How to Boost Employee Career Satisfaction

Happy brains are creative brains. That’s one conclusion from psychiatrist and attention deficit disorder expert Edward Hallowell’s book Shine: Using Brain Science to Get the Best From Your People.

Happiness should be a big aspiration in talent management due to its impact on productivity, creativity and loyalty. Since 2008, people are often producing within a pressure cooker of deadlines and an avalanche of information. Yet many high-potential, high-growth career tracks offer less time and fewer resources to draw out an employee’s best.

The executive parts of the brain, the frontal lobes, which excel at sequencing tasks, solving problems and producing results, are not online when people are under excessive stress. Further, prolonged stress ultimately triggers the fight or flight emotional parts of the brain, the limbic system, that make people feel and react, but not do, according to Hallowell. Instead of happy brains, people have stressed brains and low career satisfaction, which translates to low productivity and decreased innovative thinking.

In the 2012 National Norms Survey on employee engagement levels in the U.S. workforce, only 10 percent of the 700 adults surveyed in March agreed that they were fully engaged in their work. Modern Survey, an information gatherer and human capital trend analyst which conducts the annual workforce survey, reported that 67 percent of respondents were either underengaged or disengaged.

There were two things survey respondents claimed they wanted more than anything — senior leadership’s clear vision of where the organization is going and the opportunity to personally grow and develop. When connecting these desires to research like Hallowell’s on happiness at work, talent managers can find at least nine ways to boost career satisfaction in any organization.

A Clear Vision
Employees want to be informed about goals and expectations and how their roles fit within them. Do I have a future here? is one of the most important questions for both employers and employees to answer. Employers, however, often try to answer that question by offering promotions and pay raises when employees are really looking for value and meaning in their work.

In Shine, Hallowell contends that the first step to career satisfaction and high performance is to select the right people for the right jobs. This is a strengths-based approach to talent management as opposed to a performance-based approach that focuses on weaknesses and making improvements.

If people are engaged in work that leverages their natural strengths and interests, it fires up their brains. Talent managers can identify natural strengths and interests by talking to employees about what they love best about their jobs and the areas where they feel most accomplished. By giving people tasks that require more of those strengths and interests, managers can leverage more focused hours from employees than if they have placed people in roles that don’t fit their strengths and interests well.

Career satisfaction rule No. 1: Place people in the right roles according to strengths, skills and interests. Not everyone is destined to be a manager. Leaders and managers must have conversations with employees more than just annually about what they love about their work and what doesn’t suit them. These conversations should be ongoing. They also must be two-sided. Employees need to be aware of the organization’s goals and how their skills and aspirations fit within them. Without that knowledge it will be tougher for employees to find a fit.

Rule No. 2: Give people frequent opportunities to reflect on how their career goals and interests align with organizational goals. This should happen more frequently than at the annual performance review. This activity should be at least a quarterly conversation during a staff or departmental meeting where stakeholders review the organizational goals and discuss briefly how each person or team is contributing to meeting them. If there are barriers, discuss those, too. Managers also should have individual meetings with employees to discuss their career aspirations, talents and strengths to see how these are aligned or not with organizational goals.

There is often pushback on rule No. 2 because employers assume employees won’t be honest, and employees assume they are being evaluated for cutbacks. To move past this barrier, a third-party consultant or coach can facilitate these conversations.

In 2009, the Center for Transportation Studies (CTS) at the University of Minnesota participated in an anonymous employee engagement survey, and determined that employees were generally happy in their work but didn’t see opportunities for growth. They also did not experience engaging conversations with managers regarding their aspirations within the organization.

To address these findings, CTS implemented changes to its performance management system by identifying core competencies, illuminating where employees excelled and where they needed development. They also involved employees in goal setting to ensure they were engaged in the process prior to addressing steps for individual improvement.

Rule No. 3: Build a high level of trust between employees and senior leadership. “We were more inclusive of staff offering ideas to reach our goals, and we had training for managers about how to engage employees in conversations about what is working in their jobs and what is not working,” said CTS Director Laurie McGinnis.

