Rediscovering Old Truths: A Tail Can’t Wag the Dog

The more things change, the more they stay the same. I am talking about employee satisfaction and engagement or lack thereof. A recent Gallup survey found that 70% of employees hate their jobs.

As I was sitting in an auto repair shop, I was pondering this: Although we have amazing technology now that can park and even drive cars, we still have CV joints, axles, and brake pads—all of which my car needed. By the way, constant velocity joints (aka CV joints) were first proposed by Robert Hooke in the 17th century to solve problems with previous joints that failed to maintain constant velocity during rotation. No doubt, the technology and materials in all of them have advanced beyond imagination, but the basics are still the same. That got me thinking.

Recently, there was a “revelatory” news story in the media. You know how everybody starts jumping up and down as if this is the greatest thing since sliced bread.

CNBC reported that just 30 percent of employees are engaged and inspired at work, according to Gallup’s 2013 State of the American Workplace Report, which surveyed more than 150,000 full- and part-time workers during 2012. Gallup found that “indulging employees is no substitute for engaging them.”

Duh! The basic facts on employee motivation have been well known since 1968. They are based on one of the all-time classic Harvard Business Review articles titled One More Time: How Do You Motivate Employees?by Frederick Herzberg. His research showed that the set of factors that dissatisfy employees are very separate and distinct from the factors that create satisfaction. In other words, satisfaction and dissatisfaction are not the two sides of the same coin. And that is because two different needs of human beings are involved.

The growth or motivation factors that are intrinsic to the job are: achievement, recognition, the work itself, responsibility, and advancement. These factors are tied to the job content. The dissatisfaction-avoidance factors are extrinsic to the job and are found in the job environment. They include: company policy, supervision, interpersonal relationships, working conditions, salary, status, and security. If these hygiene factors, as Herzberg called them, are absent they create dissatisfaction, but they don’t necessarily motivate people just because they are present.

In corporate environments fixated on analyst ratings and on showcasing next quarterly earnings, do you really think many companies really care about the job content, let alone lose sleep over enriching it? OD (Organizational Design) has become as odious a word as HR.

Gallup said: “At the end of the day, an intrinsic connection to one’s work and one’s company is what truly drives performance, inspires discretionary effort, and improves wellbeing. If these basic needs are not fulfilled, then even the most extravagant perks will be little more than window dressing.”

In short, a tail can’t wag the dog! The only “revelation” in the news story was that we haven’t learned a whole lot since 1968.

In the next post I will talk about Google’s “revelation” about hiring.

One thought on “Rediscovering Old Truths: A Tail Can’t Wag the Dog

  1. David


    Your post is a reminder on two levels.

    First, pretty much any challenge we may have today was thought about and addressed in the past. This puts some perspective on things that may seem daunting to us now. It’s rare that something is really new and previously unthought of.

    And, second, complete satisfaction at anyone’s work is more complex than simply loving what you do. It’s much more holistic than than, whether you work on your own or as a leader/employer.


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