a matter of semantics, but it goes deeper than that.

Being made satisfied can’t motivate you to do anything unless you want to. Your employer’s efforts to create job satisfaction only work if you allow your thoughts and emotions to be persuaded.

The decisions you make as to why you work, where, how hard, and the length of your stay are motivated by how you choose to think. Although being made satisfied is desirable, only when you decide that you’re content or self-motivated to work somewhere can employers hire you. And only if you decide to remain content can they retain you.

Even if you don’t realize it, contentment is the emotion you rely on to motivate yourself to stay in a job even when faced with dissatisfactions. You think your job is worth fighting for or worthy of your contentment. Discontentment is the emotion you rely on to motivate yourself to leave a job despite your employer’s best efforts to keep you satisfied.

Career contentment helps us understand why some people stay in jobs that seem dissatisfying while others are eager to leave jobs that look satisfying. Career contentment is personal to the individual and may have nothing to do with being made satisfied.

The control of your thoughts and ability to self-motivate with any emotion you choose grants you autonomy to manage your career independently of employers attempt to influence your decisions by making you satisfied.

Career contentment empowers you to pursue and fulfill what you believe is your most important purpose for working, be it taking care of your family, learning new skills, being a part of a team of people you value or contributing to the mission of the company you work for.

To set the record straight, employers control jobs and the means to satisfy. You control your thoughts and therefore your career contentment. Because your ability to do this isn’t dependent on being made satisfied, it doesn’t really matter if job satisfaction is intrinsic or extrinsic. What matters is what you think, which is really the only thing each of us controls exclusively.

Jeff Garton is a Milwaukee-based author, certified career coach, and former HR executive and training, provider. He holds an MA degree in organizational communication and public personnel administration. He is an originator of the concept and instruction of career contentment. Twitter: @ccgarton

Jeff Garton
Jeff Garton