As a result, CTS built more trust and engagement between managers and staff while setting goals that fit the individual as well as the organization.

Rule No. 4: Help employees feel connected to the company’s mission, purpose and future success. These conversations should originate from leaders and management because employees need to understand their individual roles and value in the organization. Managers must ask questions to find out what is important to each employee, and then communicate those values in an individualized professional development plan. For example, CTS revisited its mission, vision and values and included employees in the conversations so the organizational structure also matched employees’ mission, vision and values. This alignment helps staff cope with shrinking budgets and organizational changes in leadership, McGinnis said.

Moving Forward Personally and Professionally
Adults questioned in the National Norms Survey reported their second greatest desire is for personal growth and development.

Rule No. 5: Support employee opportunities to expand skills, learn and grow. This does not require a huge formal training investment. Consider the 70/20/10 model developed by the Princeton University Center for Creative Leadership. About 70 percent of skill development and learning happens on the job. About 20 percent happens through contact and interaction with others. And 10 percent happens through formal classes, workshops or webinars. Encouraging workplace interactions such as peer learning, socializing and collaboration contributes to career satisfaction.

Rule No. 6: Happy employees trust and enjoy their co-worker relationships and feel energized by them. This rule also ties to two of Hallowell’s primary rules for helping employees shine: connect and play. In effect, managers should encourage interpersonal bond strengthening among team members and allow them to play together formally and informally to unleash their imaginations and enthusiasm.

Assign time for creative team activities during business hours and encourage socializing after business hours — as appropriate to the culture and industry. Employees can do this through friendly contests and competitions, but also through social outings such as golfing or bowling that place them in a fresh environment to learn about each other and their unique strengths and interests.

Enjoying co-worker relationships is an important element of career satisfaction across generations, but even more so for workers in their mid-20s to mid-40s who are blurring the lines between their professional and personal lives. Allowing downtime for employees to mingle and gather by the water cooler, even metaphorically through their mobile apps, will support career satisfaction and retention.

Rule No. 7: Provide opportunities for employees to demonstrate discretionary effort. Talent managers may have noted that younger employees don’t respond well to the command-and-control style of leadership that directs performance rather than encourages input and interaction. Author Daniel Pink has said that carrots and sticks worked in the 20th century, but today’s challenges require leaders to loosen the reins a bit and allow employees to rise to the occasion.

In his book Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us, Pink writes about the “deeply human need to direct our own lives.” He cites evidence that autonomy is a huge natural motivator, which is counter to traditional methods of leading from the top down.

Hallowell calls this grapple and grow, which suggests that talent managers should allow employees to step up, put in the extra effort and achieve mastery of their work. This can be done by delegating certain projects to team members and letting them brainstorm and come up with solutions. Autonomy also relates to flexible work environments in which employees choose the hours and methods to achieve objectives.

Rule No. 8: Give employees a reason to be proud of the organization. It follows that employees who feel a sense of autonomy — choosing how they work and achieve objectives — also should feel more ownership of the organization’s mission.

This is only the case, however, if organizations make good on the other rules: providing a clear long-term vision and the employee’s role within it, communicating regularly with employees on their aspirations and providing opportunities for growth and learning.

Rule No. 9: Watch for signs of burnout. Miss these important drivers of career satisfaction and talent managers will begin to notice signs of overworked and unhappy people. If these signs start to show up among top performers, the problem has immediately gotten bigger. Organizations that ignore the intangible workforce motivators will sabotage the one thing that every employee needs in today’s challenging work environment: resilience.

Signs of irritability, higher absenteeism, more frequent mistakes and missteps and emotional reactions are evidence that employee engagement and resilience are low. Schedule conversations quickly with top performers and be open to creative solutions that can help them get back in the saddle.

At the same time, leaders need to understand that one of their best gifts to an employee — and a management strength — is knowing when to help an employee move on to another organization. But that is another conversation.

Barb Krantz Taylor is a licensed psychologist and master coach with The Bailey Group in Minneapolis. She can be reached at