Satisfaction and Contribution: The Virtuous Circle
By Fraser Marlow, Head of Research
Organizations are looking for maximum contribution from each and every employee. Employees are looking to achieve maximum satisfaction at work. This much we can take for granted. And when both of these are achieved at the same time, we find a highly engaged workforce and a thriving organization.Organizations that focus on enabling and empowering employees to contribute at a higher level, and do so in a purposeful way, are also driving satisfaction.
What may be less obvious is how these two factors (an individual’s ability to deliver great results and their ability to find fulfillment at work) are related.
We find that too many managers still believe that contribution and satisfaction are distinct factors, with little tying them together. Worse still: Many managers seem to assume they are counter to each other – if I demand more productivity, I will negatively affect people’s satisfaction.
But in practice, when it comes to employee engagement (which we at BlessingWhite define as both maximum satisfaction and maximum contribution), these two factors are mutually reinforcing, meaning that when satisfaction improves, contribution increases. This won’t come as a surprise.
What is too often missed, however, is that the relationship goes both ways: In general, it is when we are able to contribute to the success of the organizations we belong to (and have that contribution recognized) that our personal satisfaction increases. Of course there may be other factors at play, but short of major drivers of disengagement, we find this rule to hold true.
Simply put, employees who find satisfaction at work may contribute at a higher level, but organizations that focus on enabling and empowering employees to contribute at a higher level, and do so in a purposeful way, are also driving satisfaction.
Ask any employee what she has done recently that had an impact on the business results of the company. If that employee has been empowered and enabled to have an impact, listen to how alive she becomes and the personal pride and passion that punctuates her description.
What we find is that satisfaction and contribution are mutually reinforcing. When people are performing well, they develop a sense of worth and fulfillment. They are making effective use of their skills and talents. They are building experience in areas of personal interest, in line with their own career aspirations. They become more satisfied in their work lives.
In our 2014 career study, for example, we reconfirmed that the three top items people are looking for in their work are interesting work, followed by meaningful work and a work-life balance.
For many, it is also important that achievements are recognized, although the value we place on recognition and the type of recognition we favor can vary from one individual to the next.
As people become more satisfied, they are more likely to trust their manager and the senior leadership – they are more likely to commit and align with the goals of the organization, and in turn be more willing to develop skills and experience in line with what the organization needs.
This is the virtuous circle of contribution and satisfaction.
So, how strong is the connection?
In statistics we calculate the probability of two factors to move together as “correlation,” and give it a value between -1 and +1. At 0 you have no correlation (as factor A goes up, it’s anybody’s guess what might happen to factor B). At +1 you have perfect positive correlation (as factor A goes up X%, factor B also goes up X%).And at -1 you have perfect negative correlation (as factor A goes up by X%, factor B goes down by X%) .
So, with this in mind, we find the correlation to be just over 0.5 – in this sample it’s 0.54. We would call this a moderate correlation.
The following graph shows what this looks like in a population of 30,000 survey respondents, plotted on the satisfaction and contribution scale.
So what does this tell us? In general, we can think of contribution and satisfaction as being linked, but with a pretty long tether.
For instance, as a manager, you can ask a lot more of people, and they will deliver higher contribution for a while, but unless you make an effort to also ramp up satisfaction at the same time (for example, through recognition), something will eventually give. Conversely, if there are factors dragging down satisfaction in the workplace, people will continue to work as hard – for a while – but eventually, unless these factors are addressed, the two will move in the same direction and performance will drop.
Building engagement is a long game
The fact that satisfaction and contribution do not move in lockstep frustrates many managers and executives who have a short-term focus. The expectation of these managers is that they should see close to immediate return from any initiative.
Another pitfall of many employee efforts is that they focus on employee satisfaction for satisfaction’s sake. The assumption here is that if employees are more satisfied, they will somehow become more productive. Being more satisfied most likely won’t hurt, but in itself is not a guarantee that we will see productivity go up in the short term. Employees may still be lacking the training or resources to deliver on expectations. Despite being satisfied, they may be unclear on what is important to the organization, or possibly even be pursuing their own pet projects, the ones that meet their personal interests first, ahead of those of the group.
Organizational culture and personal commitment alike are cultivated in the long term. Behavior can be modified in the short term through incentives and perks, but this will not get you the long-term commitment you need, or a focus on the most important tasks.
How to tap into the virtuous circle?
Focus on development efforts that drive both employee satisfaction and contribution. Here are three of the top ones:
- Line of sight on the business goals. This is a theme that we come back to repeatedly in our engagement work for two reasons. First, alignment to strategy is an effective lever for improving both contribution (people can focus on what matters most) and satisfaction (people understand how their contribution adds to the bigger picture). The second reason we focus on alignment is that many of the definitions of employee engagement focus on satisfaction alone and therefore miss the point: Managers are trained to look at satisfaction factors in isolation and fail to understand the role alignment plays in helping people engage with the objectives of the organization. What drives alignment? Managers who are clear on strategy and effective at sharing this with their teams, putting the strategy in context. Effective internal communication helps: Senior executives also have an important role in making the goals inspiring and clear.
- A coaching culture. Coaching can impact both satisfaction and contribution. Employees consistently report being hungry for coaching and constructive feedback from their manager. Yet managers often are reluctant to engage in coaching conversations because of somewhat artificial barriers, which learning and development efforts can help eliminate.
- An individualized career focus. Career is a perennial item on employee engagement surveys – people want more support in their career progression, and yet as our recent research report indicates, the topic remains ambiguous. When individuals actually know what is important to them, they can better align their interests with the organization’s and take advantage of opportunities and development to reach their goals.
An individualized equation
Employee engagement remains an individualized equation. Broad-brush initiatives may seem appealing, yet our clients continuously report frustration at not seeing the impact of such past efforts. But we have seen the effects of putting the right tools into the hands of managers and individuals to take ownership of their engagement, making it relevant to their day-to-day work, and educating senior leaders on how to support the effort. This truly is the best way of building a culture of engagement. To learn more about how BlessingWhite and MPG can help each individual employee connect with the goals of the organization and take ownership of their own engagement, contact BlessingWhite today.