In a season 2 episode of AMC’s acclaimed TV show “Better Call Saul”, its lead character Jimmy McGill asks his assistant Omar to “take a letter” as he dictates a handful of disjointed phrases to tender his resignation from his lucrative position at the Davis & Main law firm1. During a pause between Jimmy’s thoughts, Omar blankly states, “I just didn’t realize how unhappy you were here.” Jimmy’s response, while puzzling and a bit comical, describes a concept key to understanding the nature of job satisfaction. He replies to Omar, “Not unhappy, per se. More like not happy.”
At first blush, this sounds only like an odd play on words. But research studies repeatedly demonstrate that the factors contributing to job satisfaction are often very different than the factors that contribute to job dissatisfaction.2 In other words, the opposite of job satisfaction (or “happiness” in Jimmy’s case) is not job dissatisfaction, but a lack of satisfaction. And the opposite of job dissatisfaction is simply a lack of dissatisfaction. An employee can therefore experience both job satisfaction and dissatisfaction simultaneously leaving them feeling ambivalent and disengaged.
Abraham Maslow’s seminal paper titled “A Theory of Human Motivation” where he first published the now ubiquitous concept called the “Hierarchy of Human Needs” provides clues to understanding this dilemma more fully3. Although the validity of this theory has been critiqued and debated for seven decades, it remains a popular framework for understanding and discussing the factors that motivate people’s actions.
In Maslow’s Hierarchy, human needs are often displayed graphically as a five-level pyramid with the most fundamental needs such as sleep, food and basic medical care forming the pyramid’s base and progressively more sophisticated needs forming each ascending level. Maslow concluded that as lower-level needs are met in a person’s life, they are then motivated to seek fulfilment of higher-level needs.4 He also recognized that individuals may seek fulfillment at multiple levels simultaneously depending on their circumstances.5
In Maslow’s Hierarchy, once a person’s physiological needs are met, they are more able to focus on their “security” needs which may include stable housing, a safe school and neighborhood, preventive medical care and other measures to protect themselves from harm. Once a person’s safety needs are sufficiently met, they can better pursue what Maslow referred to as “belongingness”. These are the needs, which include acceptance, intimacy, friendship and trust, are fulfilled through personal or social relationships.
Maslow referred to his fourth level of human needs as “Esteem Needs” which are broken into two categories “Self-esteem” and “Esteem from Others”. Self-esteem needs include “the desire for strength, for achievement, for adequacy, for confidence in the face of the world, and for independence and freedom”.6While needs related to esteem from others include recognition, appreciation and social status.
Maslow denoted these first four levels as “deficiency needs” because they arise from depravation. When someone is lacking food for instance, they feel hungry; when someone is lacking personal connections, they feel lonely and so on. Satisfying these lower-level needs is driven by the desire to avoid the unpleasant effects and feelings associated with their deficiency. Maslow termed people whose needs were essentially met at these first four levels as “basically satisfied”.7
When people are asked “How are you?”, replies like “I’m good”, “I can’t complain”, and “Well, I woke up on the right side of the grass” indicate varying degrees of satisfaction among their deficiency needs. Similarly, when Jimmy McGill told Omar that he was “Not unhappy, per se”, he was indicating that his basics career needs were met. He was paid well, enjoyed his colleagues, and was recognized for his achievements. But when he said that he was “More like not happy”, he was also indicating that he wanted more out of his life and career—something that would bring a greater meeaning into his life.
Maslow referred to the peak of his hierarchy as “self-actualization” needs. When people speak about their “reaching full potential” or “fulfilling life’s purpose”, they are referring to their self-actualization needs. From 1980 to 2001, The U.S. Army used the slogan “Be All You Can Be” as a means of appealing to the self-actualzation needs of their potential recruits. When Eric Liddell, subject of the Oscar-winning film “Chariots of Fire” said, “God made me fast. And when I run, I feel His pleasure.”8, he was speaking of a deep calling he sensed on his life. Fulfilling your self-actualization needs versus only your deficiency needs is the difference between feeling “happy” and simply feeling “not unhappy”.
Applying Maslow’s Hierarchy to the Workplace
Acclaimed writer and poet Annie Dillard notably said, “How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives.”9 Considering the typical person will spend over 11,000 days working, it’s not surprising that Maslow’s Heirarchy also has significant applications in the workplace.
In a workplace version of Maslow’s hierarchy, the foundational level of employee needs would likely include a sufficient wage, stable employment, periodic breaks and other characteristics that make continued employment sustainable. A company that failed to meet these basic needs would almost certainly have dissatisfied employees.
