Is a satisfied employee a productive employee?

Tim Baker


written on April 12, 2017

Is it true that if you’re satisfied with your work, you perform better?

The pathway to better job performance—according to many managers—is through job satisfaction. This general belief has been around for at least 100 years, despite inconclusive evidence of a link between job satisfaction and job performance.  This misguided conviction has led to a range of performance management measures designed to satisfy people at work.  We subsequently use extrinsic rewards—usually monetary—to foster a sense of satisfaction on the job.

Intrinsic and extrinsic motivation

What’s needed to increase job performance and employee retention, however, is cultivating the right conditions for intrinsic motivation to flourish. Engaging the “hearts and minds” of people at work is an entirely different source of motivation from satisfaction with the extrinsic rewards of a job.

Admittedly, one or two studies show a causal link between job satisfaction and job performance. More studies show a reverse relationship; that is, better performance leads to satisfaction on the job. But the clear majority of research concludes that too many other factors are in play to make the generalised claim that a satisfied employee is a higher performing employee. And lots of studies show no relationship between satisfaction and performance.  So, taken together, the research suggests we should look to other means to boost performance.

The work itself is the answer

It’s work itself that has the greatest potential to improve (or reduce) personal productivity, apart from the peripheral recompenses for doing the work. Instead of only using the “carrot and stick” approach, we should concentrate on motivating people with the type of work they do and how they do it.

There’s no doubting a satisfied employee is better off in lots of ways in comparison with an employee who is not satisfied. But we need to challenge this deeply-rooted belief that extrinsic rewards bring the best out of people. Sometimes they do get results; they can be effective, now and again. But for widespread and sustained performance, the questions we need to ask are:


  1. How do we engage the heart and mind of the employee in their work?
  2. How can we make the connection between human spirit and work?


One of the main criticisms from humanists in their response to scientific management is that it dehumanises the worker. By separating the planning function from actual work accomplishment, workers needn’t bother to think—the thinking has already been done by management. This division of planning and doing – as logical as it indubitably seems – strips the worker of their autonomy and self-sufficiency.

Work broken down into small, controllable segments, is often considered meaningless by those called upon to do it, namely, workers. The humanists have a valid point.

Dave and Wendy Ulrich, in their book The Why of Work: How Great Leaders Build Abundant Organisations That Win, explain the significance of understanding how work contributes to a greater cause beyond simply completing a process. The nature of work has transformed prodigiously from the days of the factory assembly line, performance management practices we use haven’t kept pace.  Work segmentation is still the prevailing performance management practice.  

Dan Pink, in his popular book Drive: The Surprising Truth about Motivation, challenges us to think differently about human motivation and performance. He writes that the carrot and stick approach isn’t always effective, especially for the relatively new breed of knowledge worker. He claims we need to do more than satisfy the employee with a sprinkling of external rewards. And I think he’s correct – as a growing number of authors do.

High performance doesn’t stem from the promise of rewards and incentives for following a set of predetermined systems and processes.  As Dan Pink puts it:

“For as long as any of us can remember, we’ve configured our organisations and constructed our lives around its bedrock assumption: The way to improve performance, increase productivity, and encourage excellence is to reward the good and punish the bad.”

As HR practitioners, we need to look at work as the source of motivation, inspiration, and engagement.

This is an extract from Dr Tim Baker’s newly-released book: Performance Management for Agile Organisations.

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