The 3 Pillars Of Job Satisfaction

PillarsThere are many factors involved when determining job satisfaction, some have more effect, some less (most will have a marginal effect). But there are three factors that stand out above all others. You have all three – you are ecstatic, you have none – you’re miserable. I call them the three pillars of job satisfaction and they are:

  • money – how much you earn
  • people – who you work with
  • type of work – the type of work you’re doing, i.e. whether or not it is interesting to you

I am probably biasing these somewhat towards software development, but then again I am a software developer, so I hope noone is surprised :). Regardless these should be applicable to just about any type of job, role, position or industry.


This is your salary, bonuses, package etc. It includes how much you earn and all the perks and bonuses that are involved. This is mostly determined by how much you think you’re worth rather than industry averages or some other kind of metric. If you are earning less than what you think you should be, you’re not satisfied. If you earn more, or just enough, you’re happy. Since your sense of how much you’re worth can easily change based on your perception of the world (you read a survey about those same industry averages and realize you’re getting jibbed), your level of satisfaction with this pillar can alter drastically almost overnight.


This is all about the kinds of people you work with. Are you friends with everyone at work, do you like spending time with your work mates socially as well as professionally? If you do then you’ll be satisfied with this one. You don’t have to be friends with everyone at your company, but you do have to like everyone that you closely work with. When you only marginally like the people you work with (i.e. you don’t mind them but wouldn’t hang out with them), this pillar will hover on the verge of satisfaction. When you love the people you work with then you’re on a constant buzz when you come to work and “your cup runneth over” (so to speak :)) when it comes to this pillar. Disliking even one of the people you work with closely, can significantly decrease your level of satisfaction here. The upside with this one is, the more people you really like, the more resilient you are to not getting along with someone (i.e. if you’re good mates with everyone, you don’t really mind one idiot). As a consequence this pillar is not as susceptible to sudden major shifts like the Money one is.

Type Of Work

This is all about the kind of work you do. It will differ from industry to industry, but in software development it is all about the kind of technologies you’re using, what kind of stuff you’re learning while doing your work and the kind of impact your work has on the rest of the world. If you work with outdated technology on irrelevant projects and learn nothing new while doing it you will not be happy when it comes to this pillar. If however you get to learn a lot from your work and you think that what you’re doing is significant in some way (i.e. there is some bragging power in the work you’re doing, like working for a project with name recognition or working for a good cause) you’ll be happy. This pillar is usually more prone to slow degradation rather than big shifts. The work you do will usually not change significantly in a short period of time, so if you’re happy to start with you’ll usually be happy for a while. However, as you learn all you can from the work that you do (i.e. get across all the tech) you level of satisfaction may decrease. It will also decrease slowly as the novelty of the work wears off and it becomes routine. Note that if you do consulting work you may go from wildly happy to wildly unhappy about this one almost overnight by switching projects/clients.

How You Feel


When you feel good about all the three pillars at your current place of employment you feel like this:

I am working with awesome people, doing some really cool stuff and getting paid a craploads to boot. Could this sh*t get any better?” – you’re very happy

When you’re happy with two of the pillars only, you feel like this:

I am working with awesome people, doing some really cool stuff, I just wish this sh*t paid a little better.” –  you’re satisfied


I am working with a bunch of idiots, but at least I am doing some really cool stuff and getting paid a craploads to boot.” –  you’re satisfied


I am working with awesome people, the work IS boring and irrelevant, but at least I am getting paid a craploads.” –  you’re satisfied

When you’re only happy with one of the pillars you feel like this:

I am working with awesome people, but the work is boring and irrelevant and I wish this sh*t paid a little better.” – you’re reasonably satisfied (not too bad but could be better)


I am working with a bunch of idiots, the work is boring and irrelevant but at least I am getting getting paid a craploads.”you’re reasonably satisfied (not too bad but could be better)


I am working with a bunch of idiots, I AM doing some really cool stuff, I just wish this sh*t paid a little better.“- you’re reasonably satisfied (not too bad but could be better)

When you’re not satisfied with any of the pillars you feel like this:

I am working with a bunch of idiots, the work is boring and irrelevant and I am getting paid next to nothing. This crap is for the birds, I gotta get the hell out!” – you’re very unhappy


It is interesting to note that when you can claim to have all three of the pillars you’ll be extremely happy at your place of employment. As soon as one of the pillars is no longer satisfied, you level of happiness takes a significant dive, but you don’t become unhappy, you still feel ok about your situation. You would expect that losing a second pillar would produce another dive in your satisfaction levels and plunge you well into unhappiness, but this is not the case. Loosing a second pillar, doesn’t matter which one, only produces a slight decrease in your level of satisfaction, I believe this is due to our (i.e. humans) natural instinct to stick with what we know.

