What should I look for in a job?

Taking pride in excellence at Kannesaka, 2 star Michelin restaurant. Where the simple becomes divine.

Pride in excellence at Kanesaka, 2 star Michelin restaurant. Where the simple becomes divine.


I start my class on HR and OB asking my students what success looks like to them. Invariably many will say “happiness”. Now then, what makes you happy in your career.

Many of us think that happiness is when we get a good boss, nice colleagues and a good salary, and get to do what we like at work.

Since Vicktor Frankl’s epic book, “Man’s Search for Meaning”, we recognise that besides money, we all seek for something more.

I decided to turn to the literature on motivational theory to shed some light on this as well as  prepare for my class on designing strategic reward system. Favourite book is “Management and Organisational Behavior” by Laurie Mullins which I used for a course I teach at the University of London distance program. The 3 gurus: Herzberg’s two factor theory, Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs and Job Characteristics Model:

Maslow's Hierarchy of needs

Maslow’s Hierarchy of needs

Source: Graphics produced on ppt. by Joanne Koo.

According to the framework by Maslow, we have a bucket of needs: (i) extrinsic needs such as food, water, shelter, security, safety. (ii) Need to belong to a social group: family or larger social identity. (iii) Need for self esteem and (iv) self actualisation.

Is our work in the office the only source to fulfill those needs?

Generally yes, but not necessarily so. 

Most of us draw a salary from a career in an organisation. Money helps us fulfill many of the extrinsic needs. Others have multiple streams of income from investments. How much is enough? Research shows that about $65-70,000 annual to provide our needs. Beyond that, more money doesn’t make you happier.

Today as most of our waking time is spent in the organisation, our workplace is also the place we find security and safety. A workplace fraught with politics and insecure future can leave one very dissatisfied. Everyone’s appetite for risk and safety is different. If you’re a risk averse person, don’t choose an organisation that’s known for high staff turnover.

Social needs
We are social creatures, we need to be in a tribe. No man is an island. Isolation leads to depression. Incidentally though some of us think that money can bring us friends. Gallup organisation has found through its research that the biggest determiner of whether a person will stay in an organisation is a close friend at work.

Some organisations such as Google provide a cafeteria with spread of food meeting physical needs as well as social needs, giving people the space and context to meet others in the organisation. [If synergies over work and silos can be broken across departments, all the more better.]  In my previous workplace, colleagues would bring a cake to share to build comaraderie. Food is the best team-bonding device. If you don’t have a friend in your immediate workgroup, look for one in other departments. The office pantry or gym is the best place to start. Some companies have recreational clubs to help you get started.

Not all of us love our boss. If your boss is your mentor, thats fantastic. Otherwise, its not something to sweat about. People leave lousy bosses. But lousy bosses are what Herzberg calls “hygiene factors”. They make you dissatisfied. Conversely, great boss and great colleagues will not motivate you at work. 

Job content
What motivates you is the actual work. Herzberg calls them “motivators” – work that gives task signifance, identity, meaning, learning and recognition.

Herzberg's Hygiene and Motivator Factors

Herzberg’s Hygiene and Motivator Factors

Herzberg 2

Many other factors affect the work you do, besides your interest and passion. Your skill level, availability of resources, timing, opportunity.

The literature is of little help. Because the only way to find work that you like, is to try it on first for size.

Self actualisation and esteem can be achieved through getting advancement at the workplace, having challenging work or being creative. Not all of us are so lucky.

Returning to Maslow’s hierarchy, if you don’t get recognition from work, it can come from social groups at work, or your social community or hobbyists club outside workplace. 

Today’s world of work, many of us realise that even our financial needs can come from our interests in the life/ leisure arena and not just the formal organisation. Technology has opened up the world so that entrepreneurs who recognise needs can tap into that to carve out some form of balance and finding meaningful lives.


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