A recent New York Times article indicated that the results of a survey by the Conference Board found that only 45% of people were satisfied with their jobs, as compared to 61% in 1987.  Some suggest that the recession has caused this upsurge, given that fewer job opportunities limit worker mobility.  Therefore, workers feel compelled to stay at a job which they would have otherwise left in better times.  Further, several surveys have found that only 20-30% of U.S. workers are actively engaged at work.  That is, engaged employees feel passionate about their work, connected to their company, and will go above and beyond to improve.  Disengaged workers, on the other hand, do just what is expected of them, with minimal effort, and can be vocally unhappy, affecting both morale and the organizational bottom line.  Engaged workers demonstrate superior job performance, while disengaged employees cost organizations billions of dollars a year.  Hundreds of consulting firms and management specialists continue to do research and to work with companies to find out how best to bolster satisfaction and engagement.  However, managers often fail to explore with these employees how to re-ignite their passion for work and their affinity to their organization.  Therefore, if you are one of these dissatisfied or disengaged workers, or the manager of some of them, here are some tips to improve workplace satisfaction and increase engagement:

1) Find your inner child and pursue mastery– studies have found that people by nature wish to learn and improve, if given the opportunity.  Similar to a baby or small child who joyously explores his or her environment, is constantly learning and is extremely self-directed, you must find opportunities at work to develop new skills or to deepen your knowledge base.  If you are bored, ask your manager/supervisor for a project that will stimulate your problem solving and allow you to master different areas.  After each week, reflect on the question, “What new thing did I learn this past week?” (e.g. an emerging marketing trend, a cutting edge teaching approach, an upcoming merger, etc.) and “What new things do I want to learn next week?”  This will enable you to be more self-directed, whether or not you are being guided by your superiors.  Clearly, your desired new area of knowledge should overlap with your work duties, and not distract you from your current responsibilities.  If you are a manager, it is important to trust that your employees want to learn.  Therefore, you should try to give your employees projects which are not as routinized, and will enable them to learn new things and to challenge themselves.  Ask them about their learning needs and consider possible training opportunities.

2) Break free and find some autonomy– humans as a species want to be able to control their own lives.  Many disengaged workers assert that their major problem at work is the lack of autonomy.  They rail against micro-managers,  routinized work plans, and fixed schedules.  Unfortunately, a great deal of management theories is predicated on the assumption that people need to be controlled.  However, the reality is that such views were based on post-industrial, factory logic, which was “we must make sure each person on the assembly line knows his or her place and where each widget goes from 9-5.”  Most 21st century workers do not need and will not respond to such constraints.  Rather, people want to feel excited about the possibilities when they come to work. Therefore, as an employee, find ways to gain some more control over your work environment.  It may simply mean developing a more flexible schedule or changing your lunch hour.  It can entail conducting meetings in a different way or  devising a new version of a company sales presentation.   If you are a manager, allow your workers to focus on results, without necessarily controlling their movement and their approach.  This will spur creativity and increase satisfaction and engagement.

3) Appreciation is a nice thing to have – unlike the rationale bankers use to justify outrageously large bonuses, which states that money spurs motivation, the truth is that it can actually diminish long term motivation and goal setting. Appreciation, on the other hand, is a simple tool to utilize to increase workplace satisfaction and engagement. Fully engaged workers relate stories of thoughtful managers who took the time to thank them for a great project or their diligent effort. A simple word of praise may be all a person needs to feel valued and more motivated. You might also do an appreciation luncheon or breakfast periodically. Most importantly, as a manager, the appreciation must be sincere, rather than forced or inauthentic. As an employee, even if your manager does not recognize your achievements, you should appreciate yourself and your talents. Each week, reflect on your successes and your accomplishments, while looking forward to the next week and your anticipated achievements.

4) Prioritize your workplace happiness and create a satisfaction/engagement checklist – consider all the factors which would increase your satisfaction and engagement, and organize them into a checklist. Set a goal for yourself in the next 3-4 weeks to integrate some of these factors into your work life and to think about a longer term (3-6 months) action plan. It may involve finding more work-life balance, or taking more time to talk with colleagues about their personal lives. It could be getting a raise or moving to another department. Once the goal is set, it is important to then evaluate your progress, in order to assess the need to revise or add to it.

5) Seek feedback from yourself and others – one of the most effective management tools is the 360 degree assessment, wherein a manager rates his or her performance, and gets feedback from his or her supervisor, as well as his or her direct reports. Even if you do not have any direct reports, it is critical to examine how you feel about your performance and then solicit feedback from your colleagues and supervisors. Many disengaged workers also discussed how frustrated they feel by a lack of immediate and clear feedback about their progress. You should review yourself every quarter, rather than every year, to allow yourself to address growth areas more effectively. As a manager, if your company does not do formal annual performance reviews, institute an informal process, which will allow you to give your employees direct and constructive feedback. Such feedback enables them to focus on their strengths and to address their growth areas. Engaged and satisfied workers extol the virtues of feedback, whether or not it is positive or negative. Therefore, implementing a feedback process for yourself and your employees is critical.

6) Reframe the conversation and shine a positive light – many workers tend to identify all the reasons that their job is awful, their manager is horrific, and their situation dire. It is almost a hobby for us to complain about our jobs. Many U.S. workers tend to believe that work must naturally be a grind and dreary. That does not necessarily have to be the case. Therefore, since you probably spend most of your waking life at work, for your own mental and physical health, it would benefit you to change the conversation. Rather than focusing exclusively on the misery of the job, it may help to examine the factors which make you happy or satisfied. It may be your great colleagues. It might be your great office with a wonderful view. Or it could even be the company’s location, work flexibility or benefits. It is critical to hold on to even the smallest elements which make work bearable, or even fun, and build upon them.

7) Shift direction – after implementing steps 1-6, you may realize that the person-job fit is poor for you, which means that you need a new job. While financial realities may preclude an immediate shift, it is essential to gain such insight about the need for an eventual career transition. You do not have to be miserable forever, and creating an action plan will allow you to be more optimistic about your future work life. Set short and long term goals to motivate you to make necessary changes in your life. It might entail taking a vocation vacation, taking a leave of absence and trying out a new job. Or it may involve doing some informational interviews, discussing your desired career with a professional who is already in the field, and who can provide you with guidance about how to break into it. Crafting an exit strategy will allow you to feel more hopeful and excited about the next steps in your career journey.