Assess What Isn’t Working and Why
“How much are you supposed to like what you do? Unless you know that, you don’t know when to stop searching. And if, like most people, you underestimate it, you’ll tend to stop searching too early. You’ll end up doing something chosen for you by your parents, or the desire to make money, or prestige—or sheer inertia.” –Paul Graham
In order to understand what isn’t working at our current jobs, we need to take a good long look at the elements that make up job satisfaction. Some elements are more impactful than others (*cough* purpose *cough*), but ultimately it comes down to what function you want your job to serve in your life (which we’ll explore next).
A handful of quitting stories
“I worked at a STEM educational program for elementary school kids as a manager. It was exciting because I’m passionate about education and I had a decent salary and benefits package for the first time. Despite getting to spend all day with great kids, I was miserable. The schedule was unpredictable and I couldn’t organize the rest of my life around it. Not only was I not enjoying my daily tasks, but I learned that I didn’t care about STEM at all, so my contributions felt pointless. I found I wished I was teaching kids social emotional skills, which there wasn’t time to prioritize with the state of the business. Leaving was difficult because I cared about my co-workers and knew how challenging it would be to fill my position. I ended up staying three months after giving notice while they searched for candidates.”
What was working: Compensation, Competence, Growth, Relationships
What wasn’t working: Purpose, Lifestyle, Sustainability, Autonomy
“I worked as a technician for a huge networking company as my first step away from the restaurant industry. I was so excited to have something stable that paid really well- I had a 401k and healthcare for the first time. Unfortunately, I was totally drained the whole time I worked there… we were expected to perform tasks without being real people with needs. They’d often threaten to fire you as a way to control. I had no control over my work at all. I ended up leaving the job for a company whose culture I liked and took a pay cut. It was worth it– eventually I moved on from that job to another culture I liked and got back to the good pay.”
What was working: Compensation, Competence, Lifestyle balance
What wasn’t working: Relationships, Autonomy
“I had a job at a company where I absolutely loved the culture and people. I changed positions to get a bit more pay and contribute to a side of the company I thought was really impactful, but the new department wasn’t well organized and didn’t offer enough training. I didn’t have a lot of direction, so I ventured out to make some choices on my own that I thought were best. But then I got tons of push back and judgments for my choices. The whole thing ended poorly, although I still love the company.”
What was working: Relationships, Compensation, Purpose, Engagement
What wasn’t working: Support, Growth, Autonomy
“I worked at a zipline adventure company one year at college after having gotten some experience facilitating ziplines for two seasons at the summer camp I worked at. I loved the physicality of the work and it was so much fun, and the community was full of interesting people that I enjoyed. But I struggled because I wasn’t seen as an equal with my male peers. I got my level 2 rope certification and asked for a raise because I was qualified to teach new staff. They told me I didn’t have enough experience and instead promoted a male staff who was uncertified and had less experience than I did. I put in my 2 weeks shortly after that.”
What was working: Engagement, Relationships (community), Competence
What wasn’t working: Relationships (boss, trust), Compensation, Purpose
The above stories illustrate situations where the person saw the costs as gravely outweighing the benefits of their position. When telling these stories retroactively, quitting as a solution tends to seem like something that was absolutely clear to us at the time. Oddly though, we often take quite a long time to arrive at the conclusion to leave because there are many conflicting factors at stake (or a great deal of fear). Was quitting the only option these people had? Be honest.
A job doesn’t have to be perfect for you to be satisfied with it. However, if you’re not satisfied, it is important to understand specifically what is off so you can address it directly. The solution may be quitting, or it may not. Not all of the elements in the Job Satisfaction Wheel need to be maximized for a job to be good enough. Not all jobs need to be ‘perfect’ to fit snugly into a happy life! Clearly, however, we want to be in the best situation we possibly can. 🙂
*Aaaand, this image clearly doesn’t cover the whole picture. These are some of the major areas, but there are certainly others that weigh in on the full puzzle. Check out our Assessments Center to learn which areas of your life could use more attention in your balancing act.
