The Opposite of Dissatisfaction

Today I was introduced to Herzberg’s motivation-hygiene theorywhich attempts to help managers improve morale and productivity by clarifying what makes employees dissatisfied, what makes them satisfied, and how to affect both.  Most notably, Herzberg suggests that job dissatisfaction and job satisfaction are distinct, and act independently of each other.  In other words, the opposite of dissatisfaction is just a lack of dissatisfaction, and the opposite of satisfaction is not dissatisfaction, but a lack of satisfaction.

For example: When unhappy workers were asked about what made them unhappy, they answered with specifics like salary and company policies.  However when asking satisfied employees what made them satisfied, they didn’t answer “I’m fulfilled by our great corporate policies”, or even “I love my salary” – the answers funneled into a different set, things like recognition, growth, and the work itself.

This is interesting in the context of work, and I’m already trying to think how I can use it to my team’s advantage there.  But, as is always the case, I think it’s much more interesting in the broader context of life, happiness, motivation.

It’s easy to assume that satisfaction and dissatisfaction are just opposite ends of the same line.  But I dislike this idea, and I’ve always disliked this idea, I just haven’t been quite able to put my finger on why.  Here’s why:

Happiness is not simply the absence of problems.  A life without any problems is not inherently happy, or satisfactory, or fulfilled, it’s just problem free.  The set of actions, behaviors, achievements, possessions, relationships, or issues that bring a person fulfillment and happiness are not necessarily the same ones that cause unhappiness when they’re bad, or missing.

Why should I leave?

I’ve been thinking more about how good employees are willing to quit.  It’s a big topic, and one that’s uncomfortable a lot of the time – most of us like to believe, deep down, that we’ve found a career that will last forever, we’ll always be happy, and we’ll never need or want to leave because we’ve got life figured out now, and nothing will ever change.

So we approach professional life with a couple of assumptions:

  • We should be employed all the time.
  • Outside of egregious offenses, we should stay at a single employer.

I’d argue that both of these are false – or maybe not false in the sense that the opposite is true (That people should actively seek unemployment, and should hop from job to job for no reason), just means that these assumptions are invalid.

Any relationship works best when all parties are on equal footing.  By accepting either or both of these assumptions, the employee starts at a disadvantage – assuming that they should always be employed (as opposed to self employed, or, you know, bummin’ around) and that leaving a job requires valid cause means at our most basic, we assume we need an employer.  This taints the relationship from the start.

 

Working under these assumptions, the question to ask is “Why should I leave”?  I think the correct question to ask is “Why should I stay”?

Obligation is the wrong reason to do almost anything, and assuming that the default is to stay in a job – to stay at an employer because you’ve been there for a while, because you owe them something, etc – is obligation.  It doesn’t get the best work out of anyone, and it breeds resentment, left unchecked.

The beautiful thing is that a shift in perspective here – going from the vague feelings of obligation and guilt that your job conjures because you think you’re supposed to be there, to the acknowledgement that you’re there for a reason: Maybe you really enjoy the work, or the people you work with, or you’re learning a lot, or maybe you just need the money (which is a completely valid reason to stay at a job) – can change your attitude completely, and clarify in your own head what you’re doing.

Alternatively, maybe you realize that there is no good reason to stay – that you really are just staying out of obligation, or because your mom likes to tell her friends that you’re important because of your title.  In which case, you can acknowledge that it’s perfectly acceptable to go figure something else out.  You don’t need a boss who sexually harasses you, or a job offer for twice as much money elsewhere – you just need an acknowledgement that there’s no good reason to stay.

Figure out why you do what you do.  It’s important.  It takes a lot of your time, and you only have so much.  You owe it to yourself to be honest about why you’re spending it the way you are.

 

Good Employees

I used to run a business that handled backups and security, or hack mitigation for websites and small businesses.  It was a good business, and I enjoyed it.  It started from nothing, and slowly grew until it could support me full time, without much extra.  But right around that time, I started running into issues – the business needed to grow, and in order to grow, it needed to change – to be lower touch, and scale better, larger.  We were at the limits of what I (as the only technical staff) could provide.

But that’s not what happened, because I needed money.  And when you need money, you start making the wrong decisions – prioritizing one-off deals that provide short-term cashflow over the slower, steadier work of scaling the business.  So that’s exactly what I did – a lot of individual deals, a lot of individual work that would get us by, month to month, but didn’t provide any lasting benefit, and didn’t really help the business grow.  Because we needed the money, we needed it to work, we stalled, and couldn’t continue growing.

I’ve been an employee now for several years, but I can see that the same concept exists here – with different consequences, different symptoms, but similarly dire outcomes.

