What are the biggest factors in job satisfaction? Great pay, luxury, fun, prestige, job security, meaningful work, perhaps a job that serves a “higher purpose”? According to motivation research, none of these are the ticket to an engaging and satisfying career.
Researchers in self-determination theory (SDT) tell us that an activity motivates us if it provides a sense of Autonomy, Competence, and Relatedness. None of these are as exciting as a fat paycheck or a chance to “change the world”, but they are the main factors that engage people with their work. The more a job feeds our basic needs, the more we can develop our true potential.
What’s An Ideal Career Like?
A “great” job might feel like this:
Competence: You feel like you can take on and master difficult challenges. It’s not easy, but you’ve got what it takes to be successful.
Relatedness: You feel close and connected with people, or have a sense that you are in contact with people that care about you and vice-versa.
Autonomy: You feel like the choices you get to make at work arise from your own personal interests and values. You often get to do things “your own way”.
So Let’s Be Realistic
OK, when you’re jobless, the main thing is to get a job. You gotta eat. It might not satisfy all your needs. The critical thing is what you do next. Do I take a promotion if it’s offered? When other jobs come up, which do I choose? Job perks can seem like shiny objects that draw us like a moth to a flame. Sometimes it’s the jobs that are the least fulfilling that have the shiniest perks. That’s a trap–the perks may be there exactly because job satisfaction is low. The trick is to find out how people at that job feel regarding those three core needs. Don’t waste time talking about the perks.
Also, once you’ve got a job, it won’t satisfy all of your needs right away—no one’s going to let you be “autonomous” if you’re not “competent” yet. And relationships take time. But there should be some reassuring signs that at least some of these needs will be met.
What About The Money?!
Nine times out of ten, money follows motivation. Raises, promotions, length of career, the courage to venture out on your own—all of these things come from motivation. Amazing things can happen when we’re wholly engaged with our work. Conversely, burnout can be pretty costly…
What About Personality?
“Know thyself” is not bad advice. Jobs fit personalities. But even if a career counselor can match you to a job, they can’t tell you if it’s going to fit your needs from a SDT perspective. Why not? For one thing, you could work the same job in two different settings, where your needs are met in one but not in the other. So what do you do? Talk to people doing the job in as many different settings as possible. Try to imagine how well you might do in their place (after all, they may be incompetent or unsuited towards a job that you might be successful at, etc.).
Our Role In Job Satisfaction
It’s fair to say that a big part of your satisfaction isn’t up to your boss. If you’re not Competent, then it’s up to us to learn. When it comes to Relatedness, it’s partly on us to build those relationships. Also, we don’t always exercise all of the Autonomy we’ve been given. It’s tempting and “safe” to do things the way everyone else does, even if our own creativity or values suggest a different approach.
Choosing a job is a big deal. Some of us spend at least a third of our waking hours at work, so feeling engaged there could be 1/3 of our life satisfaction. Looking at it another way, whatever we learn about our own life satisfaction or about our personal motivators, we could also try to bring to our work since we’re there so much anyways.
We are only truly trapped in life when we refuse to think creatively.