December 1, 2009
There’s a natural limit to how happy a person can be at work. If work becomes fun, your boss will stop paying you to do it and start charging other people to have that fun in your place. So let’s agree that work has to be a little bit unpleasant, at least for most people. Still, despite this unpleasantness, many people have a feeling called job satisfaction.
My theory is that your degree of job satisfaction is largely a function of who you blame for the necessarily unpleasant job you have. If you blame yourself, that’s when cognitive dissonance sets in and your brain redefines your situation as “satisfied.” To do otherwise would mean you deliberately keep yourself in a bad situation for no good reason, assuming you believe you have options. Your brain likes to rationalize your actions to seem consistent with the person you believe you are.
The assumption that you have better options and the freedom to pursue them is essential to the illusion of job satisfaction. As long as you believe, incorrectly, that pleasant jobs exist elsewhere, and are yours for the taking, you have to rationalize why you don’t go out and get one. And the best reason your brain can concoct is that you must be satisfied right where you are, against all evidence to the contrary. To believe otherwise means defining yourself as lazy, scared, or incapable. Your brain doesn’t like that option.
I first noticed this during the Dotcom era. In those years, when people came to believe, incorrectly, that the common person could go start his own Google, everyone I asked seemed to have job satisfaction. In other words, employees blamed themselves for being in their putrid situations. They believed themselves capable of great things, so they rationalized that their current jobs must be satisfying already.
The situation was the very opposite in the early nineties, when big companies were downsizing and it seemed as though employees didn’t have many options. If you got fired by company A, you couldn’t get hired by company B because they too were downsizing. Employees felt trapped. They blamed management for their woes.
If my theory is true, the best way to make your employees feel a false sense of job satisfaction is to somehow convince them that there are much better jobs elsewhere. For example, you could subscribe all employees to entrepreneur magazines that are full of stories about people who left their unsatisfying jobs to become zillionaires. If you instill the false belief that better careers are obtainable, cognitive dissonance will cause the employees that have high self-esteem to believe they must enjoy their current jobs.
Leadership is just another word for evil.