Are You Happy in your Work? (Or just not unhappy?)

woman at desk looking miserableA lot of people are not really happy at work. They find it OK at best.


This is a poor state of affairs when we consider that we spend the best hours of five out of every seven days at work.

Organisations are not bad. Often the fault is with us. We made a decision on what to study or which industry to join based on factors which we thought would make us happy. Like money, and prestige and the possibility to get a bigger and bigger job…and other stuff like that.

And there’s a lot of management out there (and remuneration committees who believe they have to pay through the nose with someone else’s money to win the war for talent) that still thinks that money is a motivator despite the mountains of evidence that it absolutely is not for almost everyone.

This money-as-motivator approach…

…was first brought to us by two economists – Michael Jensen and William Meckling, in 1976. They called it agency theory and then I imagine when everyone said “what?” they changed it to incentive theory. It is based on the belief that money can be used to get managers to focus on one thing and not another. To align their interests with those of the shareholders.

As the scientists will tell you, the value of a theory is determined by its ability to explain all relevant observations and this theory is, frankly, pure mince as they say in Glasgow (BTW mince = bad). This theory basically cannot explain why people join the armed forces; work in charities or the voluntary sector. There are more examples of where this theory doesn’t work than where it does. Economics is not called the dismal science for nothing you know.

Things like pay and status and business class travel do not make you happy. They can make you unhappy but they cannot make you happy. There is no sliding scale whereby increasing money increases happiness. Once we have enough money and we are not unhappy, we stay not unhappy. We do not become happy.

Frederick Herzberg wrote an article…

…in the HBR in 1968 (predating the incentive theory drivel!) where he coined the term hygiene factors. Pay and a nice office and class of travel and the quality of your boss and the culture etc etc and the other stuff that can make you unhappy but cannot make you happy are the hygiene factors.

They are not motivators.

You need to pay enough, have management that is good enough, have offices or whatever that are nice enough to stop annoying your people and making them unhappy. But that will not motivate them.

So what does motivate people? Same as it ever was…

  • Challenging and meaningful work
  • Responsibility
  • Recognition
  • Personal growth

These are motivators.

But the mistake a lot of people make is they chase the hygiene factors thinking that will make them happy, when that is the job of the motivators.

This is how you end up with miserable people on six figure salaries.

In short, you must love what you do. Therefore you must choose to do something you love.

I say this to people and they seem to think it’s a secondary consideration.

“Don’t be daft Mark, I need to make some money…”

They want to get the big salary or at least get into an organisation where there may be a big salary later. And they’ll work really hard at something tolerable. But if you don’t love what you do how good are you going to be at it?

If we choose something we love…

…(providing it isn’t totally unmarketable) then I think we stand a better chance of making a lot of money, as a by-product of doing something well. If you love it you’ll do it well and the light will shine out of you and you will provide value and money chases value. The money will chase you.

This is not unlinked to Steve Jobs’ stated aim to make brilliant products and the money will come. And the observation that S&P 500 firms with financial aims in their mission statements underperform the market.

This makes sense to me because unless you are going to hit your targets by making outstanding products or great services, and assuming you’re already in your major markets, then a large part of your activity will probably be about cost control and supply chain optimisation and really, who cares to do that every day forever and ever?

I have spent more years…

…than I care to think about being not unhappy but not happy in my work. The hygiene factors were pretty much all dealt with so I was not unhappy (until they banned business class travel…) But I was in real deficit when it came to the motivators.

I was always haunted by this nagging belief that if I had stayed in the corporate world until the end I would have felt that I hadn’t quite approached this work thing properly. I am approaching it properly now and am driven by motivators and not hygiene factors…and I am happy. Hurray.

I was hardly an early starter on this road. It’s never too late.

10 Responses to Are You Happy in your Work? (Or just not unhappy?)

  1. Keith Plumb November 12, 2013 at 12:44 pm #


    Good stuff as always.

  2. Robert Sloss November 12, 2013 at 4:59 pm #

    Herzberg was certainly right for me and clearly for you but maybe not for some people in some professions. Why go into Investment banking if it isn’t for the money. I once wrote an essay for an OU Business qualification where I used all Herzberg’s rules to motivate a disillusioned member of staff. I got a very high mark for the essay so, stupidly (my excuse is that it was a long tome ago), decided to show it to the disillusioned man who replied that it was all wrong and all he needed was a grade increase! Despite that I agree with Herzberg and this probably explained why this member of staff was never happy.

    • Mark Nugent November 13, 2013 at 4:49 pm #

      I suppose the cynical or unaware boss will try to motivate with money the merchant banker who feels he is motivated by money and this relationship is common but it doesn’t lead to happiness.

  3. John November 13, 2013 at 8:44 am #

    Great article. Highly recommend reading Shawn Anchor ‘ the happiness advantage’ which explains the psychology of happiness and practical actions you can take. He can be seen on TED talks

    • Mark Nugent November 13, 2013 at 2:05 pm #

      Thanks John – I’ll check him out. Mark

  4. Amanda Fairclough November 13, 2013 at 3:41 pm #

    I am not unhappy. Sometimes I would even describe myself as happy in my work. But I can’t help feeling like I could be “happier”. No, actually, I KNOW I can be happier! The question is, how? Can your next Pearl please consider some practical tips for how we might reflect upon that big question, “what would make me happ(y)/ier?
    No pressure!

    • Mark Nugent November 13, 2013 at 4:53 pm #

      Hi Amanda – it’s got to be around finding your passion or purpose…I will write on this – have a look at John’s comment below. Mark

  5. Neil Atkinson November 27, 2013 at 9:37 pm #

    Nice summary Mark, It reminds me of something my Mum told me when I was younger “Chase the things you love to do and the money will follow. If it doesn’t at least you have enjoyed your life”. This piece of advice I have follow (as opposed to lots of other, dam it) and it has worked out really well, yay (insert smiley face).


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