The Science of Job Satisfaction: Herzberg’s Two-Factor Theory

herzberg's two factor theory
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Herzberg’s Two-Factor Theory has been used for decades to explain what can influence someone’s satisfaction, or lack thereof, in their workplace. Has your job been getting you down recently, and you feel as if there’s nothing to motivate you to work anymore, not even your salary? (Tip: check out a salary comparison to see how your current salary compares to other fields.)

Knowing how the theory works, what it consists of, and how management could use it to remedy the situation might prove enlightening — and potentially career-saving in the end.

The Origin and Meaning of Herzberg’s Two-Factor Theory

The truth about job satisfaction and motivation is a bit more intricate than you may think, as Herzberg’s Two-Factor Theory explains. Developed by psychologist Frederick Herzberg, the theory argues that two separate sets of factors can influence how satisfied or dissatisfied someone is with their job. But “separate” is the keyword here, as one set of factors doesn’t exclude the other or eliminate its effects.

Herzberg developed the theory by using the data collected from 203 interviews. The participants were accountants and engineers from the Pittsburgh area. They were chosen because they were becoming more critical in the professional world and thus deemed to offer suitable results.

Defining Herzberg’s Two-Factor Theory

In layman’s terms, Herzberg’s Two-Factor Theory deals with job satisfaction and dissatisfaction, or rather the factors that can lower or increase employees’ motivation. However, these factors can be individually managed and act independently.

According to the theory, there are two types of factors that influence an employee’s work experience:

Motivating Factors (or Factors of Satisfaction)

  • The work itself. If a job is dull, it quickly becomes unmotivating. If it’s varied, engaging, and as challenging as the employee needs it to be, there’s more motivation to do it.

  • Recognition. Praise and recognition would motivate the employee to continue working on their tasks.

  • Achievement. The employee wants to be proud of their work.

  • Advancement. Without any promoting opportunities, an employee may feel stuck in the same position forever.

  • Responsibility. Micromanaging employees takes away responsibility from them. That may make them care less for their job in the end, thus reducing motivation and satisfaction.

  • Growth. If employees are allowed to hone their skills through their jobs, they would be more satisfied in the long run.

Hygiene Factors (or Factors of Dissatisfaction)

  • Work conditions. Proper hygiene, quality equipment, and a safe working environment are essential for satisfactory employment.

  • Company policies. These should be the same as what the company’s competitors may offer and apply to each employee. Fairness is also crucial here.

  • Supervision. Appropriate and fair management is vital, as the employee needs autonomy to do their job properly.

  • Salary. The pay has to be reasonable and fair, as well as competitive when considered from the industry’s point of view.

  • Security. Always thinking they’re one mistake away from being fired is a significant dissatisfaction factor for most employees.

  • Status. Meaningful work contributes to the maintenance of an employee’s status within the company.

  • Relationship with supervisor and peers. Hostility, bullying, and cliques make the work environment toxic and, thus, dissatisfying.

Herzberg’s Two-Factor Theory argues that work basics, such as salary and benefits, represent extrinsic motivators whose absence can cause dissatisfaction but doesn’t increase motivation overall. Intrinsic motivators, such as a sense of achievement and growth, on the other hand, aren’t expected but wanted and can boost motivation when they’re present.

The main difference between these two sets of factors is that Hygiene Factors are essentials, whether Motivating Factors are attained or not. Meanwhile, Motivating Factors are not the be-all and end-all of anyone’s work experience but can cause satisfaction and thus encourage employees to work harder.

From this, Herzberg concluded that you could not remedy dissatisfaction factors by encouraging satisfaction factors and vice-versa. In the workplace, the choice doesn’t boil down to choosing one or the other set of factors, as both have to be covered. Thus, the opposite of dissatisfaction and satisfaction would be No Dissatisfaction and No Satisfaction — not Satisfaction or Dissatisfaction, respectively.

The Herzberg’s Two-Factor Theory Conundrum

As you can imagine, the main problem here is that some employees (and even their managers) sometimes think that just changing one thing about the job can increase motivation and remove future problems for the time being.

When someone is struggling with work and finds it dull and uninspiring, a salary increase may make them somewhat happy. But that feeling is only temporary, as it doesn’t tackle the main issue.

Similarly, an employee that gets a chance to advance in the company through promotions may become happier when they get a higher position. However, that still doesn’t eliminate the fact that they may be working in a hostile environment or that they’ve experienced the unfairness of some company policies firsthand.

To that end, Herzberg recognizes four combinations of factors:

  • Low Hygiene and Low Motivation – the worst-case scenario in which both crucial Hygiene and Motivating Factors are missing.