While all of the issues we encounter along our journey to a good job are important, some may be more pressing than others. No job is “perfect,” but you may be able to find (or create!) a job that suits (or hopefully exceeds) your needs once you know what they are.
The first step in getting control of your job satisfaction is assessing things as they stand (using the next exercise and following up with the exercises in Understand what isn’t working…even better!), then determining the function you’d like your job to serve in your life (the upcoming section Refine what your job is for), and finally addressing what isn’t up to par.
Use the wheel exercise below as a first step towards sussing out where you sit with these variables and determine what you would like to see a shift around.
The Job Satisfaction Wheel Exercise
Feel free to print out (or draw your own of) the following wheel and mark your level of satisfaction on a scale of 1-10 (10 being extremely satisfied and 1 being completely unsatisfied) for each of the elements. As you scroll you’ll find more information on each element.
Once you’ve decided the level of satisfaction for each, draw a bar to indicate it on your wheel, like the example below.
Your wheel acts as a visual for better understanding what areas could use improvement at work.
Extra: You can get more accurate by weighting your elements
This approach is optional, but it’ll probably be more accurate!
Before you print out your wheel, you should know that different elements will have different weights for different people, and that isn’t reflected in a printout with equally-portioned segments. Growth opportunities may have a greater impact on your job satisfaction than it does on your brother’s, for example. That could be influenced by things that are happening in your life that aren’t in his (like the kid you have on the way creating pressure for you to increase your income in the long run).
What matters most to each person’s satisfaction is impacted by a constellation of factors that can change throughout our lives. The illustration below shows influences like health, current goals, and life events impacting the weights of different elements. The job that fits your needs right now may not be as appealing a few years down the line when you have other priorities (like wanting to spend more time at home with your family once that kid gets a bit older). Figuring out which elements to prioritize in assessing your job will come down to understanding your current priorities- which you’ll cover at length in the next section, Refine what your job is for.
In the meantime, it can still be useful to estimate for the sake of this exercise (then do the “Refine” exercise later and include your conclusions in your final assessment). Start by listing out each of the elements in order of importance to you, and estimate what percentage out of 100 each one has according to its relative importance. When you draw out your wheel, adjust the size of each section in accordance to its importance. (You can use this tool if you want help). You’ll end up with something like the following wheel:
***All this being said, there ARE factors that research indicates have a bigger influence on satisfaction than others, complementary to your current life circumstances. A 2017 study from Glassdoor aggregating company reviews from users and comparing data across income levels showed that the most influential factors on employee satisfaction were culture and values (represented by purpose on this page), the quality of leadership (relationships and support in the wheel model), and career opportunities (represented by growth here). The data is confusing, however; different studies indicate different factors are more important than others, so it’s tough to boil it down to a simple hierarchical list. There are so many influences on the given individual that it’s tough to create a blanket measurement for everyone. That’s why it’s important to go through these exercises and consider what is most important to you as an individual- right in this specific place and time of your life.
The Elements Defined
Click each title to go to and learn a little bit more about each element.
- Purpose – The work has a meaningful impact, inspires a sense of duty, and you feel aligned with the mission and values of the job/organization.
- Competence – The extent to which you feel the job utilizes your skills and expresses your potential.
- Autonomy – The sense of having control over what you do and the power to make choices.
- Relationships – Having a sense of belonging, community, and/or trust amongst co-workers and with supervisors.
- Engagement – The degree to which you are motivated, passionate, interested in and invested in your work.
- Sustainability – The extent to which the workload matches what you can offer long-term. Risk of burnout.
- Growth – The presence of opportunities for learning and advancement. Training, clear accomplishments, and challenges you feel are worthwhile.
- Support – The presence of feedback, clear communication, and help.
- Lifestyle Fit – How work fits into the schedule of your life and the degree to which it competes with other priorities.
- Compensation – Pay and benefits
Purpose has the power to increase your job satisfaction tremendously. To assess your sense of Purpose at work, ask yourself the following:
- Do I believe my work has a meaningful impact*?
- Does my job inspire a sense of duty and responsibility in me?
- Do I align with the values and mission of the organization I work for?
