Why We Love Our Jobs... Or Don't...

In Glassdoor’s yearly survey of the best places to work, California-based chain In-N-Out Burger always does surprisingly well. This year, In-N-Out Burger ranked as the seventh best place to work in the nation. In Silicon Valley it was number three, surpassed only by number one Facebook and number two Google. It tied with LinkedIn and came out ahead of Apple, Nvidia, Salesforce and Adobe. That’s pretty good for a burger joint.

Employee comments on In-N-Out say things like: “Had great pay for the work you were doing and benefits were amazing,” and, “The fast paced environment got me ready for my next career move.” Other comments say that workers love their coworkers and bosses. They get the sense they can move up quickly. They appreciate the flexible scheduling. And they enjoy the fun atmosphere, even if the frenetic pace sometimes gets “stressful.”

These comments suggest that satisfying work doesn’t have to be grand work. These are people making hamburgers and shakes – not doing path-breaking cancer research or pursuing a lifelong quest to write great literature. The comments also suggest that work satisfaction doesn’t come just from pursuing one’s passion. After all, it’s unlikely that many of the commenters harbored a childhood dream of one day running a fryolator.

The website “80,000 hours” says that it’s wrong to pick work based only on personal passion. For one thing, “passions” change far more than you expect over time. What you love at 18 isn’t always what you love at 30. For another, after reviewing over 60 studies on fulfilling careers, it found that work satisfaction came down mostly to two things: doing something you’re good at and doing work that helps others. Those are things that can happen in varied and unexpected domains.

Tony Schwartz and Christine Porath, who partnered with Harvard Business Review to study worker engagement, found something similar. They say one of the core requirements of a good job is allowing people to do more of what they do best and making them feel connected to a higher purpose.

That meets a core spiritual need we all have. The other needs we have are mental, emotional and physical: Mental satisfaction comes from being able to focus in an absorbed way on important tasks without frustrating distractions. Emotional satisfaction comes from feeling valued and appreciated. The physical need is having the opportunity to renew and recharge regularly.

Another example of a place offering employees the chance to do what they’re good at in the service of others is Costco. It’s true that Costco pays a higher average wage than other retailers -- $22 versus $13.38 at Walmart – and offers great benefits. But it’s also praised for giving employees at every level higher responsibilities than other retailers, as well as opportunities to innovate and improve. The company’s employee retention rate is 94%, and it largely promotes from within. Even current CEO Craig Jelinek started out collecting shopping carts, and 98% of store managers worked their way up from within.

Costco is a good example of the other elements of satisfying work: autonomy, flexibility, supportive colleagues and a relationship between effort and reward. The site “80,000 hours” adds that good jobs offer a good work flow with clear tasks and feedback but also freedom and variety.

What’s interesting is that pay, while important, is not most important. Behavioral psychologist Dan Ariely has said it is wrong to think that humans are like rats in a maze who will work their way through faster if there’s a bigger prize at the end.

Ariely did a series of well-known experiments where he found that people were willing to do menial tasks at low pay as long as their work was recognized by a “supervisor” overseeing the experiment (the tasks included building Lego toy figurines called bionicles and examining pages of random letters). But when the experiment supervisors took away any sense of meaning by destroying the finished products right after test subjects submitted them, people refused to go on, even at equivalent pay. The lesson: It’s the meaning and not the pay that keeps people working.