Happiness and good relationships at work

I came across this study by Boston Consulting Group (BCG) today, courtesy a post by Dr. Nico Rose; and have been thinking about the primary finding highlighted by Nico that relationships matter for your happiness – even in the workplace.


Happiness (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Now, I have been  long time fan of Herzberg‘s two factor-theory of workplace motivation and happiness, where he makes a difference between motivators or those factors that drive job satisfaction and Hygiene factors or those that drive dissatisfaction. As per Herzberg, dissatisfaction and satisfaction are different constructs with different underlying antecedents and are not the converse of each other.

Now, if one equates job satisfaction with positive emotions and job dissatisfaction with negative emotions, one would conclude that positive emotions and negative emotions too should be different constructs and not the opposite of each other; and that is exactly what we now from research in psychology. It is well established now that mental health and mental illness are different constructs and so are positive emotions and negative emotions. Reducing the negative emotions does not guarantee that you will be happy; to become happier you have to resort to different tactics than those used to reduce suffering.

Returning to Herzberg’s theory,the Wikipedia page list some good evidence in support of that:

That said, a study by the Gallup Organization, as detailed in the book First, Break All the Rules: What the World’s Greatest Managers Do by Marcus Buckingham and Curt Coffman, appears to provide strong support for Herzberg’s division of satisfaction and dissatisfaction onto two separate scales. In this book, the authors discuss how the study identified twelve questions that provide a framework for determining high-performing individuals and organizations. These twelve questions align squarely with Herzberg’s motivation factors, while hygiene factors were determined to have little effect on motivating high performance.

So we do have some evidence for the validity of two factor construct. Now, Herzberg’s theory mentions the following as motivators and hygiene factors :

Two-factor theory distinguishes between:

  • Motivators (e.g. challenging work, recognition for one’s achievement, responsibility, opportunity to do something meaningful, involvement in decision making, sense of importance to an organization) that give positive satisfaction, arising from intrinsic conditions of the job itself, such as recognition, achievement, or personal growth,  and

  • Hygiene factors (e.g. status, job security, salary, fringe benefits, work conditions, good pay, paid insurance, vacations) that do not give positive satisfaction or lead to higher motivation, though dissatisfaction results from their absence. The term “hygiene” is used in the sense that these are maintenance factors. These are extrinsic to the work itself, and include aspects such as company policies, supervisory practices, or wages/salary. Herzberg often referred to hygiene factors as “KITA” factors, which is an acronym for “kick in the ass”, the process of providing incentives or threat of punishment to make someone do something.


Its interesting to note that Herzberg puts relationships with peers, colleagues and subordinates under hygiene factor or those that can lead to dissatisfaction; however in doing so I think Herzberg was placing too strong an emphasis on the KITA factor of supervisors and colleagues (who hasn’t faced an a**hole boss or colleague or even a subordinate). What he ignored was that while other people are hell, so are they heaven.

The same supervisor that can be an a**hole, can also be an angelic mentor ensuring your growth and development.  And that is exactly what  the BCG have found in their survey of over 200,000 people from all over the world.  To quote a verbatim response from an example respondent:

As for relationships with superiors, it’s “important to me because I would like to learn and grow” and having the right super­visor “can help facilitate that,” she says.

The discourse since the days of Herzberg has clearly moved towards viewing people primarily as hell, to viewing them as having positive potential. The top factors for happiness in the BCG survey are all related to relationships. (money related factors appear at the eighth rank ).


Also important to note that Herzberg distinguished between motivators as being related to intrinsic factors or intrinsic motivation, while Hygiene factors as more extrinsic or environmentally controlled. It is easy to put relationships in extrinsic factors, but that ignores research by Deci and Ryan on self-determination that puts Relatedness as a basic intrinsic human need at par with Autonomy and Mastery.

I think its time to disentangle the effects of good and bad relationships in the workplace, and while conducting research or surveys, its imperative that we separate questions about engagement / satisfaction from questions about dis-engagement/ dissatisfaction; and then we will have a clearer picture of what factors are important for workplace happiness and what are necessary to prevent workplace misery.

Relationships, intriguingly, may figure prominently in both lists. So the bottom line is that other people matter – for good or for worse!

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