- Assuming your basic needs/minimum income are met, would you do your job for free? How much of it, and for how long?
- Who does your work impact and how?
As was explored here, having a sense of Purpose at work can have a bigger impact on job satisfaction than compensation.
*As evidenced by the massive section dedicated to purpose on this website, purpose is a nuanced and complex entity. The way purpose is presented primarily equates it with meaningful impact, which only scratches the surface of its intricacies and possibilities. For one thing, there are degrees of how meaningful something can be to you as an individual, versus more broadly meaningful to society. There is also a significant amount of subtleties to the art of assessing impact. In job satisfaction surveys, purpose is often measured colloquially or equated with a sense of meaning or values alignment. For the sake of simplicity with this element we are lumping these ideas together.
All this is to say: Purpose is more complex than what is presented in this element. It’s filled with extravagant possibilities and it may be more impactful on your well-being and satisfaction when it is matched well with you as an individual.
*Impact is a huge part of job satisfaction and could be considered an element apart from purpose entirely. When assessing your sense of purpose at work, really take some time to look at if you’re satisfied with the impact you’re making on the world beyond yourself. You can learn more about assessing impact here.
Competence is one of the three attributes involved in Self-Determination Theory (SDT) which offers an explanation for intrinsic motivation. Being intrinsically motivated means doing something because it is inherently satisfying and engaging. The other two attributes are Autonomy and Relatedness (to follow). Having more competence correlates with greater intrinsic motivation, and by extension, job satisfaction.
To assess competence at your job, consider these questions:
- Do I feel skilled in the work I’m expected to perform?
- Is my potential expressed through the tasks I am assigned?
- How long would it take to train someone to replace me?
- How much experience in related jobs would someone have to have to be able to competently step into my shoes?
- What key skills am I lacking (wholly or in part) that would significantly improve my work?
- As objectively as possible, how do the people who use/benefit from my work consider the quality/experience?
Learn more about SDT in Daniel Pink’s book, “Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us.” Or watch the following RSAnimate on the book:
RSA ANIMATE: Drive: The surprising truth about what motivates us
Autonomy is one of the three attributes involved in Self-Determination Theory (SDT) which offers an explanation for intrinsic motivation. Being intrinsically motivated means doing something because it is inherently satisfying and engaging. The other two attributes are Competence and Relatedness. Having more autonomy correlates with greater intrinsic motivation, and by extension, job satisfaction.
To assess autonomy at your job, consider these questions:
- Do I have control over what tasks I engage in or other elements of my job?
- Is my input valued and considered?
- Am I free to make choices about how I work and what I do?
- Is there flexibility in my job?
- Can I maintain a sense of independence?
“Relatedness” (or Relationships) is one of the three attributes involved in Self-Determination Theory (SDT) which offers an explanation for intrinsic motivation. Being intrinsically motivated means doing something because it is inherently satisfying and engaging. The other two attributes are Autonomy and Competence. Having better relationships correlates with greater intrinsic motivation, and by extension, job satisfaction.
To assess relationships at your job, consider these questions:
- Am I satisfied with my relationships with the people who oversee me?
- Am I satisfied with my relationships with my co-workers?
- Do I feel like I belong?
- Is there a sense of community? Do I connect with the community?
- Do I feel trusted and/or trust the people I work with?
- How much am I valued for who I am as a person?
- I genuinely appreciate the people I work with.
Engagement is an element affected by a variety of other elements (notably Purpose and the SDT attributes), but it is still worth considering on its own because it can encapsulate other features of work like passion.
When thinking about your engagement at work, ask yourself the following:
- Am I enthusiastic about the work I do at my job?
- How easy is it for me to focus?
- Do I feel passionate about my work?
- Do I like learning new things at work?
- Am I bored at work?
How sustainable is your job? This element of satisfaction often comes down to the dreaded epidemic of burnout. To get a clearer picture of whether or not you’re burned out (or at risk of burning out) at work, think of the following:
- Do I feel a lot of pressure at work?
- Am I often anxious about my job?
