Job Satisfaction: Trends and Theories

SHRM’s annual Employee Job Satisfaction and Engagement Survey identifies factors that influence employee satisfaction, provides insights on employee preferences, and highlights potential areas for organizational action.

January 09, 2020

The Job Satisfaction: The Secret Agent of Well-being guide can help businesses re-examine organizational practices and policies that influence job satisfaction and overall well-being.

SHRM’s annual Employee Job Satisfaction and Engagement Survey identifies factors that influence employee satisfaction, provides insights on employee preferences, and highlights potential areas for organizational action.20

38% of U.S. employees reported they are very satisfied with their current job and a majority (51%) stated they were somewhat satisfied, marking the highest level of satisfaction in the last 10 years

40% of U.S. employees indicated they were likely or very likely to look for jobs outside of their current organization within the next year

job satisfaction 

Top Job Satisfaction Contributors

Respectful treatment of all employees at all levels was a very important contributor to job satisfaction for the most respondents—65%. Trust between employees and senior management and feeling safe in your work place both rose in importance by 6% in from 2015 to 2016. While benefits and relationship with immediate supervisor are still top contributors to job satisfaction, less respondents found them very important to job satisfaction in 2016. Benefits went from 60% in 2015 to 56% in 2016; supervisor relationship went from 53% to 50%. 20

Top Job Satisfaction Contributors 
Figure 1: Top Job Satisfaction Contributors

Differences in Importance and Satisfaction

The blue markers in the chart below indicate the percent of employees who are very satisfied with top job satisfaction contributors. Compensation has the largest discrepancy between importance to employees and satisfaction. The other top contributors with the most room for improvement: trust between employees and senior management, respectful treatment of all employees at all levels, benefits and job security.20

Contributors to job satisfaction listed by employee satisfaction and level of importance 
Figure 2: Contributors to Job Satisfaction Listed by Employee Satisfaction and Level of Importance

Popular Job Satisfaction Theories

Job satisfaction has been recognized as a business priority since the beginning of the 20th century. Its research and theories, which overlap with theories explaining motivation, can help change agents better understand the employee experience, identify factors impacting job satisfaction, and develop potential solutions for positive change. Oftentimes, real world situations call for the application of more than one theory.

Maslow’s Needs Hierarchy

Key Concept: A hierarchy of needs motivates human behavior; the five-tier model is divided into deficiency needs (physiological, safety, love/belonging and esteem) and the top level known as growth or being needs (self-actualization).

Maslow's needs hierarchy 
Figure 3: Maslow's Needs Hierarchy

Put It In Action:

  • Offer supports for physical and emotional health
  • Encourage a sense of physical and psychological safety and security
  • Provide opportunities to socialize and build comradery
  • Offer respect, recognize accomplishments, and provide an environment to learn
  • Communicate how one’s work is tied to organization’s mission
  • Understand employees’ personal and professional goals and support their success

Herzberg’s Two Factor Theory

Key Concept: Factors causing job satisfaction (motivators) are different from those causing job dissatisfaction (dissatisfiers-also referred to as hygiene factors).

Herzberg’s Two Factor Theory 
Figure 4: Herzberg’s Two Factor Theory

Put It In Action:

  • Eliminate factors that cause dissatisfaction
  • Fix poor and obstructive company policies
  • Create and support a culture of respect and inclusion for all employees
  • Ensure wages are competitive and fair
  • Create conditions for job satisfaction
  • Provide opportunities for achievement
  • Recognize and reward contributions
  • Give employees appropriate responsibility and autonomy
  • Provide opportunities for career development and advancement

McClelland’s Motivation Theory

Key Concept: People possess three motivational needs (achievement, power and affiliation) and exhibit a combination of these characteristics; some employees have a strong bias towards a particular motivational need(s).

  • Achievement. Strives to succeed. Desires more feedback and job advancement.
  • Power. Desires to lead and for their ideas to prevail. Gets things done to make an impact.
  • Affiliation. Desires to teach and coach. Values interaction. Focused on accomplishing group goals.

Put It In Action:

Understand the combination or rank of the three motivational needs for each employee

  • High need for achievement: Give these individuals challenging projects with reachable goals; frequent feedback may be a more important motivator than money
  • High need for affiliation: Create a cooperative environment and provide opportunities to collaborate and work with others
  • High need for power: Give opportunities to lead; status and recognition are important

Job Design (or Characteristics) Model

Key Concept: Hackman and Oldman identified five core job dimensions that prompt three psychological states which lead to personal and work-related outcomes, including job satisfaction. If any three psychological states are not present, outcomes will be weakened. The theory also emphasizes that internal motivation is the most important outcome variable.