  • Low Hygiene and High Motivation – a combination that explains that just because someone finds their job exciting doesn’t mean they are satisfied. They may be doing something they love, but the problems (low salary or hostile employees) are evident and are going against the benefits of high motivation.

  • High Hygiene and Low Motivation – this combination explains jobs that entail generous salaries and happy work environments but are boring and lack any advancement opportunities. Because of that, employees view them as a means to an end — they only focus on the money.

  • High Hygiene and High Motivation – the ideal scenario in which both sets of factors are upheld by the management.

Applying the Theory to Companies Today

Decreasing Dissatisfaction

If a company wanted to apply Herzberg’s Two-Factor Theory, they would have to do it in two stages, starting with the Hygiene Factors. Without these, there is little hope that the employee will be truly satisfied (and thus motivated) in the end. The management has to prevent dissatisfaction first and increase satisfaction later.

Some job hygiene stressors companies should try to remove include:

  • Uncompetitive salaries and salary disparity between similar jobs

  • Hostile work environment, cliques, and bullies

  • Biased and petty company policies

Furthermore, employees should feel that they have the management’s support but are still able to do their jobs with autonomy and without being micromanaged. On top of that, any work they do should be meaningful; all team members should play an essential role within the organization and know that they are doing good work, from the cleaner up to the CEO.

Increasing Satisfaction

Once they manage Hygiene, companies can then increase satisfaction through Motivating Factors. Since these are a part of the job itself (unlike Hygiene Factors, which surround the job), the management has to make the job more fulfilling overall.

They can do so through job enrichment, such as giving an employee more complex tasks or extending the existing ones. The management can work on empowering the employees by increasing their responsibility. However, abrupt changes are a no-go; suddenly putting too much pressure and responsibility on one employee could lead to dire consequences and make their satisfaction plummet.

Simultaneously, managers can utilize job enlargement to offer a wider range of tasks for each employee. Together with job rotation (rotating staff between jobs), this would mean working at the same company might never become monotonous, as each change would prove to be a fresh (and welcome challenge).

In short, companies should examine each position individually to determine what makes each employee more motivated. Some other courses of action to consider include:

  • Increasing promoting, training, and development opportunities.

  • Matching people’s abilities and skills with corresponding jobs.

  • Providing praise and rewards when they are due to recognize an employee’s contribution.

  • Giving each employee enough space and opportunities to contribute more to the company.

Common Criticisms

One of Herzberg’s Two-Factor Theory’s main criticisms is that the psychologist focused on white-collar workers and failed to make the interviews analytical enough by using a storytelling approach. However, in practice, it’s evident that the theory may apply to almost all professionals (like this study on seasonal workers explains).

Note that the theory doesn’t take into account the employees’ personality traits or consider an employee’s situation and perception. Objectively, this means that there is no other way to assess satisfaction than talking one-on-one and determining what may be making an employee dissatisfied. But even in that case, the level of satisfaction may vary (and the theory doesn’t provide a measure of this) — you can hate a part of your job and still find it acceptable.

The theory may be subject to bias since employees often credit themselves for job satisfaction, not the environment. Similarly, when everything is wrong, they mostly blame the environment for their dissatisfaction. In reality, both parties play essential roles in improving satisfaction. But since each employee has different expectations, applying this theory may not be suitable for all companies and their workers.

Finally, keep in mind that the theory doesn’t exactly show that more satisfaction equals higher productivity. However, companies may use the theory to improve job attitudes and thus employee performance. If managers interpret it correctly, i.e., don’t assume that an increase in satisfaction would make dissatisfaction factors disappear, it could make employees happier in the long run. That in and of itself could make them more eager to come back to the office each day.

Final Thoughts

Herzberg’s Two-Factor Theory argues that things like a high salary and working equipment shouldn’t be something that motivates employees. They’re a prerequisite to a good work environment and performance in the first place. What boosts their satisfaction is the job itself, or how it makes them feel daily. If a job isn’t challenging enough, doesn’t allow for growth or advancement, and entails micromanagement at every corner, motivation may be low despite good Hygiene Factors.

The problem most employees encounter today, however, is that they misinterpret Hygiene Factors as motivational tools. Thus, they are fighting a losing battle, as they rely on short-term extrinsic ideas.

In the end, Herzberg’s Two-Factor Theory isn’t without any flaws, but intuitively, it makes sense. Not all employees rely on money or a sense of achievement for motivation; usually, they want a combination of those and similar factors. Thus, every work position can be satisfying or dissatisfying — the perspective depends on the individual and their needs and expectations.

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Julie Oney

Julie Oney

Julie Oney holds an award in Creative Writing and a Master’s Degree from the University of Michigan. An optimist, music lover, and full-time writer. Passionate about pets, especially puppies.
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