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    Nov 13, 2020    |   Camille Labrie

What Makes People Happy at Work?

Written by Shawn Bakker, Lead Psychologist

Work to become, not to acquire. – Elbert Hubbard

Psychologist Frederick Herzberg was very interested in what motivated people. His research involved asking employees to describe when they were exceedingly happy and unhappy at work. From these interviews Herzberg’s key insight was that the factors that make us happy are different from the factors that make us unhappy. What motivates and engages people is different from what brings them dissatisfaction and unhappiness – these are independent of each other.

This independence is important because it highlights a key learning for us when searching for our own satisfaction and engagement at work, or helping others do the same. That learning is this – we cannot become happy and satisfied in our work by removing what makes us dissatisfied. That simply gets us to ok. To find satisfaction and happiness we need to focus on different factors.

Herzberg’s ideas became formalized into the Two-Factor Theory which labelled these different factors as Hygiene factors and Motivators. Hygiene factors are things such as salary, job security, work conditions and vacation. If your hygiene factors are not being met you will be dissatisfied at work. Motivators are related to what you do, and the intrinsic conditions of the job. These include challenging work, recognition, responsibility, the involvement in decision-making, and the opportunity to do something meaningful. When these are in place, people report higher levels of happiness at work.

To help people explore their unique hygiene factors and motivators requires a conversation about values – what is important to them. This conversation is different from asking people what they would like to do, which is about interests. Values conversations explore why they want to do it.

This exploration of why can initially be difficult for people. We tend to be much better at describing our interests, the things we like and dislike, than what is important to us and why we work. Yet, when we can explore and clarify what is important, our values, we are in a much better place to find happiness at work.

The Career Values Scale can help organize this conversation and give people the language to discuss what is important to them. It evaluates key hygiene factors and motivators for the individual in three broad areas:

Career Values Scale Logo

  • Extrinsic Rewards – financial rewards, prestige and security
  • Self-Expression – creativity, independence, excitement, career development
  • Working with Others – service orientation, teamwork, influence


Clarity of the importance of these different factors puts people in the position to better evaluate their work, remove sources of dissatisfaction, and pursue key satisfiers.

The final challenge for most people is that they often start by addressing hygiene factors, hoping that it will lead to happiness. However, it does not; finding happiness and satisfaction requires examining those motivating factors. What are yours?

Filed under: Career, Retention