If Your Employees Get No Satisfaction, Watch Out: A Lesson From Herzberg


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An academic and researcher, Frederick Herzberg wrote articles focusing upon what motivates employees that have become classics in the Harvard Business Review. He came up with the two-factor theory, namely, that there are "satisfiers" and "dissatisfiers" in people’s work.

Herzberg found satisfaction and dissatisfaction were not opposites. Rather, the opposite of satisfaction is (with apologies to Mick Jagger) no satisfaction. The opposite of dissatisfaction is no dissatisfaction. This may seem a fine point, but it actually explains quite a lot about behavior that is otherwise confusing to observe.

To wit, have you ever seen or heard a sales rep chronically complaining about the company—its products, its lack of innovation, its not being a "sales-driven company"—yet continuing to remain at the company, year after year? This person is not satisfied but does not experience dissatisfaction and so remains while carping all the while (more on this later).

You can see the reverse at start-up companies, where people are working like demons, often with little pay, yet are happy campers and share a strong sense of camaraderie and enthusiasm. These people are experiencing a high sense of satisfaction, at the same time as they experience minor or even extreme dissatisfaction.

So just what are the differences between satisfaction and dissatisfaction? The second major finding of Herzberg’s work was to equate satisfiers with things that were organic or non-hygienic. Dissatisfiers were clinical or hygienic. Consider these groupings:

Non-hygienic (satisfiers) Hygienic (dissatisfiers)
Challenge Pay
Sense of Belonging/Team Working Conditions
Autonomy Benefits
Ability to Grow/Contribute Physical/Office Conditions






Herzberg found the non-hygienic elements to be "softer" or non-quantifiable, while the hygienic were more measurable and numeric. Those softer elements include things people consider motivators (i.e., intrinsic), while the hygienic elements were more external or physical (i.e., extrinsic).

Have you ever heard the expression, "Pay is a dissatisfier"? It’s a quote from Herzberg’s research. The best summation of this concept I ever heard was simply, "We work for the money, but we live for the strokes."

The earliest Herzberg article I’m aware of was published in 1968. Does any of this have meaning or application in today’s hyper-speed, galactically connected world? I’m not alone in thinking the answer is yes.

Bestselling authors Kevin and Jackie Freiberg wrote Nuts! Southwest Airlines’ Crazy Recipe for Business and Personal Success (Bard Press) in 1996. The Freibergs reinforced the message of engaged employees with a subsequent book, Guts! Companies That Blow the Doors Off Business-As-Usual (Currency, 2003) profiling such companies as USAA, SAS and Whole Foods. They give dozens of examples and clear steps companies can take to get their employees into the game. And return measurable and extraordinary business results.

What does all this mean to your sales team? Like most things in life, the answer is balance. Senior management and, especially, sales management who provide a balanced approach with reasonable pay and genuine leadership to inspire motivation are the cornerstone to building an engaged and engaging sales force—a sustainable competitive differentiator.

Executives who feel sales reps are "coin-operated," (I again heard this expression in actual use just recently) simply fail to recognize the value of the whole person. With a constantly complaining sales rep, this type of management would respond with, "I don’t get it. We pay this guy a ton of money and all he does is complain!"

What’s missing is recognition of the individual and/or the contribution he has or wants to make. My favorite definition of a cynic: An idealist who got his feelings hurt. Often, the most cynical reps and team members are individuals who really want to play with heart but who were nay-sayed or ignored to oblivion: Just go sell something.

A major player in the CRM space built its sales culture in just this mold. Employees were given options that would translate into real money—for those able to stick it out.

I was exposed to a number of employees who were miserable in their work, unhappy with themselves but "hanging in there" until their options were vested and available to cash in. Many did, and more than a few quickly bolted the company. Many others hung in there and never saw the money they thought made it all worthwhile.

The company flourished; many folks got rich; many more did not; the customer base was as surly as the employees; and the company went into dramatic decline, only to be acquired by another larger and similarly oriented company.

If you think this tale is too old to be relevant, I assure you I experienced a replay of the "Our technology is so compelling our sales reps don’t even have to go see prospects" (a direct quote from the founder) just months ago. What message does this convey to the sales rep? What value is he or she seen as bringing to the customer experience?

Our own research at CSO Insights shows that products are becoming more complex, product lines broader, customer expectations/demands higher and sales rep ramp-up times longer. In the face of this wholesale and accelerating change, our view is that the only sensible thing to do is to engage your sales team fully. The Freibergs call this "Teaching Ownership," and the key elements include liberating talent; increasing trust; being open and transparent (i.e., having no secrets); having a clear strategy; testing business literacy, insisting on accountability; and having fun.

Do these sound like the punch list for your CRM system and its implementation? Do they reflect the basis of your company’s values and vision? Are they baked into your sales quotas, compensation plan and go-to-market strategy?

If not, you are building something quite different: a lean, mean, Selling Machine! This is the hyperbole I’ve heard so many times to refute the notion of fully engaging people: "We pay them a lot of money, so they can go buy the stuff that makes them feel good." And, "I want my sales reps HUNGRY (i.e., debt-laden), so they’ll get out there and hump!"

To these folks, I offer the admonishment: You can definitely do that, but you can’t do that indefinitely. Nearly 40 years later, Herzberg’s two factors are looking pretty sound. I suggest you stand in line with him.

Barry Trailer
Barry has been involved in complex B2B sales for over 30 years and is intrigued with how it's changed/changing and what this means to Sales as a Profession (SaaP). Salesware, the analytics company he co-founded, was acquired by Goldmine Software in 2000 and his next company, CSO Insights with Jim Dickie, was acquired by Miller Heiman Group in 2015. He has twice been published by, and been a keynote for, Harvard Business Review, and is author of Sales Mastery, a novel.


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