Job Satisfaction in Engagement Surveys – Have we been measuring it wrong?

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Job Satisfaction in Engagement Surveys – Have we been measuring it wrong?

“How satisfied are you with your job?” We have all come across this, or a slightly different version of this question about how satisfied we are with our job. In People Analytics, job satisfaction is among the most important constructs. Employee surveys often use this item to come to a verdict about how happy the employees are and enable people manager to derive implications from it.

However, if you really think about it, this apparently easy question is quite a difficult one. It requires a lot of self-reflection to come up with an accurate evaluation of how satisfied we are with our current job. Maybe the only time we ever really reflect on our overall job satisfaction might in fact be the moment we are presented with the engagement survey.

The average response time to those evaluative questions barely exceeds 5 seconds. But wouldn’t it rather require 4 hours to come up with a proper answer, given everything we need to consider that makes our job worthwhile, pleasant or stressful?

Among the largest problems of many People Analytics Units is a low variation within the answers to these survey questions. On a scale of 1-10, most answers will fall in the narrow range of 6-8. So, what are we actually measuring when we ask employees to rate their overall job satisfaction?

In this regard, one important lesson from psychology is that no matter what question you ask, people will tend to respond to the easiest version of that question. We then fall for numerous biases when acting in a reflective mindset.

When asked about our job satisfaction the first things that come to our mind are the happiest and most unpleasant moments. We compare our happiness with our expectations and with others, we forget about our average work day and overestimate the influence of a few situations.

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We also try to keep our attitudes and behavior in harmony. No one will admit that they are totally unhappy with their job – unless they are about to quit tomorrow. We might need to bite the bullet that employees have never really answered how satisfied they’ve been in their jobs, but maybe only gave a biased snapshot of their current reflection on their work life.

The Psychology of Job Satisfaction

People Analytics and Human Resource Departments can still learn a lot from psychology when it comes to measuring complicated and vague constructs like job satisfaction.

In the psychology on subjective-wellbeing this problem has been a matter of discussion for over a decade. We should make a distinction between evaluations and experiences.

  • Evaluations are high-level cognitive processes. We are actively making a judgment about a number of criteria and compare that with our expectations and our social environment. In simple words, it requires effort and does usually not play a big role in our everyday life.
  • Experiences on the other hand are low-level processes. They are effortless and do not require monitoring. More important they are bound to a specific situation and can differ significantly between them. We might experience the team meeting as very pleasant and only five minutes later we are sitting in despair in front of an Excel sheet.

Evaluations are not just the sum of our experiences. In the book “Happiness by Design” Paul Dolan illustrates the evaluation vs. experience problem with the example of a friend, who keeps complaining about every aspect of her day at work. Her colleagues are annoying, the commute takes forever, and her boss is a jerk. Asked about why she doesn’t quit right away, she said: “Oh no, I love my job!”.

Our actual experience and our overall evaluation of almost anything in life can differ significantly. So far most Human Resource Departments have focused on improving the evaluations of job satisfaction rather than focusing on the day to day experience of their employees.

Experiences or Evaluations?

While the evaluation of job satisfaction is undoubtedly an important measure, I want to advocate a stronger focus on the day to day experience of employees.

The reflective mindset that is needed to answer survey questions is hardly used in the working life. In practice, employees will not ruminate on their overall job satisfaction but rather experience their daily activities and tasks in an either pleasurable or unpleasurable way.

It is this affect or emotion within our daily work that we should be interested in capturing and improving. It is not the evaluation of satisfaction that makes employees more happy, productive and cooperative but their experiences. Instead, we ask our employees to independently, comprehensively and objectively summarize their experiences in a single metric which might be very different from their original emotions.

How can People Analytics benefit from measuring experience?

So, what is a better and more direct way of measuring employee satisfaction? There is no definitive answer to this question yet.

A first step might be to acknowledge the difference between evaluations and experiences. We should empirically assess these constructs distinctively. We might have to focus more on the daily activities of employees and capture their satisfaction and happiness within or shortly after activities or tasks.

Asking employees on a more frequent basis “How happy have you been feeling at work today?” would for example give more precise insights into the experience of employees.

The Day Reconstruction Method (DRM) by Nobel prize winner Daniel Kahneman also allows to measure these specific experiences. In the DRM people are asked to rate specific moments of their day as pleasurable or unpleasurable.

It follows that these new satisfaction measures cannot be part of a large-scale survey. Instead, it requires a more dynamic and fluid way of data collection. A random or customized rollout yields the risk of capturing an outlier day that might not be representative of the experience of a specific employee. However, the same bias would occur for the answers of our engagement survey.

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Day Reconstruction Method surveys also come with a big advantage. They often have a higher response rate than normal surveys as they are sent out to one person at a time. They are also time pressured (response within one day). Normal surveys are often available for weeks and lead to a diffusion of responsibility among co-workers.

In the psychology of subject-wellbeing, the distinction between experience and evaluation has proven very useful. This is because experiences give a more direct way of understanding behavior. Literature is consistent with the (obvious) finding that happier employees are more productive and have better relationships with their co-workers.

I argue that this idea can be seamlessly integrated into People Analytics. The construct of employee experiences therefore yields high predictive power for everyday behavior like performance or organizational citizenship behavior. While I do not argue to abandon the evaluative measure of job satisfaction, it is time to introduce the experience measure to People Analytics.

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