Job Design (or Characteristics) Model
Figure 5: Job Design (or Characteristics) Model


  • 1 | Knowledge & skill
  • 2 | Growth need strength
  • 2 | Context satisfaction

Put It In Action

  • Add variety and challenge through stretch assignments and/or job rotations
  • Enable job crafting by encouraging employees to “customize their jobs to better fit their motives, strengths and passions”24
  • Change the organizational structure and procedures so employees have more power
  • Delegate responsibility and give autonomy
  • Share information that affects one’s work
  • Assign work to teams, not individuals
  • Set high, attainable goals and give feedback
  • Explain how employees’ role fits into the big picture and success of the company

Job Crafting for Improved Satisfaction

Job crafting, which elaborates on the job design model, is the process of reframing and altering work to incorporate one’s strengths and passions. Job crafting is motivated by a need or desire to enhance the meaning of work, increase control, or fulfill a passion.

Altering the number, type or nature of tasks (e.g., taking on additional tasks), interactions with others (e.g., building relationships) and cognitive perception of work (e.g., aligning work with passions) are job crafting techniques. The outcomes of job crafting include changes to one’s work identity, positive experiences (e.g., achievement), resilience, personal growth, engagement and job satisfaction. Leaders should also beware of and mitigate potential unintended negative outcomes of job crafting, such as additional stress.25

Job crafting captures the active changes employees make to their own job designs in ways that can bring about numerous positive outcomes, including engagement, job satisfaction, resilience, and thriving.

Justin Berg, Jane Dutton and Amy Wrzeniewski

Other Job Satisfaction Theories to Explore...

Theories X & Y

A manager’s perception of people influences their leadership style. Theory X assumes people don’t want to work, leading to an authoritarian style. Theory Y assumes people are inherently happy to work but have different needs, leading to a participative management style. Theory Y highlights the motivating role of job satisfaction and encourages more autonomy and trust in the workplace.26

Equity Theory

Employees try to maintain a balance between what they give an organization and what they receive from the organization. Satisfaction is based on how this input/output ratio compares to those around them. When an employee perceives there is a balance of what they give to the organization and what they get, and this ratio is similar to others, the employee is likely to be very satisfied.27

ERG Theory

This theory simplifies and broadens Maslow’s hierarchy into three needs—existence (physiological and safety needs); relatedness (social needs); and growth (self-development and advancement). An individual can work on growth needs while existence or relatedness needs remain unsatisfied. Also, if a need is not being met, an individual will try to increase satisfaction with another need.28

