Contented employees perform well, unhappy ones don’t. It seems simple enough. In fact, the association between “job satisfaction” and “job performance” has even been dubbed the “Holy Grail” of organisational psychology. But now Nathan Bowling at Wright State University, Ohio, has upset the party. His new analysis suggests the relationship between satisfaction and performance at work is largely spurious, with both factors having more to do with an employee’s personality and self-esteem than they have to do with each other.
Bowling re-examined five previous meta-analyses (papers that combine data from multiple studies) that controlled for the “Big Five” personality traits while examining the relationship between job satisfaction and performance. He also conducted a meta-analysis of his own, focusing on studies that controlled for organisation-based self-esteem and work locus of control. In all, these analyses involved data from thousands of staff at numerous different organisations.
Organisation-based self-esteem refers to how valued workers believe themselves to be as an organisational member and is measured by agreement with statements like “I count around here”. Meanwhile, work locus of control refers to the extent that staff believe they can control rewards in relation to their work, and is measured by agreement with statements like “People who perform their jobs well generally get rewarded”.
Bowling found that taking account of general personality traits and/or work locus of control both slightly reduced the relationship between job satisfaction and performance. Crucially, however, controlling for organisation-based self-esteem reduced the relationship between job satisfaction and performance to a level that, though statistically significant, was so small as to be practically meaningless.
“Organisational efforts to improve employee performance by exclusively targeting job satisfaction are unlikely to be effective,” Bowling concluded.
But Bowling warns this doesn’t mean companies should ignore the job satisfaction of their staff. “Satisfied employees may still directly benefit the organisation through other means,” he said.
Bowling, N.A. (2007). Is the job satisfaction-job performance relationship spurious? A meta-analytic examination. Journal of Vocational Behaviour, 71, 167-185.