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Is your job Heaven, Hell, or somewhere in between?

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Frederick Herzberg was a US psychologist, extremely influential in the 20th century. His greatest contribution might have been the Motivator-Hygiene Theory, or the Two Factor Theory of job satisfaction, which he first proposed in 1959.

Herzberg’s key insight was to realize that job satisfaction and job dissatisfaction were not two ends of a single spectrum, but were actually two independent factors, each influenced by different aspects of the job. He found — through extensive research with accountants and engineers in Pittsburgh — that job dissatisfaction was driven by the absence of “hygiene factors” in the workplace, while job satisfaction was linked to the presence of “motivators” in the job.

Hygiene factors read like a characterization of the company at an abstract level: salary, benefits, work conditions, company culture. So job dissatisfaction is increased by unsafe work conditions, contention between management and workers, low salaries, poor benefits, and so on. One way to think of this is job dissatisfaction is likely to be experienced by employees as a whole, since unsafe working conditions or a management mandate to cut back on break times are effects that all are likely to experience. These could also be though of as environmental factors.

Motivators, on the other hand, and much more personal, like having challenging (but not impossible) work goals, responsibility and autonomy, and the recognition of peers and management. This is really a personal dimension, since in the same company and the same culture, different people may have very different work motivators. Even two people working for the same boss might have completely different levels of job satisfaction. For example, two people working as product managers, where one has little experience and the other has a great deal, the first might feel challenged and the second might feel underutilized. These motivators are truly about personal happiness.

I thought it might be useful to chart out the combinations of satisfaction and dissatisfaction, and this is what came from that exercise:

heaven hell
Two Factor Matrix

The various combinations as spiritual realms makes some sense, since it is natural to characterize the worst jobs as Hell.

Hell — The situation where both the work environment is bad, and the opportunities for growth, mastery, and autonomy are blocked. Leave if you can.

Purgatory — Purgatory is a halfway house , a temporary holding zone in Catholic dogma, and those that are working a good environment but one that doesn’t challenge or inspire are destined to move on.

Limbo — The strange situation of finding a high degree of personal satisfaction in a job embedded in a hellish environment. People may stay forever — which was the case in Catholic limbo — because people will trade off a great deal for personal motivation, and our capacity for wishful thinking is boundless.

Heaven — The perfect combination: a great environment and personal satisfaction as well.

With regard to the world of today, work is becoming more fast-and-loose. For example, a growing number of people are actively deciding to work as freelancers. (A growing number are also forced into contingent work, but leave that to the side for the moment.) One main reason is that freelancers can control the environment they work in. Yes, they may have to operate within the environment of their clients, but many of the stresses of their clients’ businesses do not impact them to the same degree.

Another aspect of this new modality of work is that people have more connections, but a lower proportion of strong ties. I believe that the stress levels of many businesses are enabled or amplified by high proportion of strong ties, kind of like higher levels of pressure caused by enclosing heat in a closed vessel. Lowering the proportion of strong ties can lead to a reduction of pressures, and therefore lead to greater environmental hygiene and lower job dissatisfaction.

Herzberg’s insight lead to the understanding that dissatisfaction and satisfaction in the workplace had to be measured and managed independently, as two factors. Thinking about the number and degree of connections that people have in the workplace is a social network based metric that should be taken into account in any present-day analysis of job dissatisfaction, and increasing the number of weak ties in an organization can work like a bleed valve, siphoning of pressures before they reach a bursting point.