Love Your Job? That Doesn’t Mean You’re Better at It

The conventional employer wisdom has always been that a happy employee is a more productive employee. Countless dollars are spent every year on initiatives to raise employee morale, create camaraderie in the workplace, and eliminate practices that could lead to a hostile work environment, all so that companies can boost their retention rates and productivity levels.

So is it really a fact that happiness breeds a better worker?

Not necessarily, according to Wright State University psychologist Nathan Bowling. In a new paper called “Is the job satisfaction-job performance relationship spurious? A meta-analytic examination,” he re-assesses conclusions from five previous meta-analyses of the Big Five personality traits. He also conducts his own meta-analysis of the issue, focusing on studies that used data from thousands of employees and controlled for work-related self-esteem (how valuable employees think they are) and locus of control (how much they think they’ll be rewarded for a job well done).

His conclusion is right out of a Freakonomics lesson in causation vs. correlation:

My study shows that a cause and effect relationship does not exist between job satisfaction and performance. Instead, the two are related because both satisfaction and performance are the result of employee personality characteristics, such as self-esteem, emotional stability, extroversion and conscientiousness.

Quite a twist on the old “a happy employee is a productive employee” mantra of H.R. departments nationwide. From an incentives standpoint, it makes sense (for a person falling under the “neurotic” category, anyway) that fear of losing one’s job provides greater incentive to work hard than happiness and job satisfaction. Still, it could come as a shock to some employers that all the cash they’ve been channeling into workplace masseuses and in-house yoga may be more of a drag on the bottom line than a boon.

(Hat tip: British Psychological Society Research Blog)

Scott McArthur

This is good for HR and we should really think about this type of issue rather than acting like sheep!


So his would be a meta-meta-analysis? Would this discussion then be a meta-meta-meta-analysis?


shhh...they'll hear you...


There may be other benefits to having workplace masseuses, such as attracting and retaining top talent.


Maybe it's just me, but if I was to be led to believe that I could be fired at any second, my first reaction would be to start checking the job boards (on company time of course). As my mind would wander about when they would deliver the pink slip, at the exact time that I'm running the close of the quarterly financials, I might, might just slip a decimal or two. Finally, since all is lost, I check out at 5:00 pm on the dot, versus my usual 8 pm check out. Where in all of this does my productivity rise? Maybe for the next employer.


I'm of the same mindset as James - I'd be getting out of there and into a more secure work environment!



That hooker I was with last Saturday was extremely good at her job, but didn't seem to enjoy the experience as much as I did.


The results of this study make good, intuitive, sense, it is very possible to do something well without liking, and equally possible to do something very poorly while enjoying it immensely(consider that most people aren't excellent at their hobbies, but presumably they enjoy them, else why would they be hobbies). What I am curious about is whether this extends to education, if you are more passionate about your field of study, are you more likely to do better as a result? I am guessing there is a correlation, but I wonder if their is causation, or perhaps if it is in reverse of what I might expect(people enjoy their major *because* they are good at it, and not the opposite).


My employer is way ahead of you. Since I started they haven't spent a dollar on morale.


It would be interesting if they looked at job retention and hiring because if a happy employee is a retained employee the expense may be worth it.

It would also be interesting if someone took this research and checked if happy employees get better reviews, bonuses, etc. and receive those because they're happy not because they're better than unhappy employees. That would be a wonderfully counter-intuitive finding. It wouldn't surprise me if companies valued the appearance that happiness presents over productivity.


This synopsis doesn't mention what kind of work these thousands of employees are doing. I'm also suspicious of the control elements; while they sound somewhat independent of job-satisfaction, it's not unreasonable to think that the main cause of job satisfaction is that you receive esteem for your performance and that you are rewarded when you do a good job. All this study shows is that people who don't feel that they are in control of their own destiny on the job tend to lie about their job satisfaction.


So you can't usefully manipulate an employee into being happy and therefore productive, although Collin's likely right about other benefits to certain perks.

But it sounds like you can still safely dump the grumps, because they aren't very productive (as a group) to begin with, and they'll certainly drive away top talent. Of course, my own experience makes me particularly willing to believe this, because on my first job, a long delay in firing an obviously incompetent IT guy cost us three excellent, stable employees.

James and Barb: If you were in my workgroup, I'd consider your statements here as evidence that you didn't believe yourselves to be good enough to stay on my payroll. I would definitely be thinking about a performance review. My team, at least, seems to appreciate our ability to promptly dump unproductive and incompetent employees more than our ability to keep an unearned paycheck flowing to useless workers.



i couldn't agree more with jonathan. a big corporation - particularly the ones i have worked for - really want its employees to "put on a happy face." the customers we serve and the performance metrics (scored at the top of my group) versus my demeanor at work - pretty unhappy - reflect how the company feels. it has paid me less than spanish speaking agents (because that is a California law, according to HR) even though my performance metrics far exceed their scores. But management - the manager speaks spanish alot to those who speak spanish - regards these people as more important since they share a common bond.

