Job Satisfaction is DOWN but Engagement is FLAT or UP? How can that be?

Recent data from the Conference Board tell us that this Great Recession has slammed job satisfaction.  The numbers speak for themselves and reflect a long downward trend over time:  US satisfaction is at the lowest level in two decades.  From 61.1% satisfaction with the job in 1987 to 45.3% in 2009, the drop really is quite precipitous.  Should we be alarmed?  Maybe we should “wait to worry”, as my accountant once told me 5 minutes before a tax audit (I didn’t have to pay more, he was right).  We first need to look at some other data, then try to make sense of it all.  The other data comes from an equally reliable source as the Conference Board, Gallup, a company in which I have great confidence, and who were gracious enough to share their data with me for my book.  Gallup’s recent data on employee engagement in the US are quite stunning:

They show that engagement has hardly shifted at all during this recession;  if anything it has moved slightly upward.

Can these both be true?  Is there some methodological reason in the research why the data seem to contradict each other?  It is certainly true that the Conference Board and Gallup use a different questionnaire, since Gallup’s is the well-known “Q-12”, or 12 item engagement questionnaire.  As a proprietary measuring instrument, it is probably nothing like the CB questionnaire on satisfaction.   Using sophisticated statistical analysis, Gallup found that it could predict all major elements of engagement with these questions, and no more than 12 were required.  I certainly understand this, in my own consulting firm’s research we could, for certain clients, predict an entire morale survey’s result from one question:  that question was how the employees rated their manager’s ability.   For fans of correlation,  it was slightly more than +0.88, a very significant result.  The power of (local, not top) management to influence the morale of employees was demonstrated quite clearly.  Gallup can therefore easily make a good case for a 12 item engagement questionnaire.  The Conference Board no doubt also has a well-tested and stable instrument with which they measure job satisfaction every year.  In any case, knowing the quality of these two organizations, I doubt that any methodological errors drive the difference between the data.

This means we have to turn to whether “engagement” and “satisfaction” are different, and indeed they are.  Satisfaction, and in this case with the job only, is a very specific element in the overall morale at work, and in my own research I was never able to correlate that specific element very highly with overall morale, unlike the rating of the manager.  It was just one element in a questionnaire which, for us, often ran up to 110 items, and is equally just one element in morale.  Employees seem to compartmentalize feelings of satisfaction or dissatisfaction they have about the job itself, the company, and so on, and these feelings don’t have anything like the influence on their morale as how they are treated by management.

Engagement is something quiet different.  My previous post on this might interest you if you want a bigger discussion of the difference between engagement and morale, but essentially engagement is the behavior that people exhibit when the have relatively high morale.  It’s all about volunteering for tasks,  willingness to “pitch in”, “go the extra mile”, and especially talk up your organization as a place to work or place with which to do business.  So engagement is a broad brush, job satisfaction is a part of that brush.  This means they can differ from each other.  In the Gallup article linked above, the author makes the case that the recession has made managers more likely to try to engage employees, treat them better, etc. because their companies don’t have the money to make financial investments in their workforce.  They go back to the intangibles, the non financial incentives like recognition.  Things they should have been doing all along.  This would explain why, even in a recession, engagement might edge up.  So why would job satisfaction drop?  Because people are being asked to do more with less, they see others being laid off, they are scared of that happening to them…but remember the people in these surveys have jobs, we are looking at the survivors here!   That also counts towards better morale/engagement, its like “hey it’s not all bad, I still have a job, maybe I work harder but I am still here”.  If we add to that the Gallup idea that bosses are trying harder to treat people better in these hard times because that is all they can afford to do, then we can imagine why engagement might be stable in spite of loss of good feeling about the job itself.

As I said earlier, job satisfaction can be quite independent from other feelings of satisfaction:  for example (and I have found this often when surveying workers), people can like their job much more than they like the organization for which  work.  This happens when you have a skill or a profession or something you really like doing, whatever it is, and the job gives you the chance to do that every day.  Or you might not like the actual job but you like the fact that you have a job in the first place.  You can feel all this but at the same time be anything from mad as hell at the company, to simply indifferent, for many reasons.  Your commitment is to the job/profession or whatever it is, not to the organization.  Of course this is less than optimal because you are then much more likely to leave.  Your engagement is only to the job, not to the broad spectrum of things which I have mentioned above, and so you are far from an ideal employee as a result.  Companies need to counter this with all the things which drive good morale, and which are too numerous to list here;  but most of all, good management.

I’ll post more on this as more data become available.  Let me know what you think and what you see happening in your organization; I’m always interested to hear peoples’ experiences.

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6 Comments

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  1. I have found your article to be very enlightening on the aspect of differentiating between engagement and satisfaction. I am a final year student doing my M.B.A in HR and currently pursuing my research in the same topic. I hope your further posts will help me more.
    I would be obliged if you could share the knowledge of the various new practices in engagement in the industry.

  2. Arpita thanks for the comment; I am glad you find this post useful. You might want to look at the post I put up yesterday about engagement pitfalls, etc. There are also other posts here about engagement if you go to previous material. Its a topic I plan to cover a lot more, given the interest. Good luck with your studies!
    take care, David

  3. i’m wondering why job satisfaction* numbers from Gallup directly contradict job satisfaction numbers from the Conference Board – see these two links:

    http://www.conference-board.org/topics/publicationdetail.cfm?publicationid=1727

    http://www.gallup.com/poll/147833/job-satisfaction-struggles-recover-2008-levels.aspx

    How can there be a difference of ~ 40% if they are both measuring satisfaction? Which one should we trust?

    • Brett you have pinpointed the problem which exists in the employee survey data business, which I had detailed above. Your example is even more amazing. I think bottom line it has to do with subtle differences in questions. Look at the Gallup one: after asking if you are “satisfied with your job” (where it should have stopped) the last part of the question, adds “or the job you do”. IMHO, big mistake…but why? Because being satisfied with a job means satisfied with all that the company has done to create the job, manage the job etc. The “job you do” has to do with your performance on that job….or certainly could be interpreted that way. Now I think its easy to understand that people rate themselves very well on how they do the job. In fact, most people rate themselves above average (of course!). But they are much more harsh on the company, how it is treating people, paying people, perhaps firing people, whatever it is doing in these difficult times. When the person filling out the survey reaches the words “or the job you do” they switch to the self-rating, and bam!! it shoots up.

      Now this does not exactly explain why satisfaction is down so much yet “engagement” is flat. That is what I discussed above. Once again, I would like to emphasize that this means one should rely on internal benchmarking rather than external polls like this. The “big guys” hate this because they have invested huge sums in the benchmarks but I think your data and what I have shown above demonstrate that they are almost worthless. Internal benchmarks, on the other hand, are powerful tools for knowing how everyone in your OWN organizational culture is doing….not compared to an unrelated and diverse group of companies from goodness knows where.

      best to you, David

      • Very interesting – thanks so much for the detailed response, I really appreciate it.

        Also – as I neglected to mention in my previous comment – this is a great post!

  4. Thank you Brett, your feedback is great to receive and is part of what keeps me motivated and …..engaged!
    best to you David..

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