Job satisfaction refers to an individual’s subjective well-being at work. Because of its subjective nature, job satisfaction has not received much attention by mainstream economists in the United States. However, job satisfaction has long been a primary concern of industrial and organizational psychologists and sociologists.
Interest in job satisfaction developed out of, or in response to, early theories of individual work motivation used by industrial engineers in the early 20th century. Following the work of Frederick Winslow Taylor (1856-1915) on so-called scientific management, much of the focus of industrial engineering during the 20th century was based on the theory that workers will shirk or avoid work, if possible, and therefore need to be coerced to expend maximal effort, primarily through close supervision and properly designed wage incentives. An early competing theory of motivation came from the “human relations” movement and, in particular, the work of George Elton Mayo (1880-1949). Based on his Hawthorne experiments, Mayo argued that emotional factors are more important in determining productivity than “logical” factors. Work arrangements, Mayo suggested, must be organized to address workers’ subjective needs for satisfaction as well as the requirements for efficient production. The human relations movement emphasized managerial leadership and work design and eventually developed into the modern human resources school of management.
Studying job satisfaction is important not simply for improving the well-being of workers; much of the research attempts to help management improve the efficiency and quality of workers’ output. Worker resistance to Taylorist scientific management, often experienced as limiting individual autonomy and increasing stress, has generated resentment and dissatisfaction in the workplace, leading to productivity and quality problems. This worker dissatisfaction has been an important factor in the establishment of human resources departments in many firms, quality of working life programs in the 1970s, and, more recently, efforts to increase employee involvement through arrangements such as quality circles and teamwork.
Much of contemporary theory and research on job satisfaction has been in reaction to a prominent social psychological theory presented by organizational psychologists J. Richard Hackman and Greg R. Oldham in their 1980 book Work Redesign. In a new twist on the old human relations theory, they argued that motivation and performance at work are determined more by how tasks are designed than by personal dispositions or orientations toward work. Key to performance at work is job satisfaction, which, in turn, is a function of the “motivating potential” of work. While this “job characteristics” model formally incorporates individual work orientations, it clearly shifts the focus to the work context, suggesting that satisfaction and hence performance may be increased through job enrichment. The relative weight of the work context versus individual orientations and dispositions in determining job satisfaction remains subject to debate.
One problem with the job characteristics model that has been pointed out by psychologists and sociologists is that job satisfaction and work performance may be completely unrelated. Job enrichment, it has been argued, may increase job satisfaction but may be unrelated to job performance. Rather, motivation and performance may be a function of other determinants such as extrinsic rewards (e.g., financial rewards, relationships with managers and coworkers) and superior job design. Similarly, it has been suggested that individual job satisfaction depends on behavioral types of workers. Some workers may advance their own goals as a first priority and thus be satisfied, but they may or may not advance organizational goals. Others, in contrast, may identify with the organization and thus be committed to it, but may be unsatisfied, for example, if they observe less effort on the part of other workers.
Both psychologists and sociologists directly question the link between the work context and job satisfaction. Dispositional approaches in the social psychological literature focus on individual personality traits or attitudes. Social information processing theories emphasize contextual cues and social influences rather than objective situations and argue that job characteristics are subject to interpretation. More sociological approaches have shown how workers attempt to actively create a positive context for themselves at work. In this view, there is no direct effect of external situations—or the work context—on job satisfaction. Rather, satisfaction is a result of successful behavioral strategies in response to a given work situation.
More recent work on job satisfaction examines the effects of increased worker participation in decision making and problem solving on subjective well-being (and on performance). This literature is largely quantitative, however, and on the whole the findings have largely been contradictory, generating little support for a strong, consistent effect of participation on job satisfaction. These inconsistent findings may be explained in part by qualitative work on job satisfaction, suggesting that individual dispositions and orientations vary across individuals, and may not be static and stable even within the same individual. Rather, individual preferences may be more fluid and adaptable than commonly understood. Over time, workers may reevaluate work arrangements and adapt to given situations, particularly when they perceive little alternative choice.
On the whole, there remains significant debate and controversy over two main issues concerning job satisfaction. The first concerns the determinants of job satisfaction, particularly in terms of individual work orientations versus the work context and job design. Questions regarding the stability of individual work preferences are also important here. The second issue concerns the relationship of job satisfaction to performance at work. Here questions remain in terms of the extent to which job satisfaction is related to individual motivation and performance. One thing that seems clear is that there is no single determinant of overall job satisfaction, such as a particular type of work design, and no simple relationship between job satisfaction and work performance that holds across all individuals. So-called intrinsic and extrinsic elements of the work experience may be systematically related to job satisfaction, but these relations depend on dispositions and orientations toward work, which vary across individuals.
- Hackman, J. Richard and Greg R. Oldham. 1980. Work Redesign. Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley.
- Hodson, Randy. 1991. “Workplace Behaviors: Good Soldiers, Smooth Operators, and Saboteurs.” Work and Occupations 18:271-90.
- Kelly, John. 1992. “Does Job Re-design Theory Explain Job Re-design Outcomes?” Human Relations 45:753-74.
- Vidal, Matt. 2007. “Lean Production, Worker Empowerment, and Job Satisfaction: A Qualitative Analysis and Critique.” Critical Sociology 33(1-2):247-78.
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