- Do I feel like I’m rarely doing enough at work?
- Does it feel like there isn’t enough time at work?
- Do I often feel emotionally, physically, or mentally exhausted?
- How many years do I think I could comfortably continue working the way you are at this job?
Burnout is a complicated phenomenon with many variables at play. It is partially influenced by intrinsic motivation (and therefore our levels of autonomy, relatedness, and competence). When we are excited to do the work because it is inherently enjoyable to us, we are more likely to exhibit harmonious passion, which is energizing and controllable. On the other hand, if we are engaging in the work more for external reasons (validation, income, metrics) we may fall into obsessive passion patterns, which function more like addiction and are fueled by anxiety and compulsion. If burnout is a concern for you, take a moment to consider the relationship between it and your reason for working. How might the purpose element relate to this sustainability element?
Check out our section on Busyness to learn more about burnout and how we choose to fill our time.
Opportunities to learn and develop are key to satisfaction in our jobs.
- Do you have opportunities to learn more and advance at your current job? Is there training available?
- Are there clear trajectories for development?
- Is it easy to recognize your accomplishments and stages of development so far?
- Do you feel a healthy sense of challenge at work?
Support at work is easily intermingled with Relationships and Growth.
- Do you get thoughtful and supportive feedback at work?
- Do you have someone who is reliably available to go to if you need something or have a question?
- Do you feel communication is effective at work?
- Do you feel you can be open about challenges at work and that you will be listened to?
- To what degree is time made available to provide reasonable assistance/support?
Theo is a video game designer. He likes the ideas of the projects he gets to work on, but he believes they can be much better than they end up. He often runs into snags and can’t seem to find reliable support to help him accomplish his assigned tasks to his personal standards. Because there isn’t adequate support from an IT team and management isn’t trained in design, he isn’t sure where to turn to when something goes wrong. He is often nervous that he will be held accountable for his lack of knowledge on topics he wasn’t hired to be an expert in but support isn’t available for.
In China a work phenomenon called “996” has peaked in recent years. Standing for 9am-9pm, 6 days a week, many peoples’ lives are completely consumed by their jobs.
Job satisfaction is often impacted by how it affects other areas of your life. To consider how your job fits into the overall picture, consider the following questions:
- Does my work take time and energy away from my family and friends?
- Does my schedule allow for me to engage in other things I care about?
- Is there flexibility in my work that makes it possible to prioritize other things?
- Am I able to properly meet my needs and accomplish the responsibilities of my job?
“Imagine life as a game in which you are juggling five balls in the air. You name them — work, family, health, friends and spirit — and you’re keeping all of these in the air. You will soon understand that work is a rubber ball. If you drop it, it will bounce back. But the other four balls — family, health, friends and spirit — are made of glass. If you drop one of these, they will be irrevocably scuffed, marked, nicked, damaged or even shattered. They will never be the same. You must understand that and strive for balance in your life.” — Brian Dyson
Lifestyle Fit is similar to but distinct from Sustainability.
A job could fit your desired lifestyle because it doesn’t interfere with other priorities (maybe it even enables you to engage in other facets of your life more!). At the same time, it may not feel sustainable because when you are working, the pressure may feel too high. However, it’s hard to say that a job that’s burning you out isn’t interfering with other parts of your life! The two ideas are inextricably linked, yet distinct.
Compensation is fairly self explanatory. What we’re paid does have a significant impact on job satisfaction. Consider these questions:
- Do I get paid the industry standard for the work I do?
- Can I afford the lifestyle in which all my basic needs are met (plus a bit more) with my current pay?
- Am I satisfied with the benefit package at my work/is it comparable to others in the industry?
- Days off and vacation time match my expectations and desires
Check out the Money section to learn more about your relationship with it and maximize how it impacts your well-being.
Additionally, visit the Assessment Center to take a quiz about your relationship to money and how it is currently affecting your sense of well-being.
Try This: Reflect on your Job Satisfaction Wheel
After you have drawn out your wheel, consider the following questions:
- Do you notice any patterns?
- What is the strongest element? The weakest?