Good Employees are not warm bodies

I’m grateful to not be in a business that just needs a warm body in a specified location, following well defined directions.  I’m paid not just to blindly follow instructions to get something from point a to point b – I’m paid because I’m a person with thoughts and ideas, who can offer insight and solutions to problems.  I don’t think I’m particularly unique in this.  My particular field, and employer do a good job of emphasizing autonomy and the idea that everyone is expected to think critically about the business – but I think deep down this is basically universal.  I think good employees, in most positions, and most fields, are hired not just to accomplish tasks, but because they’re smart, driven, and willing to give themselves to the problems and challenges a business faces.  An employee who just does the work asked of them as it’s laid out is a very smart robot, and will soon find themselves replaced with just that.

But I need this job

But there’s a conflict here.  Employers want their employees to be happy and productive.  Employees want to feel secure.  But often employees feel like they are tied to a job, to a company, for whatever reason – maybe they’re living paycheck to paycheck and don’t think they can afford the time it would take to find a new job.  Maybe they’re afraid they can’t find a job with benefits they’ve become accustomed to.  Maybe they’re afraid of starting over somewhere new.  It doesn’t matter.  As soon as someone decides that losing their job is a real risk that they’re unwilling to take, they’ll start acting to protect it – in ways that are often counter to the best interests of themselves and the business.

Honesty

Conflict is difficult for most people, especially conflict with superiors.  However – conflict, used constructively, breeds success.  A workplace without any conflict at all – opposing ideas, heated discussions, impassioned cases – is doomed.  Even smart people have dumb ideas, and if no one is questioning the people making plans, everyone will be worse for it.  If employees aren’t willing to stand up for what they believe in up to the point of leaving a job for it, it’s a loss for them, and for the business.  Passionate people do good work.  Agreeable people have a pleasant, comfortable time making garbage.

Balance

Relationships are subtle things, that require delicate balance.  To achieve full potential, that balance constantly has to be checked and tweaked, making sure that both sides are happy and committed.  The moment one side falls down and admits that they need the other too much, that they’re willing to accept too much compromise, that they’ll do work they don’t believe in as long as they keep getting paid, the balance is lost.  It doesn’t matter if there are good, caring people on both sides of the equation – when one needs the other more than is reciprocated, it’s impossible to work as well as it could.

Good employees are willing to quit

This is not to say good employees should quit jobs often, or early, or that an employee who has been somewhere a long time is bad – rather: in order to maximize productivity and satisfaction for both sides, the employee has to be as ready to quit as the business is ready to fire them.  Part of the employee’s job then, is to make sure that they’re always in a position – financially, emotionally, whatever – to be able to leave, and survive until they can find a new position.

So I don’t know, the least you can do is conspicuously keep a “go-bag”  with a couple of days worth of clothing and some beef jerky in it by your desk.  Just to let everybody know how ready you are.  When your boss gets out of line, just subtly point at it and raise your eyebrows.  Or, I guess, get your finances in order.  Less fun, but probably more effective.

Need Keyboard Shortcuts? Use Cheatsheet.

If you use a computer much at all, you quickly realize that time spent reaching for your mouse is time wasted.  It sounds trivial, but somehow, the effort to move your hand to the mouse, move it to figure out where the cursor is, and then do whatever it is you need to do has a magical ability to slow me down and break my concentration. Any time I can keep my hands on the keyboard rather than the mouse or the trackpad, it’s a victory.

So, it was with great excitement that I happened upon CheatSheet today.  Install it, and hold down the command key, and voila:

cheatsheet

A list of keyboard shortcuts for the current application.

It’s not perfect, and it doesn’t catch all shortcuts in every app – but it’s useful enough to install.

Being Reliable

I’m a sucker for digest emails from Quora.  They get me to click through nearly every time, because they’re routinely filled with really great content.

A couple days ago I ran across the question “From the perspective of a CEO, what are the most underrated skills most employees lack?”  A terrible question, slathered in things that annoy me – “most underrated”? “most employees lack?”  It all makes me think of stupid life hacks, and people looking for secret shortcuts – but it had some really great answers just the same.  This one from Auren Hoffman really stuck out to me:

If you consistently do what you say you will do, you will almost certainly be someone people desire to have on their teams.  It is so rare that when you work with someone who is reliable, you never ever want to work with anyone else.  You will do anything to keep that person on your team.
Doing what you say you are going to do starts with setting the right expectations.  If you tell someone you will get them the deliverable by Tuesday, you need to understand that it can actually be delivered by Tuesday.  If you are good, you are probably factoring in slack in case someone in corporate slows you down or your child gets sick.

And so if your boss wants something done Monday and you think it cannot be done until Wednesday, you need to be up-front.  Because once a date is agreed to, you’re on the hook for accomplishing it.