More Topics

Articles & Guides icon_right_chevron_dark Culture and Strategy icon_right_chevron_dark Job Satisfaction icon_right_chevron_dark
  • 1 | Rath T, Harter JK. Wellbeing: The five essential elements. NY: Gallup Press; 2010.
  • 2 | Faragher EB, Cass M, Cooper CL. The relationship between job satisfaction and health: a meta-analysis. Occupational and Environmental Medicine. 2005; 62:105-112.
  • 3 | Dirlam J, Zheng, H. Job satisfaction developmental trajectories and health: A life course perspective. Social Science & Medicine. 2017; 178: 95-103.
  • 4 | Locke, EA. The nature and causes of job satisfaction. In M.D. Dunnette (Ed.), Handbook of industrial and organizational psychology. Chicago: Rand McNally; 1976.
  • 5 | Kaliski, BS. Encyclopedia of Business and Finance, second edition. Detroit: Thompson Gale; 2007.
  • 6 | Mullins, JL. Management and organizational behavior, seventh edition. Essex: Pearson Education Limited; 2005.
  • 7 | DuBrin, AJ. Human relations: A job oriented approach, fourth edition. Prentice-Hall; 1988.
  • 8 | Jiang N. Measurement of job satisfaction reconsidered: A structural equation modeling perspective. Paper presented at the annual meeting of the American Sociological Association, Hilton San Francisco & Renaissance Parc 55 Hotel, San Francisco, CA; Aug 14, 2004.
  • 9 | George JM, Jones GR. Understanding and managing organizational behavior, fifth edition. New Jersey: Pearson/Prentice Hall; 78; 2008.
  • 10 | Spector PE. Job satisfaction: Application, assessment, causes, and consequences. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage; 1997.
  • 11 | Statt D. The routledge dictionary of business management, third edition. Detroit: Routledge Publishing; 78; 2004.
  • 12 | Bersin J. It’s time to rethink the ‘employee engagement’ issue. Forbes. 2014. Retrieved October 18, 2017.
  • 13| Harter JK, Schmidt, FL, Hayes TL. Business-unit-level relationship between employee satisfaction, employee engagement, and business outcomes: A meta-analysis. Journal of Applied Psychology. 87(2), 268-279; 2002.
  • 14 | Szypko, MA. Pay fairness and its impact on employee engagement. IBM WorkTrends 2013 U.S. only. Retrieved January 16, 2018.
  • 15 | NEF Consulting. Well-being at work: A review of the literature. 2014. Retrieved January 16, 2018.
  • 16 | Faragher EB, Cass M, Cooper CL The relationship between job satisfaction and health: a meta-analysis. Occupational and Environmental Medicine 62. 105-112; 2005.
  • 17 | Gallup. State of the American Workplace report. 2012.
  • 18 | Wright TA, Cropanzano R, Bonett D. The moderating role of employee well being on the relationship between job satisfaction and job performance. Journal of Occupational Health Psychology. 12(2); 93-104; 2007.
  • 19 | Scott, BA, Judge, TA. Insomnia, emotions, and job satisfaction: A multilevel study. Journal of Management. 32(5); 622-645; 2006.
  • 20 | Society for Human Resource Management. Employee job satisfaction and engagement: The doors of opportunity are open. 2017. Retrieved October 18, 2017.
  • 21 | Maslow A. A theory of human motivation. Psychological Review. 50(4), 370-396; 1943.
  • 22 | Herzberg F, Mausner B., Snyderman, BB. The motivation to work. John Wiley & Sons, Inc. 1959.
  • 23 | McClelland, DC. The achieving society. New York, NY: The Free Press; 1961.
  • 24 | Hackman JR, Oldham, GR. The job diagnostic survey: An instrument for the diagnosis of jobs and the evaluation of job redesign projects. Department of Administrative Sciences: Yale University. 1974.
  • 25 | Berg JM, Dutton, JE, Wrzesniewski A. What is job crafting and why does it matter? Center for Positive Organizational Scholarship: Michigan Ross School of Business. 2008.
  • 26 | McGregor D. The human side of enterprise. McGraw-Hill. 1960.
  • 27 | Adams, JS. Toward an understanding of inequity. Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology. 67, 422-436; 1963.
  • 28 | Alderfer, CP. Organizational behavior and human performance. 4(2), 142-175; 1969.
  • 29 | Harter JH, Asplund JW, Fleming JH. HumanSigma: A meta-analysis. Gallup Management Journal. 2004.
  • 30 | Pink, DH. Drive: The surprising truth about what motivates us. Riverhead Books. 2011.
  • 31 | Deniz, N, Noyan A, Ertosun O. Linking person-job fit to job stress: The mediating effect of perceived person-organization fit. Procedia-Social and Behavioral Sciences. 207(20), 369-376; October 2015.
  • 32 | Anchor, S. The happiness advantage. New York, NY: Crown Publishing Group. 2010.
  • 33 | Berkman, L. F., Buxton, O., Ertel, K., & Okechukwu, C. Managers' practices related to work-family balance predict employee cardiovascular risk and sleep duration in extended care settings. Journal of Occupational Health Psychology. 15(3), 316-329; 2010.
  • 34 | Grzywacz, J. G., Carlson, D. S., & Shulkin, S. Schedule flexibility and stress: Linking formal flexible arrangements and perceived flexibility to employee health. Community, Work & Family. 11(2), 199-214; 2008.
  • 35 | Moen, P., Kelly, EL, Tranby, E., Qinlei H. Changing work, changing health: Can real work-time flexibility promote health behaviors and well-being? Journal of Health and Social Behavior. 52(4), 404-429; 2011.
  • 36 | Aon Hewitt. Trends in global employee engagement. thought-leadership/Trends_Global_Employee_Engagement_Final.pdf. 2011. Retrieved October 12, 2017.
  • 37 | Buckingham M. Let’s fight the right talent war. 2017. Retrieved November 1, 2017.
  • 38 | American Psychological Association. Employee recognition survey. 2014. Retrieved October 17, 2017.
  • 39 | Morgeson, FP. Humphrey, SE. The work design questionnaire (WDQ): Developing and validating a comprehensive measure for assessing job design and the nature of work. Journal of Applied Psychology. 91(6), 1232-1339; November 2006.
  • 40 | Chaboyer W, Williams G, Corkill W, Creamer J. Predictors of job satisfaction in remote hospital nursing. Canadian Journal of Nursing Leadership. 12(2):30-40; 1999.
  • 41 | Warr P. Work, happiness and unhappiness. London: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates; 2007.
  • 42 | Kjerulf A. The chief happiness officer blog. 2017.; Retrieved December 1, 2017.
More in Well-being and Workforce Strategy


  1. Top Job Satisfaction Contributors
  2. Popular Job Satisfaction Theories
  3. Job Crafting for Improved Satisfaction
  4. Other Job Satisfaction Theories to Explore…