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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)