Why You Should Measure Life Satisfaction, Not Job Satisfaction

April 29, 2020 Sarah Mulcahy

7-minute read

Michael O'Malley

How is your company handling the current crisis? I was impressed by a recent story about Trader Joe’s, and why the company is not following tactics other grocers have recently adopted.

Tara Miller, marketing director at Trader Joe’s, said, “While other retailers were cutting staff and adding things like self-checkout, curbside pickup, and outsourcing delivery options, we were hiring more crew, and we continue to do that. We know this period of distancing will end, and when it does, our crew will be in our stores to help you find our next great product just as they’ve always been.”

It’s one thing to say your company has a culture of caring, but when life happens outside of work, that’s when culture – and particularly HR – is truly tested. Michael O’Malley, Ph.D., managing director at Pearl Meyer and co-author of “Organizations for People,” has spent a lot of time at companies with standout cultures. In a recent Harvard Business Review article, he argues, “The best places to work provide people with life satisfaction as opposed to job satisfaction alone.” These companies have made it their purpose to improve the lives of their employees.

We recently sat down with Michael to ask about better work-life integration, why gratitude matters, and how to build community.

Read the full interview below (and as a disclaimer, it was conducted in early March).

Workhuman: You’ve said that more companies are looking to create a culture of kindness. Is this coming from the C-suite? What’s your first piece of advice when companies ask how to be kinder?

Michael: It’s really about setting behavioral expectations and having norms. It starts with the C-suite and the values – and then demonstrating you are serious about the values when there are actions that conflict with those values.

Often when there are conflicts, it’s with people who are stellar performers, but they corrupt the culture. The question that onlookers have is, ‘What are you going to do about this person who’s making life miserable for everyone else?’ These are moments of truth where values meet profit and the C-suite needs to take action. It always goes back to values.

Workhuman: Because you can’t really separate job satisfaction and life satisfaction, is there a better way to approach work-life integration?

Michael: I think companies should measure life satisfaction, but they don’t. They measure job satisfaction. 

But what some companies are doing is actively keeping families involved. One example of this is at Insomniac Games. Their Better Half program is a bulletin board that’s accessible to everybody – employees, their partners, children – to see what the production schedule is, what social events are coming up, and things like that. Employees tell me their spouses know more about what’s going on at the company and social events than they do, because they actually look at the bulletin. 

At the companies I’ve visited, they’re very generous when it comes to the needs of employees’ home lives. For example, in terms of parental leave, their programs are more comparable to what other countries in the Western world offer their employees. There’s just a greater recognition that people perform best when their lives are well integrated and they are able to devote time to the problems they face at work and time to the problems they face at home. There are more lucrative programs, by and large, to help people who have to juggle the two worlds.

Workhuman: Why aren’t more companies adopting this mentality of benevolence to employees? Is it about budget?

Michael: Sometimes it’s about budget. Sometimes they think they will create an entitlement mentality, that there’ll be no reciprocity. There’s some hesitancy about creating an environment of expectation and not performance. 

We’re bounded by what we think the role of a business should be. I’m not sure if the whole concept fits with preconceptions of what businesses are, in theory, supposed to be.

Workhuman: And yet adding more appreciation and gratitude to the workplace doesn’t necessarily have to break the bank.

Michael: I’m very big on benevolence and gratitude in the workplace. I’ll give an example. I was consulting to a medical school around their residency program. Residents aren’t paid a lot and they work long hours. For a lot of people, it’s not as gratifying as they thought it would be. The medical school asked, ‘Is there anything that we can do to make life more palatable for residents?’

Dealing with limited time, the one thing I suggested was to have residents of different departments choose a charity they want to support each month or quarter and give them the day to volunteer at that charity. And as a department, they may want to contribute something as well.

Taking part in benevolent acts makes you feel better and makes people feel closer. You’re doing something of benefit for other people. At least for a moment, that – combined with other acts of gratitude – takes you outside of yourself. You realize there are a lot of people in the world who need help, and it helps mute the egocentrism that overtakes all of us at one point or another.

Workhuman: In your article, you share examples of companies focused on community building and having people get to know each other on a personal level. Does that desire for community vary based on somebody’s age or career level? 

Michael: People have this desire to belong regardless of their level in the organization or their age. That’s my data-driven answer, which is based on just a few companies. 

When I go into companies, almost 100% of the younger people just want more connection to each other, which is ironic because they’re the most connected people. They want a greater sense of affinity and inclusiveness and belonging. 

Workhuman: Across the companies you’ve studied, what are the most impactful ways they are rewarding their people?

Michael: This is not going to be earth-shattering, but a ‘thank you’ would help. When I was at SAS, I remember a story one employee shared with me about walking into the elevator and seeing Jim Goodnight, the CEO. The door closed, and Jim knew the employee’s name. They have 5,000 employees. He asked, ‘What are you working on these days?’ 

This is about having an interest in what people are doing and acknowledging that what they’re doing is important and has a purpose. This employee was just so elated by the fact that the CEO knew his name and asked what he was working on.

It’s the everyday interactions among people who feel like what they’re doing is important and is recognized and acknowledged by people. I don’t think leaders quite understand how important they are to others, particularly in what they say and what they observe. They underestimate, by and large, their impact on others. They don’t see themselves as that important, and don’t think they have that kind of influence, but they do. 

Just feeling appreciated and wanted is better than anything else.

Workhuman: What’s your call to action for HR leaders?

Michael: I’m actually pretty encouraged by HR. I’m working on reorganizing an HR function right now in the construction industry. I was pleasantly surprised by the direction all the CHROs in the industry have taken, and I see it as a common theme that the call to action is to have a very intense and active look at the culture of these institutions. 

CEOs are looking to Human Resources to create the kinds of cultures where people can thrive and grow and work into their potential. I see HR reorganizing itself or rethinking itself as a cultural apparatus. And I think CEOs connect to that.

I think the explanation of, ‘If we make our people happier, they’re gonna be more productive,’ is going by the wayside. The lure for CEOs and the value for HR is they think of themselves as creating a culture where people can do their best work. 

That would be my call to action – for HR to be the stabilizing factor of culture in the organization.


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About the Author

Sarah Mulcahy

Sarah is senior content marketing manager at Workhuman. When not writing and reading about all things culture, leadership, recognition, and appreciation, she enjoys iced coffee, running, and spending time with her daughters, Mabel and Eva.

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