Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Job Satisfaction Cannot Predictably Increase Job Performance

The link between job satisfaction and job performance has been a favorite research topic for 100 years or more. It has yet to be identified. This relationship is more complex than science is currently able to penetrate. A business must measure the return on investment for its initiatives. Investing in job satisfiers alone is a poorer bet than investing in direct performance improvements.  Managers looking to increase performance via the system thinker’s lever of job satisfaction will have better luck playing a slot machine. With such a complex dynamic relationship, business would be wiser ignoring job satisfaction as a method of increasing performance.

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Historical Relationship

Researchers have long been in search of industrial-organizational psychology’s holy grail{Judge 2001 @376}. The connection between job satisfaction and job performance is elusive and waxes and wanes over the years. Perhaps first studied by the scientific method in the famous Hawthorne studies at Western Electric in the 1920s which concluded “happy workers are productive workers” {Jamrog 2004 @54}. The next several decades of research revolved around the industrial line workers feelings and morale as correlated to production of assembly line work, or task work {Jamrog 2004}.  This theory became know “as the ‘Pet Milk Theory.’ Based on a commercial for the Pet Milk Company indicating that their contented cows produced better milk” {Jamrog 2004 @54}.  The analogy of cows in a milking barn with line workers being measured on a piece work rate is very appropriate. This reflects the attitudes of the period of industrialization of production. During the depression years the unrest of workers resulted in the passing of the Wagner Act (1935) {Jamrog 2004 @54}. This law gave much more power to the unions, the workers legal representative in collective bargaining.  Job satisfiers, would be high on the list of union bargaining representatives during contract negotiations.

Satisfaction Dichotomy

Frederick Herzberg proposed his Two-Factor theory in 1959, stating a dichotomy in the assumed continuum of satisfaction.  His theory suggest that factors that lead to extreme job satisfaction (motivators) are distinct and different factors than those that lead to extreme dissatisfaction (hygiene).  Herzberg built his theory upon Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs theory{Robbins 2009}. Herzberg’s motivators were seen to meet Maslow’s higher-order needs (esteem and self actualization) whereas the hygiene factors were associated with Maslow’s lower-order needs (physiological and safety). This dual continuum of satisfaction, becomes much more pronounced in the transition from the industrial workforce of the early Twentieth Century into the knowledge workforce of the Twenty-first Century.  Motivation factors such as achievement, recognition, responsibility, advancement and the intrinsic value of work itself are now seen to be as important as the merely satisfying factors of working conditions, salary, peer relationships, status, and policy and administration {Robbins 2009}. 


Vroom, in 1964 reviewed 20 studies and found a very low correlation between satisfaction and performance {Iaffaldano 1985}. Twenty years later with over 200 studies to analyze a similar result was reported. Iaffaldano and Muchinsky {Iaffaldano 1985} described the perceived job satisfaction - job performance relationship as “an illusory correlation, a perceived relation between two variables that we logically or intuitively think should interrelate, but in fact do not“ (p. 270). This however did not appear to dampen the belief in this behavior relationship. In the 1970s and 1980s the up and coming theory was systems thinking. A conceptual holistic approach to organizations that emphasized the interrelated nature of events, systems, and groups of people, and their behaviors.  System thinking suggests that because job satisfaction is a factor in the organizational system along with job performance the two must be related in some dynamic fashion.  Judge, Thoresen, Bono and Patton {Judge 2001} did a larger and more comprehensive meta-analysis in 2001 with the opposite conclusion from Vroom and Iaffaldano and Muchinsky.  Judge et al. {Judge 2001} concluded that there was a correlation (.30) between overall job satisfaction and job performance (p. 376).

Figure 1.  Scatter plots of select correlation coefficients.

A plot of various correlation coefficients are show in Figure 1 for relative comparison {Wikipedia 2009}. Iaffaldano and Muchinsky also pointed out various reasons to doubt the previous studies, and encourage future research.  Their integrated model of the relationship is proposed as a unifying framework for future studies (Figure 2) {Judge 2001 @390}.

Judge et al. suggest that measuring at higher aggregate levels are necessary.  They also note that matching granularity is important. An appropriate measure of satisfaction of a group must be matched with a performance measure at that level. Taking this argument to the national level the trend in U.S. Job satisfaction is down, 8 percentage points in 20 years {Blanchflower 1999}. However job performance measures have a rising trend in the U.S. {InternationalLabourOrganization 2003}.  That would imply a negative correlation.


With the best data to date the correlation between job satisfaction and job performance is small at best.  When the correlation is zero it does not mean that there is no relationship, just that the relationship if there is one, is not linear.  That leaves managers to wonder; intuitively there appears to be a relationship, if it is not linear then it must be a much more complex relationship.  When plotted on a graph, most managers would see the 0.30 correlation as a shotgun blast, not a slightly linear relationship. So in reality, if one can induce a positive movement of satisfaction the result in performance may be rather random, and even degrade performance. The elusive link between job satisfaction and job performance may be found with further research, better methods, and broader aggregation of the indicators.  However business looking to spur higher incremental productivity from their workforce by addressing job satisfaction measures alone will receive little return on investment. Investments in increasing satisfiers would better be put to increasing direct production or stimulating performance indicators directly. This is not a call to ignore those aspects of satisfaction completely. Many theories relate to the woes of an unhappy, dissatisfied workforce. Managers not expect to dangle a few lunches, office parties, and bonuses, as a carrot, to bump productivity into overdrive.


Blanchflower, D. G., & Oswald, A. J. (1999). Well-Being, insecurity and the decline of American job satisfaction. NBER Working Paper.
Correlation. (2009, September 6). Correlation. [Web page]. Retrieved September 6, 2009, from
Iaffaldano, M. T., & Muchinsky, P. M. (1985). Job satisfaction and job performance: A meta-analysis. Psychological Bulletin, 97(2), 251-273.
Jamrog, J. J., & Overholt, M. H. (2004). Building a strategic HR function: Continuing the evolution. Human Resource Planning, 27(1), 51-63.
Judge, T. A., Thoresen, C. J., Bono, J. E., & Patton, G. K. (2001). The job satisfaction-job performance relationship: A qualitative and quantitative review. Psychological Bulletin, 127(3), 376-407.
New ILO Study Highlights Labour Trends Worldwide: US Productivity Up, Europe Improves Ability to Create Jobs. (In press). International Labour Organization.
Robbins, S. P., & Judge, T. A. (2009). Organizational behavior. Upper Saddle River, N.J. : Pearson Prentice Hall.
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