David R.

Billy Beane is GM of the Oakland Athletics baseball team. He has been known to hire players and managers, who per their reputation, do not get along well with others. His focus is on having a championship level team. If this is unachieveable in a given year, then the focus is to build for next year. He feels that wins drive attendance, and that statistical performance drives wins. I think most employees can get behind a solid mission statement, such as winning, when they know their performance is being objectively analyzed.

If an organization can not explain why it exists, and what good it is doing, or how the performance of a given employee can help the company achieve its goals, then retaining employees is going to be harder.

Punditus Maximus

Actually, it doesn't matter -- if conscientious employees are attracted by superior job conditions, the causation holds.


The benefits are making the employees comfortable and content, not happy. Comfort and happiness are not the same thing.

Check out the Two Factor Theory of motivation:

The next great innovation won't come from a giant corporation with hundreds of content employees who've got great salaries, great perks, great working conditions, great status, and no hunger for something better.

That's not an environment that make people take chances and do great things.

Google, take notice.


"Countless dollars are spent every year on initiatives to raise employee morale, create camaraderie in the workplace, and eliminate practices that could lead to a hostile work environment, all so that companies can boost their retention rates and productivity levels."

Not completely accurate. I would be willing to bet that attempts to eliminate hostile work environment practices are a result of legal liability issues rather than attempts to increase productivity. I also have to say that in my admittedly limited experience, most of those "countless dollars" are either spent on misguided or half-hearted efforts that do nothing to raise morale.

Anywho, I believe we are confusing "happiness" with "morale". As a buck Sergeant many years ago I was taught that it isn't days off and rewards that make people productive, it's the knowlegde that they will be treated fairly, adequately compensated, and be part of a well run organization. As long as you have these things, your people will be "happy" (i.e. have good morale). No Yoga or weird little incentives needed.



While I might agree that a happy worker does not imply an especially productive one, I would also counter by saying that "an unhappy worker is usually not the most productive least for long."

One thing we have to keep in mind is that business is balancing at least two things:

1) Encouraging performance...and

2) Ensuring everyone sticks around, even if they are only functioning at 80% of full capacity.

That is, all these "employee happiness" programs may not create greater performance, but they perhaps ensure that there is at least SOME performance. For if employees are unhappy, they go looking for new jobs. And when they go, their production, whatever it was, will immediately drop to zero for the company...and someone must be found, trained, and so forth.

Most perks are not structured to enhance productivity, but rather to keep "solid" workers aboard (even if they aren't dazzling anyone with their performance stats).

But if we structured bonuses in such a way that an individual could acquire the bonus through his own hard work, we'll you'd see records broken all the time. (But when it relies upon, say, the whole division out-performing, it usually isn't quite as effective.)

I remember they did a study on my job one time. The performance engineers figured out what 100% productivity would be. And that's what was produced...until they offered incentives to beat it. Suddenly, like the three-minute-mile, some people were even at 200% production!

Of course, it may be that business would rather pay a set amount for 80% production...than have to pay a bonus for 150% production.



I think that we have to more clearly define what it means to "Love your job". There is a big difference, if by "love your job", we mean that we love the atmosphere, the people, extra perks, or "love your job", in terms of nature of the work, the type of thinking involved, success rate, etc.... I do think that a combination of these two categories make up what we would define as happiness at work, but that makeup is really specific to each person.

Any thoughts?

Mark Cuthbertson

The conventional employer wisdom has always been that a happy employee is a more productive employee.

Revise it, then: the most sustainably motivated employees have their basic needs met by the job/salary/socioeconomic status level, plus something extra of value, and something else of value on the horizon which seems attainable.

I've wasted the past ten years being highly productive for very successful companies. None of them paid me for my college education or previous experience (including 3 years as a teacher). None of the non-teaching jobs rewarded me with the economic means to manage financial independence. I was stubborn enough with a strong enough work ethic to take the jobs and prove that I could do the work of 1.5-3.0 teammates while raising the quality standards by example.

Of course, I was not a happy employee. I lacked the financial means to build anything of value in my life. My financial hopelessness and desperation affected me emotionally, and that has little value in a workplace. When my former employers did not properly value my work (or make up for the lack of value assigned to me in the first place), the jobs were not worth keeping. The last manager I worked for did not even write up an evaluation for me at all.

I'm only interested in negotiating a sustainable win-win situation with my next employer. I have never been able to afford anything less than a professional salary which facilitates my own financial independence. Emotionally, I never could afford to put my life on hold while hoping that my employer would correct their devaluation of me or my work through another stage of their devaluation process. I was wrong to take those jobs under those circumstances and expect anything different. I have changed my outlook and expectations, and I know that my next phase of employment will be positive and successful as a result.