Employee satisfaction: One thing matters the most

Employee satisfaction

By and large, employee satisfaction isn’t that high at many offices. We all know the global “employee engagement” numbers are in the toilet, as are global rankings of “Do you trust your boss?” (Hell, we just finished 2016: The Year Of Lying Dangerously.) We also know that about 41% of North American workers plan to be in a job search by February 1. Just a quick math lesson: if you employ 100 people, there’s a chance 40 of them have one foot out the door as they plan their 2017. That’s lower than half, yes — but losing 40 people in Q1 and Q2 is bad for a company with only 100 employees. These issues around employee satisfaction add up.

Now, here’s the rub. Stuff like “employee engagement” and “employee satisfaction” are fluffy terms. Executives don’t care about them. They want to see execution, revenue growth, enhanced profitability, lowered costs, and … that’s about it. Who needs to be “happy” at work? It’s about the cheddar, right? If you analyze 10 different employee satisfaction surveys/studies, you’ll get 20 different possibilities for what makes people happy in a job. And if you get right down to the nitty gritty, there’s a chance that being happy at work is a giant scam anyway. (Probably one cooked up by consultants.) Enterprise companies often don’t want to pay high salaries (they used to, but that attitude eroded via firm-size wage effect) and so, if you can replace “reputable salary” with “ping pong table” — employee satisfaction! — you’ll do that. It’s all kind of BS, at some level.

Now we’ve got some new research on employee satisfaction, though, and it underscores one of the core management tenets. Sadly, it’s also one of those tenets everyone seems to forget.

What’s the No. 1 driver of employee satisfaction? 

Here’s the article: “If Your Boss Could Do Your Job, You’re More Likely To Be Happy At Work.” Here’s the money shot:

When we look closely at the data, a striking pattern emerges. The benefit of having a highly competent boss is easily the largest positive influence on a typical worker’s level of job satisfaction. Even we were surprised by the size of the measured effect. For instance, among American workers, having a technically competent boss is considerably more important for employee job satisfaction than their salary (even when pay is really high).

(I’ve actually written about this once before.)

I mostly agree with this quote, but … there are a few caveats.

What are the caveats?

You need to add some EQ factor for the boss in here. Because here’s the real situation. If you have a boss who held your job — so has the technical knowledge around what you do — it can go 1 of 2 ways:

About a year ago, my wife had a boss who had held her exact job. At the same time, I had a boss who had no clue what I did all day. My wife hated that job; I got fired from mine. So there is no perfect unicorn here. But in general, I believe that if your boss knows what you do and has some degree of emotional well-being, that’s a good situation for employee satisfaction.

There are bosses who don’t know what their employees do all day?

OMFG, there are tons. It’s because we allow idiot middle managers to say how busy they are, assume everyone else is busy, and demand headcount. (They do this instead of considering who is already on their team.) This rush to hire, buffeted by asinine conversations between HR and the hiring manager, typically leads to a recruiting process with no chance of getting the best people — and often one where posted jobs are completely unclear, if even necessary for the company.

I’ve on-boarded into at least three-four jobs like this. On Day 5, I’m like “Why did this company need this role?” It’s miserable. Unfortunately, it’s very common.

Also very common: 60 percent of managers claim they “don’t have time” to respect employees.  68 percent of managers report “not being interested” in the career development of their employees. Only 34 percent of managers can name the strengths of their employees. This is all very real. Managers barely have a clue who’s working for them most of the time — they’re chasing their own perks, bonuses, and scratch. The peons just hit the targets. Amirite?


Hard to get to a high level of employee satisfaction in that context.

Could we improve this?

Totally, but it all starts with people caring — and employee satisfaction feels like “a HR thing,” so a lot of execs won’t. But what you need to do is:

Is any of this immediately likely? No. But we’ll get there, I think.

Does employee satisfaction even matter?

Logically, you’d think so. Happier employees = do better? Right. But then again, companies make billions with 31 percent engaged employees. So what’s the real deal? There is some evidence it boosts sales, at least in certain industries. And there are cheap, no-software-needed ways to do it. There are even ways to measure it! (“What’s measured is what matters,” some exec just sneered.)

If you understand one thing about work in 2017, understand this. Maybe you can’t slap employee satisfaction on a P&L or balance sheet, but it does matter. It drives almost everything else you do — because a bunch of unsatisfied drones coming to work every day eventually leave, and turnover hurts you financially and intellectually. So consider employee satisfaction this year. Promote the right people to manage others. Not your friends. Not total assholes. People with some idea of what they’re doing, who does what, and some emotional intelligence. 2017 is the year we need to start getting this stuff right, instead of continuing to run people in circles on low-value tasks and somehow call that “management.”

What else would you add on employee satisfaction?

Ted Bauer


  1. I don’t think I have ever had a boss who I didn’t think could do my job. However I have never had a boss that I thought was better at their job then I would be. That is what I believe really eats at people. That constant aggravation that comes from knowing your livelihood lies in the hand of a moron who not only controls your work life but gets paid more for the privilege.

  2. Create alignment (with organization values and competencies) AND accountability with 360 Feedback tied to performance management.

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