MAKING WORK SATISFYING - 17 June 2015
Overlook on North Rim - Grand Canyon National Park, Arizona
I'm writing this article as I sit in the morning coffee bar on the North Rim of the Grand Canyon. Â I got here yesterday after having spent the first part of the week at my house in New Mexico. Â I'm on a week long vacation from work. Â
As I drove up here, I listened to an article on the news about a study that explored whether lawyers were satisfied or not. Â While anyone might wonder whether lawyers are happy or not with their jobs, this article was about serious research that surveyed thousands of lawyers asking them about the circumstances of their jobs, their educational backgrounds and so on. Â Most importantly, they were asked seemingly esoteric questions to tease out their levels of satisfaction in three areas; competency, autonomy, and relatedness.Â
These three psychological needs are described by Self-Determination Theory as the key tenants for motivation in a wide variety of activities. Â The theory also makes the case that, when these characteristics are diminished in a social context, the "wellness" of the subject might be affected. Â A short Google search found a Psychology Today article that equates the three needs being directly related to happiness. Â And, a deficiency in any one of them will lead to a less than satisfactory state of being. Â Â
Let's talk about these three needs. Â
First, understanding whether a person is happy or not is based on a self-assessment of these needs versus some sort of objective measure. Â For assessing happiness, it's about subjective thoughts. Â While other people and their thoughts might affect a person's subjective assessment, at the most basic level it's not about what other people think. Â It's about what the person perceives that matters. Everything else is simply an input to that subjective assessment.
Competency is demonstrated success at seemingly difficult tasks. Â It's about perceiving mastery. Â I know first hand the satisfied feeling I get when completing difficult tasks. Â I get this feeling whether doing something mentally or physically challenging. Â And, when I've had that assumption of mastery and didn't meet my expectations, I've had that demoralized feeling as well. Â Competency cuts both ways.
Autonomy is having a sense of acting on one's own accord and being sync'd with an inner sense of self. Â Autonomy is more than simply doing what you want when you want. Â It also requires that whatever you do is connected to what feeds the inner you. Â In other words, it's more than simply making as much money as often as you can, even if it's on your terms. Â Autonomy suggests that what you do has to actually matter to you. Â If what you're doing is disconnected from the inner you, you're not supporting autonomy.
Relatedness has to do with developing and maintaining close personal relationships. Â In the work context, it's about working well with, and being connected to your co-workers. Â
(Heres a link to the Self Determination Theory website: Â http://www.selfdeterminationtheory.org/theory/)
As I listened to this article about the lawyers and their happiness, I realized it sounded similar to a TED Talk I heard that was about motivation and business. Â This talk--coincidentally done by a lawyer (maybe there's room for improvement in motivation and happiness in the law world)--promoted the idea that motivation was connected to three attributes: Â autonomy, mastery, and purpose. Â I'm not sure if this author developed his ideas in concert with Self-Determination Theory. Â I don't think it matters. Â What does matter was the context on which this author was focusing --business. Â He was making the case that money was not the defining factor in motivation in the business setting. Â He said, with complex business challenges, the normal business approach of dangling bonuses and other monetary rewards did not lead to improved solutions. Â He promoted the idea that improving the employee's opportunity for autonomy, mastery, and sense of purpose were better business strategies.
Looking back at my professional career I've found both of these talks ring true with me. Â This is most clear in my move to my current position. Â There, I mostly work on projects I choose and that matter deeply to me--I think they matter to my profession as well. Â I work at a pace that fits my lifestyle with lots of time off to offset the many extra hours I put in at work. Â I work with great people, some of whom have been friends for 20+ years. Â Finally, since I fly, there's a daily opportunity to demonstrate mastery in something I've done for 30+ years. Â And, I know I'm happy even though I'm making a lot less than I could. Â As long as my basic needs are met, increased pay is substantially less important than doing a job that meets the three basic needs.
When you look at the three needs I noted before, you'll see they're all self-assessed. Â That's not saying job happiness is solely your responsibility and success is simply a matter of persistence and fortitude--i.e. "if I keep my nose to the grind stone it'll all work out." Â I'm not suggesting that at all. Â If you aren't happy with work, you might find, after a little self-assessing, that one of the three needs isn't being fulfilled. Â With that knowledge, you might be able to take action on improving the situation. Â Sometimes, a little knowledge and perspective is all you need to be happy.