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.