 

On its face, this seems super obvious (which makes it even better – it’s not sneaky or surprising or underrated) – but it got me thinking: am I lax in doing what I say I’ll do?  How bad is it? How annoyed are people with me about it?  Not just at work either – at home, and anywhere else I interact with people, how often do I treat spoken agreements with nothing more than passing interest – to be fulfilled if I happen to remember?

So I’ve been giving some thought to being more reliable.  Auren hits on these points briefly in his post, but it’s worth fleshing out: what does it take to be more reliable?

For me, it’s 2 things:

1. Remembering what it is I say I’ll do.

I’ve got a terrible memory, and as I said, I treat conversations pretty lightly. As a result, I often just forget things that are talked about, or agreed upon.  upon reflection, I realize how terrible that really is.  So step 1 is to start writing down everything I agree to – from work plans to calling the eye doctor and making an appointment.

2. Saying no.

When you don’t put much stock in your verbal agreements, yes comes quickly and easily.  Why wouldn’t it, if it’s meaningless?  The problem with following through is that you quickly find yourself too busy to finish everything you’ve agreed to – meaning that if you really want to do what you say, you’ve got to get real about your time constraints, workload, and priorities – and say no much more often.

Social Media Does Not Count as a Break.

It’s Tuesday afternoon. 3:15. I’m at my desk, computer open, headphones on. I pull up Facebook. Then my email. Maybe there’s something new on Vimeo. Back to email.

I have things to do, of course. There’s always more work than there is time. I enjoy my work. I don’t loathe turning on my computer in the morning, or coming back from a vacation – in fact, I often look forward to it. So why am I checking Facebook again?

Like everyone (I hope), I sometimes just don’t have it in me. Maybe I didn’t sleep well the night before. Maybe I’ve been working on difficult problems all morning, and now I can’t face the thought of trying to create a new solution, or understand a new problem right at this moment.

So I type in F and let chrome autocomplete fill in acebook.com again. Nonsense. Scroll down. More nonsense. Check email again. Go get a snack.

Except, when I get back from that snack, or discover once again that there’s nothing interesting on Facebook, I still don’t want to work. The little break I took didn’t recharge me, it made me more bored, more desperate for distraction. So, in most cases, I immediately, unthinkingly, start the process again. Facebook. Email. Reddit. Repeat.

Somehow this feels even more sinister when you work from home, or in any environment where you’re not next to your coworkers. When you’re at an office, or a grocery store, or a ski shop, (all places I’ve worked in the past) you are proving your value to the company on a superficial level simply by physically being in the correct location. Even if you’re not doing anything productive, at least everybody knows you’re not enjoying yourself somewhere else. Suffering is almost as good as productivity.

At home, no one knows what I’m doing – so I feel a strange urge to sit at my desk. After all – even if I’m not being productive, at least Im in the right place, right? That’s what my employment history taught me was important.

At some point, spurred by the particularly progressive environment at Automattic, it occurred to me to just give up the charade. Nobody cares if I’m at my desk from 9 – 5. If I don’t feel like working at 3:15 on a Tuesday, I can just stop working. Play a game, watch a movie – or better yet, get up and walk away from the computer. Go for a walk, or a bike ride. Read a book. Work on the bench I’m building. Take the kids to the park. Do anything except sit at the desk and suffer.

Initially, this feels really wrong – the reason I allow myself to check Facebook is because I can do it quickly, and come back to work. 2 minute break, I tell myself. I can’t get the kids to the park and back in 2 minutes. A quick glance at Facebook won’t waste the afternoon – a trip to the park will. The responsible employee just glances at Facebook and then gets back to it.

Except that’s not how it works. A quick glance at Facebook won’t waste the afternoon in theory – but depending on my mood, I won’t be back to doing productive work in 2 minutes. Sometimes I won’t be back to productive work in 30 minutes, or an hour, or 2 hours. What’s worse, I’ll be enduring a potent mix of boredom, self loathing, and irritation the entire time. By choosing a distraction that

  • I don’t really like
  • Is very short

I’m guaranteed to finish it almost exactly as I started. My brain hasn’t had time to recharge and there hasn’t been time (or reason) for my mood to change, so I’ll just start again. Except this time I know that I’m once again choosing to take a break, piling on a second helping of the self loathing that comes from knowing that I’m making a decision not to work when I feel like I should.

I’I haven’t found a way to force myself to do things when I’m not in the mood (with occasional exceptions – like pending deadlines, broken production code, etc). I’ll keep working on that, although I’m not sure it’s possible in any sort of sustainable way. In the meantime, at least I can make the best of my downtime.

Choosing to sit at the computer and consume social media when I feel like I need a break under the guise of “getting back to work quickly”, or “staying at my desk” is not innocuous. It’s bad for me, and therefore my work (and my employer), as I almost end up in a worse mental state than when I started.


So, you know, lay off Facebook in the middle of the day.