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What is “Job Satisfaction” Anyway?

By Susan de la Vergne

Let’s start with three scenarios where bad situations got worse:

Scenario 1) Mark, a software engineer in Silicon Valley, disliked his boss. “If only I worked for Ekan instead of Sean. Sean argues with me all the time. It’s like he doesn’t think I know what I’m doing.” So Mark manages to get transferred to Ekan, who has a reputation as a hands-off, high energy manager. But after Mark makes the move, he finds out Ekan has a short fuse, gets furious and comes unglued when a sev 1 problem hits the team, as it often does.

Mark went from working for a micro-manager to working for a hair-on-fire manager. At first, he was happy to move to Ekan’s team, expecting to be left alone, but now he dreads coming in.

Scenario 2) For two years, Kim worked for Danielle, an I.T. director who, in a male-dominated industry, is always making sure she lets men know she won’t be shortchanged. The men make fun of her behind her back. Kim was worried they were making fun of her, too, because of her association with Danielle, so she applied for a job on a different team. She’s delighted when she gets the job.

Then she discovers her new boss has his own issues. He’s very political, always trying to manipulate things in his favor, employing questionable ethics. He’s now advising Kim to do the same. She wonders which was worse, her old boss or her new one.

Scenario 3) Roger was the product manager for the same product for five years. Frankly, he was sick of it, and was hoping for new challenge. Fortunately, senior management asked Roger to take over as product manager for a product he knew very little about. He said “yes,” eager to make a move, and then—along the lines of “be careful what you wish for”—discovered he’d inherited a product development team that had been gutted of expertise during last year’s layoffs. Those on the team now are new to the company and the product. The previous manager knew the product inside and out and was educating the team. But he quit. Now Roger’s got it, and although he expected to be happy about the new challenge, instead he’s miserable.

Tough breaks, all of them, but not all that unusual. Just like the people in these scenarios, we’re always trying to make things at work go our way—better manager, better opportunity, more challenging, more realistic, more independent, better money, shorter commute…more, better something! Yet even when we succeed—when we get that new manager, that new team, or that new challenge—our satisfaction is always short-lived. We get a raise, we’ve already spent it. We get a new challenge, we have more headaches. We move to a new team, and the manager is a problem. It’s always something.

Which begs the question: Why do we continue seeking job satisfaction this way? Why do we continually rearrange our professional lives hoping this time it’ll work thinking this time, I’ll be happy. This time, I’ll find the job fulfilling. This time, I’ll enjoy my manager. This time, it’ll work, once I just make this change, then I’ll finally get to experience real job satisfaction!

It doesn’t work because satisfaction is a state of mind. When we try to improve it simply by arranging circumstances—bosses, commutes, work assignments, etc.—we’re not getting at the root cause. We’re simply trying to make things more pleasant so we’ll be less dissatisfied. We’re trying to manipulate our state of mind, rather than manage our state of mind.

Instead, we need a new way to think about the problems we face.

The Nature of Problems

All problems have two parts: an external part and an internal one. The terrible new boss is an external problem. Our state of mind—resisting the new boss—is an internal problem. We work on the external problem hoping that will fix the internal problem, but it never does for long.

Let’s look at another example. Let’s say I’m being transferred to another department in a different part of town. I don’t want to work in that part of town. For one thing, it’s a long drive, and for another, I see the move as a demotion. The external problem is I’m being transferred. The internal problem is I hate the prospect of the commute, and I resent the idea that people will think it’s a demotion. I’m seriously distraught about it. I consider quitting, complaining to HR, pretending to my colleagues it’s an honor to be transferred, or moving closer to the new job. Anything to make it less unpleasant!
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There is nothing I can do about the transfer. There is something I can do about my distress. Instead of being distressed, I can be patient. Impatience gets me nowhere. Being resentful doesn’t either. I can manage my state of mind, my distress, by learning to recognize negative states of mind early and then intercepting them before they take hold. If I know that being frustrated, angry, and distraught won’t improve my situation, I’ll be motivated to manage my state of mind so I don’t “go there.”

I can be patient. I might as well. My impatience is damaging only me and is not changing the circumstances at all. I’m still being transferred.

I’m not suggesting I wouldn’t attempt to effect change. I can still quit, or start a job search, or see if I can talk the boss out of transferring me. I’m not going to become a doormat. I’m just managing my state of mind so I’m not upset while I’m taking next steps.

Training in Patience

It’s not easy to be patient. It’s easy to be angry. Frustration is easy, too. Neither takes any planning, or for that matter any courage, and we have plenty of practice at both. They’re habits of mind.

It takes time—and training—to develop patience. Training in things like mindfulness and controlling our thoughts makes it so that we manage the mind rather than let habitual knee-jerk reactions dominate the moment.

So, to answer the original question–“What is job satisfaction, anyway?”–job satisfaction is a state of mind, not a state of perfectly arranged external circumstances. Getting to real job satisfaction requires managing one’s state of mind, and that calls on emotional intelligence.

Emotional Intelligence

In the last couple of decades, researchers have validated the idea that we human beings have several kind of intelligence, not just cognitive intelligence. One that has proven to make a big difference on the job, in particular, is emotional intelligence (EI)—and the centerpiece of EI is the ability to recognize emotions and manage one’s own state of mind.

Understanding and managing emotions, or states of mind, is an essential ingredient for success on the job. There’s a lot written about emotional intelligence and “leadership,” but it’s hardly just for leaders. Everyone, without exception, would like to be happier. The way to get there isn’t by managing and rearranging the external circumstances until they seem pleasant enough. The way to get there is by managing one’s state of mind, all the time, starting with a simple mindfulness practice.

Resources for this article:
Working With Emotional Intelligence by Daniel Goleman
Search Inside Yourself by Chade Meng Tan
How to Solve Our Human Problems by Geshe Kelsang Gyatso

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