Four Ways Equity Theory Explains Today’s Low Job Satisfaction

Job satisfaction is at an all-time low and the trend is looking grim.

How could this be? Over the past decade public and private sector organizations have devoted tremendous effort to enhancing the quality of worklife. Programs have focused on workplace health, empowerment, and engagement. They have launched programs to banish burnout, strengthen teams, and develop leaders.

While these programs make positive contributions, core psychological process, such as equity comparisons, carry a strong emotional punch that can deflate worklife programs.

  1. Productivity as a Zero-Sum Game. The USA has enjoyed an increase in productivity. The increase benefits the economy, increasing the nation’s competitiveness in international trade. It reflects a return on the investment in employee education and empowerment through better working conditions and resources. When managed well, increased productivity benefits both employers and employees, with better compensation, recognition, and fulfillment. When poorly managed, only one side wins.
  2. Equity Perceptions. Employees make ongoing assessments on the balance of demands and rewards in their worklife. It’s a comparison process. They compare their demand/reward balance with what they perceive happening with other people. Broadly, private sectors employees compare their balance with that of public sector employee and vice versa. But it’s comparisons with their colleagues at work that has the greatest emotional impact.
  3. Increased Demand. The downsizing of employees during the Great Recession occurred faster than the downsizing of work. This imbalance provided a boost to nominal productivity, but at a cost. Continuing employees increased their effort to carry the additional demands.
  4. Reduced Reward. Continuing employees rarely received additional compensation for their extra efforts. Salaries have frozen, furloughs have been inflicted, and benefits have dwindled. Their employers were often struggling with staying in business. From an outside perspective, retaining one’s job could look to be sufficient compensation for meeting additional demands, but people don’t work that way.

The dynamics are that equity balance has psychological power and many employees perceive that balance working against their personal interests at work.

Quality of worklife initiatives add value to employees’ lives, but they are not the be all and end all. They occur in the context of substantive issues of demands and rewards. Even when well intentioned and well executed worklife initiative are only a piece of the puzzle, the equity concerns re substantive issues are an essential part of the mix.

A critical issue is whether teams pull together or fall apart under pressure. The CREW process increases teams’ capacity to pull together when things get tough.

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