Mind & Body

The Backlash to Brainwashing Employees With ‘Job Satisfaction’

Employers are creating problems for themselves by telling employees to have unrealistic expectations
TIMEFebruary 15, 2020

Your work experience has a major influence on your well-being.

There’s a reason businesses invest in good wages, benefits, and so forth to make employees satisfied. They may say it’s because they care about workers, but this is often only partially true. The more complete truth is that employers want to keep employees engaged and productive.

But guess what?

Brainwashing employees with the carrot of being made satisfied can cause the very problems employers are trying to avoid. Over time, the repeated emphasis on job satisfaction has conditioned employees to become reward oriented, to expect certain treatment, and to complain or quit if their expectations are not met.

Furthermore, millennials report they feel manipulated by such tactics.

Employers have not only been playing with fire but fanning the flames. They neglected the three reasons employees don’t stay satisfied for very long:

  1. A person’s needs, wants, and desires are always evolving as they age and their circumstances change. What made us satisfied today may not work tomorrow.
  2. People are oriented to continuous improvement. Not long after we get what we want, we eventually want more or something new to keep us satisfied.
  3. We live and work in an imperfect world where conflicts between people are inevitable and disappointments are unavoidable.

Even great employers can’t do enough to keep employees constantly satisfied. Consequently, by attempting the impossible, employers become snared in a “Catch-22,” a conundrum created when the solution contributes to the problem. In this case, the catch is being obligated to make employees satisfied when doing so fuels expectations that may contribute to their dissatisfaction.

There is one way out of this catch. If the goal is to keep employees in their jobs and productive, then stop doing things that invite their complaints. First, acknowledge that while making employees satisfied is essential, it’s also problematic since dissatisfactions are inevitable. Next, begin the process of helping employees think about their work in a more productive way.

If you think changing how employees think is silly, you may not be aware of the psychological significance of how people’s thoughts affect how well they feel and perform.

Advances in medical scanning technology during the 1990s enabled psychologists to discover that people are motivated by emotions that are created by their thoughts. Stated another way, employee motivation is not activated by making employees satisfied, but by how they think about being made satisfied.

More recently, psychologists found that an employee’s neutral and positive thoughts about work establish the emotional foundation for improving their motivation, productivity, creativity, and retention.

If employers want engaged and productive employees, they would be well advised to provide them training on how to think in a more productive manner about their work.

Employers should acknowledge that dissatisfactions are inevitable to every job, and that a human being has an inherent ability to choose their perspective of thoughts. Focusing on the negative will inevitably lead to negative feelings.

Employers and employees need to face this fundamental fact about the human experience and stop pretending that better lighting or casual Fridays will be what decides how employees feel about their job.

Now comes the million-dollar question. If an employee’s thoughts are not focused on expecting satisfaction, what in the world should they be encouraged to think about?

An employee is naturally oriented to want what they believe will give them contentment with their career. But discovering what this is for a specific employee is a process they must go through for themselves.

Career contentment is the emotional bi-product created when employees think the work they have can fulfill their most important purposes for working.

An employee’s purposes can change over time and may be linked to factors on the job, or off the job. Their core purpose for work may be to support their family or fulfill their personal expectations of a certain lifestyle. Or it may be because their work relationships and interactions are important to them. As such, an employee’s desire stays in a job they believe can make them content may have nothing to do with being made satisfied.

And helping employees to realize this isn’t manipulative or misleading. Employees only stand to gain by focusing on what drives them to come to work each day and can motivate them to make a meaningful contribution.

Career contentment is the true Holy Grail of employment. This potent emotion can motivate an employee to engage, cope with conflicts and disappointments, and maintain productive thoughts and feelings toward their job.

But there’s another good reason why employers should want employees to become knowledgeable about how to utilize their career contentment.

Employees are directly motivated by their thoughts, not by an employer’s programs and incentives. So if an employee’s thinking remains unproductive, an employer’s programs are destined to work inconsistently or not at all. This is why many employers find their job satisfaction programs are ineffective, with employees left unappreciative or with insatiable demands.

Job satisfaction breeds a mindset that says, make me happy or I’ll complain and quit, and employers have developed a fear of this happening. Career contentment, however, asks an employee to focus on the reasons they want to work. It teaches them to focus on their own purpose. In doing so, career contentment presents an opportunity for employees to take ownership of their core motivation, without the threat of developing expectations that someone else will keep them happy.

In short, career contentment empowers employees to find contentment that is of their own making—and within their own control.

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

Jeff Garton