Doing what you love may not automatically make you happier at work

There is a classic saying which has shaped our job choices for years: “Do what you love, the money will follow.” New research suggests this may be true, although not in the way it was originally conceived. The typical logic train has suggested job interest shapes satisfaction and, in turn, satisfaction may drive better performance. However, new research published in the Journal of Vocational Behavior provides some fresh perspectives. It turns out satisfaction has many facets. While interest is one component in job satisfaction, it is not the primary component. Elements such as the organization, relationships with colleagues, leadership and compensation are actually more important than interest in predicting satisfaction.

Where interest in a job matters most, is in the area of performance. The study found when people were more interested in their jobs, they tended to perform better, and this led to positive outcomes such as raises and promotions. Debunking the myth of a straight-line relationship from interest to satisfaction was based on a meta-analysis of 105 studies spanning 65 years of research and accounting for 39,602 participants.

The new study is insightful, but previous studies add breadth to views on the variables which drive performance—and what seems to matter most:

  • EQ matters. A study published in the Journal of Organizational Behavior found when people had greater levels of emotional intelligence—being aware of their own emotions and how they portray themselves to others—they tend to perform better at work.
  • Humility and honesty matter. Another study published in Personality and Individual Differences found when people are rated as being both more honest and more humble, they tend to, in turn, be rated more strongly in their job performance.
  • Engagement matters. Of course, engagement has long been associated—both statistically and anecdotally—with performance. The Association for Psychological Science featured a study demonstrating the connection between engagement (defined as energy, vigor and dedication) and performance. In addition, experts at the University of Toronto posit engagement can be enhanced by ensuring people have a sense of meaning in their work as well as a sense of psychological safety. Also related, is access to enough resources to address challenges at work. This is further connected to work by sociologist Patricia Voydanoff who advanced the concept of perceived demand and perceived capacity: Even when demands on an employee are high, they can maintain motivation and performance when they feel adequate capacity to address the requirements.
  • Personality matters. In a study, published in Psychological Science, researchers found when employee personality characteristics match the types of behaviors demanded in a job, salaries were higher. For example, the conscientious person may excel in a financial role and the openminded person may thrive in an innovator role, but the person who shies away from extraversion may not be the best fit for a business development role.

All of this has meaning for individuals, teams and organizations.

Individuals can take an active role in both their satisfaction and performance by paying attention to their interests—it rarely makes sense to stay in a hated job—but a broader view of factors also requires attention. Ensuring alignment with a company’s culture, connecting in meaningful ways with co-workers, and fostering a good relationship with leaders can all make a difference in performance.

[perfectpullquote align=”right” bordertop=”false” cite=”” link=”” color=”” class=”” size=””]Where interest in a job matters most, is in the area of performance[/perfectpullquote]

From an organizational perspective, leaders can prioritize finding employees who are the best fit for the culture and the specific role, encouraging self-reflection among employees, integrating work across departments and developing strong management capabilities to contribute to employee performance. From a work-life standpoint, it’s also helpful to provide resources to support employees in all kinds of ways—child care support, benefits, vacation and control over working hours are all examples.

The workplace also has a role to play. As the most visible artifact of culture, it sends strong messages about what a company values and how the work gets done. These can be helpful in cultivating a fit between employees, expected behaviors and culture. Place also influences relationships. When people have greater proximity to teammates and more opportunities to connect both formally and informally, these tend to foster bonds. Recent Steelcase research also shows people want plenty of presence and accessibility from leaders—and the place helps facilitate these kinds of connections. Place can also contribute to performance to the extent it supports all kinds of work—focus, collaboration, learning, socializing and rejuvenating.

Overall, performance is multifaceted but understanding it paves the way for greater accomplishment for individuals, teams and organizations. The role of place is not to be underestimated and harnessing place as fuel for performance will pave the way for a positive future moving out of the pandemic.