The security level of workplace needs might include the appropriate personal protective equipment, fair work practices and a sufficant number “sick” days to accommodate small emergencies. It may also include a retirement plan and short term disability insurance. A lack of these basic benefits would also leave many employees feeling dissatisfied and likely looking for alternate employment.
The needs found on the “Belongingness” level of a workplace hierarchy, like its counterpart in Maslow’s hieracrchy, are fulfilled through our relationships with our subordinates, colleagues and superiors. These workplace relationships can be a source of both satistfaction and dissatisfaction. Organizations that hold annual picnics, publish company newsletters, and acknowledge the personal milestones in their employees’ lives are attempting to foster a sense of community and meet the belongingness needs of their associates. But ill-tempered supervisors, “Micro” managers and incompetent cubicle mates alienate these same associates and can breakdown that sense of community very quickly.
Working professionals may also draw tremendous satistisfaction through the fulfillment of their esteem needs. Professionals who master their craft and continually provide value to their organizations feel a sense of accomplishment, and that feeling in itself is a reward for them. Similarly, professionals may also sense a fulfillment of their esteem needs when their efforts are recognized by their employers through promotions, public accolaides and merit bonuses.
The substantial majority of professionals who find their workplace needs recurrently met at these first four levels will feel a high degree of satistfaction, low degree of dissatistfaction, and will likely remain with their company and profession for a very long time. For some professionals, perhaps those like Jimmy McGill, this just isn’t enough. They want their full-time work to reflect the deeper purpose they sense for their lives. These are the professionals who can be found mentoring younger staff members, completing their tasks with tremendous integrity, and “going the extra mile” without being asked. Organizations that employ these self-actualizing professionals benefit far more than they typically realize.
What does it all mean?
In Gallup’s 2018 annual “Work and Workplace” poll10, only 48% of the full time professionals surveyed reported feeling “completely satisfied” with their jobs. The remaining 52% therefore cope with some level of discontentment in their careers. For them, resolving these issues starts with identifying the specific bases for their disssatisfaction.
For people feeling dissatisfied because their job fails to meet their most basic needs of steady paycheck, their solution is simply to find another job or take steps toward becoming qualified for a better job. For employees who feel like their job doesn’t offer them the security they desire, consulting a career specialist may provide some needed direction. A better understanding of the marketplace and the skills demanded by employers can often lead to better and more secure opportunities.
At some point in every career, a person will feel torn about their workplace relationships. They’ll love their co-workers but despise their boss, or they’ll like their supervisor but clash with someone in a neighboring department. And since one’s relationships determine so much about the quality of their time spent at work, they often become prominent sources of dissatisfaction. Solutions for people struggling with workplace relationships are as varied as the relationships themselves. Potential fixes include befriending coworkers previously known only at a distance, developing a deeper base of soft skills, or finding new ways to communicate with adversaries. In extreme cases of dissatisfaction, the answer may be to move to a new organization.
Addressing needs at the esteem level of the workplace hierarcy may include taking a lateral move within the organization, furthering one’s formal training, or pursuing a side hustle. It may also include soliciting specific feedback from your superior or presenting your case for a raise or promotion. Mid-career professionals often face this issue. They’ve essentially mastered their trade and no longer find it challenging. Yet something within them still wants to learn and grow. A new challenge either inside or outside the workplace often opens new perspectives for them.
While delivering the 2005 Standford University commencement address, Steve Jobs said, “Your work is going to fill a large part of your life, and the only way to be truly satisfied is to do what you believe is great work. And the only way to do great work is to love what you do.”11 This message came from a visionary who clearly loved his work. Not many people love their work though. Most professionals work to meet the bulk of their deficiency needs, and seek that true satisfaction elsewhere. The rare few who seek to combine their working profession with what they truly love do so through careful reflection, vision and sacrifice.
1. “Inflatable”. Better Call Saul. AMC. March 28, 2016. Television.
2. Herzberg, Frederick. “One More Time: How Do You Motivate Employees?”. Harvard Business Review. January 2003.
3. Maslow, Abraham. “A Theory of Human Motivation”. Psychological Review, Vol 50, 1943. Pages 370-396.
8. Hudson, Hugh. Director. Chariots of Fire. TCF/Allied Stars/Enigma, 1981.
9. Dillard, Annie. The Writing Life. Harper Perennial, 2013.
10. Gallup, Inc. “Work and Workplace.” Gallup.com, news.gallup.com/poll/1720/work-work-place.aspx. Accessed December 3, 2018.
11. Standford University. “Steve Jobs’ 2005 Stanford Commencement Address”. Online video clip. Youtube. March 7, 2008. Accessed December 3, 2018.