Why The Wall Street Journal Doesn’t Ask Me To Consult

Someone named Sue Shellenbarger answers a “work and family mailbox” in the Wall Street Journal on occasion. Google tells me she’s the former head of the paper’s Chicago Bureau and has written a couple of books on topics such as female midlife crisis.

Today, the letter she answered had inquired about “the factors that affect job satisfaction,” and the writer was curious about “what the research had to say.”

In a rambling, nomadic response, she noted treatment by supervisors, but then quickly went on to the use of training, coaches, psychological research, meditation, yoga, and “positive state of mind.” As if that weren’t enough of a sandstorm, she introduced genetics, a dopamine receptor gene, ADD, serotonin transporter variations, and comes up with unspecified studies that indicate to her that 27% of variance in job satisfaction is probably inherited. Not 25%. Not 30%. Exactly 27%

This is the kind of intricate, convoluted nonsense in answer to a simple question that seems to represent academia, the media, and pontificators all too well. My experience—and, I suspect, much of that among readers with long experience in coaching and consulting—is that gratification from the work, the ability to use one’s talents on the job, and recognition for achievements are the keys to job satisfaction (and delight).

Ms. Shellenbarger is right about the effect of immediate superiors, in that most attrition is from people leaving bosses, not companies. But what of the rest of her arcane response? Are employers to engage in gene testing, or DNA analysis, or perform a thorough family history, discarding candidates whose parents were unhappy in their job? (Many of them probably rightfully so, as they labored to place their children in positions where they would be happy!)

Blanket motivational approaches never work, nor do “life coaches” with fourteen initials after their names (none of which mean anything to non-life coaches), or “positive mental attitude”; and if I saw employees on a desk engaged in yoga because their state of mind wasn’t positive enough while the phones were ringing, I suspect I’d make them feel a lot less positive.

Correlating required behaviors with innate talents and constantly improving skills, with autonomy (e.g., latitude of action, freedom to fail), and recognition by superiors, work quite well. That last, single sentence answers the writer’s question.

I don’t know what qualifications for addressing this issue Ms. Shellenbarger has, but her insistence on making easy issues complex is the antithesis of what great consultants do: make the complex simple.

Of course, we’re under no obligation to fill up column inches.

© Alan Weiss 2013

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