Humans don’t really like change, so the fact that our general situation remains mostly the same largely makes up for losing a second pillar. Note that if you’re newly entering into a situation where two of the pillars don’t exist, your outlook will be completely different and you will be pretty unhappy from the start. This is once again due to the fact that we don’t like change and since you’re changing circumstances already, it tends to exacerbate the fact that two of the pillars are already lacking. The only thing that can make up for it in this case is if your previous situation was much worse (i.e. all three pillars were missing).

Unscrupulous companies will tend to exploit the fact that you can still be reasonably satisfied with only one of the three major pillars, so it is up to you to watch out for this. You need to recognize the fact that the situation you’re in is crappy and even though it still has some redeeming qualities you have a very good chance of being a lot more satisfied if you change your circumstances now.

Losing a third pillar produces another nose dive in your satisfaction levels and you go from reasonably satisfied to extremely unhappy. This is mostly due to the fact that while we don’t like change, there is only so much we are willing to put up with for the sake of comfort. When all three pillars are taken away, your situation no longer has any major redeeming qualities and while it might take you a little while to realize that moving on is the best option, you will eventually arrive at that conclusion.

And that’s my amateur psychologist analysis :), I’d love to hear what everyone else thinks about the subject. And if you’ve enjoyed reading this don’t forget to subscribe to my RSS feed, so you don’t miss more of my musings :).

Images by J.W.Photography and Tambako the Jaguar

  • Todd

    You missed a big one. Environment, which is usually put higher than money for a lot of people. Flexible hours, work from home, equipment, office environment, dress code, vacation & personal day policies, etc. all play a big role in job satisfaction. A lot of people will give up salary to not wear a suit & tie, avoid a terrible commute, and not work in a cube farm. I’ve found that over the long term, these tend to matter quite a bit for employee retention.

    • I’ve covered all of those in one of my previous posts How To Retain Your IT Employees For Longer, which was about retention and satisfaction. This one is more about the 3 things that are at the very core of work satisfaction. You will find that environment for example falls directly under the people pillar, you can work in the nicest office, but if the people are crap you will not be happy with your environment. The people create the environment.

      • Todd

        While I agree that people make a big difference, people are part of the environment. Working with the nicest people in the world on a 5 year old out-dated computer in a crappy cube farm with a crappy commute still sucks, no matter how much you like the people.

        I definitely believe that one bad apple spoils the cart and can destroy the team and productivity.

        No matter where you work you will have good and bad people. Not everyone is the same and you’ll have to make allowances for different personalities and behaviors. Working with a group of people that always agrees with you is a sure sign you are in trouble. Disagreement (healthy disagreement) is necessary.

        A good company, good people, and a good environment all go hand-in-hand. Companies that promote a good environment tend to promote it from the top and attract good people.

        • I completely agree with what you say. However psychologically speaking if you love the people and the work and are getting paid well, it will take a lot more than crappy equipment and commute to make you want to leave. Although I do agree that usually if a company can attract really good people and can pay well, many of the other factors (such as good equipment or the ability to be flexible) will be present as well.

          What I was trying to get to with this post, was the root of the factors that can cause major shifts in your perception of your current work place and it seems like those 3 are the biggies.

  • Jeremy

    >> When you’re not satisfied with any of the pillars you feel like this:
    “Why the f*ck did I agree to work at a bank?!?!”

    • Hehe, so speaks the voice of a veteran, you hide your scars well :).

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  • Factor in… “I have 2 pillars… wish I was getting paid more, but hell… I have a job during a time when a lot of people don’t.”

    • Yeah that’s very true, it is tough to be picky during a recession and some companies will exploit that. The smart ones won’t though because recessions don’t last forever and when they’re over the 3 pillars come back in force and if all 3 aren’t there it will be an exodus.

  • Pondering this I realized that I’m okay with the “three pillars” but still am not completely satisfied so…

    My “fourth “pillar” (could maybe be included in “people you work with”) is the organization as a whole that you work for. Not necessarily “environment” like Todd referenced (but I do think that that is maybe more important than given emphasis) but the people at your company that you don’t “work with” but that you “work for”. If you have an awesome team of developers but management can’t seem to make good decisions at a company level…

    Unfortunately this particular “pillar” is more like a keystone… the other three might not matter at all if that one isn’t at least reasonably functional.

    • I agree that it is definitely tough to work for a company where you see your hard work wasted time after time, or when they can’t find a way to direct your efforts productively. It can be one of the most frustrating things as a developer.

      Usually though, if it is like that the company can’t retain the good people, so one of the pillars will already be gone before you even begin. Everything ends up feeding into the 3 pillars in the end.

  • Thanks for the article. I especially liked the “How You Feel” section. You’re spot on.
    I used to be at 3/3 pillars, but currently only the pay is keeping me on the job.

    • Pay can be a powerful motivator, after all the basic idea behind work is to make a living. But as I mentioned, this can be a highly volatile thing, so take care, might be worth looking around seeing what’s out there.

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