- Do you have mostly low ratings, mostly high ratings, or is there a variety?
- What 3 elements, if they changed, do you imagine would make the biggest difference in your job satisfaction?
- For the 3 lowest ratings, write down one simple, actionable step you could take this week that would move you towards improving that element.
- If you were to add up all of your scores, what would they be out of 100? How do you feel about that number?
If you did the weighted version:
- How well are you fulfilling your most important elements (the ones you determined are the biggest slices of the pie)?
- How do your ratings on the most important elements compare to the ones you determined are less important?
- If you were to redraw your wheel with only your top 4 elements, what would the overall percentage of satisfaction be?
- What 3 areas would make the most significant difference to you if their score was raised? (I.e., currently low-scored, important elements)
Primed with your informative wheel, next you can pass this data through a second filter by asking if you have the bare minimum met for job satisfaction.
Some of the most influential elements contributing to job satisfaction are the components covered by Self-Determination Theory (Autonomy, Competence, and Relatedness), Purpose & Meaning, and whether or not your job fits with (rather than interferes with) the rest of your life.
Biggest Rocks First: The absolute minimum requirements for Job Satisfaction
Ever heard the saying that you need to put the biggest rocks in the bucket first? The idea illustrates how to act in accordance with our priorities. If you were trying to fit several rocks, some pebbles, and then some sand into a bucket, you would need to put the biggest rocks in first, then the pebbles, then the sand. If you do it the other way around, there wouldn’t be room for the big rocks at the end!
Think of your biggest priorities as the big rocks. They need to be addressed and taken care of first. When it comes to job satisfaction, the biggest priorities are:
- Purpose – Your work has a meaningful impact on others and you are in alignment with the values and mission of the organization(s) you work for/with.
- Autonomy – You have a sense of independence, agency, and control over your work and how you do it. You feel responsible for outcomes.
- Competence – You feel capable of the work and it utilizes your skill set.
- Relationships – You get along with your co-workers and boss, and feel a sense of belonging to the community.
Write out the following for each of the ‘big rocks’ listed above:
- The score you gave each on the wheel.
- 3 specific examples (if you can!) of how the element does (or does not) show up in your job.
- What you would like to change: Specifically write down how the situation would look at your current job if it was adjusted to a state that would raise your score to a 7 or above (only if it is below that).
- Write one simple step that you could take today or tomorrow that would move you closer to that change?
Visit this page in the Self-Care section to learn more about the rocks metaphor; watch this video.
A Few More Job Satisfaction Assessment Tools
Now that you’re clearer on what isn’t working and how it fits into the overall schematic of your satisfaction with your job, you’re probably wondering what you’re supposed to do next– especially since you’ve been advised not to quit (yet).
Well, feel free to get a bit more detailed by using the following exercise to supplement your understanding of satisfaction with your current job.
Also, how severe is your dissatisfaction? Are the majority of your scores from the Elements of Satisfaction Wheel low? Are you dreading work every day? Is it less intense and more of a general malaise? Or are you comfortable but not exactly stoked?
If you’re fairly satisfied at work but not lit up by it, the following exercise, The Quarterly Career Assessment, may be a helpful next step.
Regardless (and in addition), moving on to the next section, Refine what your job is for, will help you gain further insight and empower you to move closer to your most satisfying life/work set up. After you’ve decided what the function of your job is, you can address the relevant issues with guidance from the section Address the Situation– and even clarify what’s contributing to your dissatisfaction further in Understand what isn’t working…even better!
The Quarterly Career Assessment
Inspired by Apoorva Govind
Score yourself 1-10 on the Job Satisfaction Elements once every 3 months. Add up your total. If you score less than 60, it’s time to make adjustments (see “Address the current situation: Fix Your Job!”).
Note: It’s helpful to consider that each of these elements may have different weight depending on what function you want your job to serve in your life. Make sure you do the activity ‘Big Rocks First’ and the one in ‘Refine what your job is for’ in order to get the most out of this exercise.
Did you scan before printing the exercise? No worries, we got you. Try this out to get a deeper understanding of what isn’t working and why.