The Secret Equation of Job Satisfaction

• Bill Hunt

Many lengthy books and articles have been written on how to be fulfilled at work, good management, and keeping your staff engaged and excited. However, I’ve found one simple equation that is the secret to all of these.

Satisfaction = Volition / Friction

If you’re not satisfied with your job, it’s probably because you don’t feel effective or that your work has the desired outcome – your volition, or because there’s too much resistance, bureaucracy, barriers, and day-to-day minutiae for you to enjoy the work – the friction.  Satisfaction is a measure of your volition over the job’s friction. More volition increases satisfaction, as does less friction.

Let’s say that your control over your job is around 5 on some magical undefined scale – you can do the things you need to some of the time. However, the amount of paperwork you have to fill out to do the job is around a 10.  5/10 = ½, so you’re probably not going to be very satisfied. On the other hand, if you have lots of control and can make all the decisions you need – let’s call this 10 – and you have no daily design-by-committee meetings to wrangle – let’s give this one a 2, you’re at 10/2 = 5, which is looking pretty good.

You don’t really need the scale or the points here, it’s just to show how the two relate to each other. The ratio of volition to friction will determine your level of job satisfaction. Research suggests that people feel most fulfilled when they are being challenged just beyond their current capacity. Too little challenge or too much challenge become either boring or overwhelming.

Although being able to direct your work is the most obvious component of volition, it can include many supplementary factors. The alignment of your skills and background to your work can impact your volition. Feeling that your work has an impact on the world can also be a major element.

Friction is comprised of several components as well. If your organization has unnecessary processes and procedures, those barriers to productivity will cause friction. If you work more than 40 hours per week or your commute is long that will likely cause friction by cutting into personal time. If your organization requires extensive reviews and buy-in from multiple stakeholders to accomplish tasks that may cause friction. Anything that causes you to become quickly exhausted at your job is likely adding to the friction.

To increase your job satisfaction, you’ll need to increase your volition in the job or decrease your friction.

To increase your volition you can take many steps in your current job.  This includes outsourcing or delegating unwanted tasks, taking on different projects that you enjoy more than your current projects, learn key information or skills, increase the level of challenge by taking on harder projects, decrease the level of challenge by collaborating with experts.  To dramatically increase your volition you may need to find a new job.

To decrease the level of friction there are many things to do as well.  You can outsource and delegate tasks to decrease your weekly hours. You can work from home several days to decrease your weekly commute time.  You can decrease the number of weekly meetings with your teams. Any of these can make the job feel easier even if the workload hasn’t decreased.

This isn’t to say that there aren’t terrible jobs in the world that no one would ever enjoy. You may be in a job where neither of these variables can be changed enough to make a major impact on your happiness. It’s a good idea to regularly assess where you’re at on this scale just to make sure your satisfaction isn’t slipping away.

If you’re familiar with Agile methodologies, this should sound somewhat familiar. “Individuals and interactions over processes and tools” is a core tenet of the Agile approach. Putting the individual in control and reducing the cruft of processes is just good practice.

As a manager, I often use this equation to help increase my staff’s satisfaction as well. I may not be able to always give a staff member more control over their work, but I can drop half of our check-in meetings to free up their time, or find ways to reduce the amount of paperwork they have to file to do their job. However, in many cases I can do both at once – by allowing staff to act independently in their projects with less oversight. This brings up another equation that I’m fond of:

Trust + Autonomy = Delivery

In general, if you hire good, talented people, all you need to do is trust them to do their job and give them the autonomy they need to do it, and they’ll deliver good work. (Buckminster Fuller talks about this in Operating Manual for Spaceship Earth, in describing the “Great Pirates.”) Giving your people the space they need to execute and support they need to see their work through will build trust and autonomy. Best of all, trust can increase volition, and autonomy can decrease friction, resulting in delivery and satisfaction.

Each one of these components can be broken down into various topics for in depth study.  The high level equation helps identify what the missing component is to getting the desired results.  I hope you’ll keep this equation in mind when you’re approaching your own work, and see if you can find ways of creating a better balance.