Cambridge, Mass. — Personnel experts long have argued that a job was like a cake. If the ingredients were put together properly, the result would be satisfying.
So if the boss will only provide a challenging position, allow the worker control over his tasks, throw in some intellectual stimulation, and add the frosting of independence, employees will glow with satisfaction, right?
Not necessarily, according to new research in job satisfaction conducted by William C. Ronco and Lisa R. Peattie, professors at Northeastern University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, respectively.
The researchers have just finished spending four years studying people whose jobs contain large doses of satisfying ingredients, especially individual autonomy and control. The researchers looked at workers at a fishing cooperative , a pottery studio, an architectural firm, a sheltered workshop, and a food cooperative warehouse. Several managers also came under scrutiny, including a high school principal.
Watching these people with ''good'' jobs resulted in the finding that ''there are inherent dilemmas in highly satisfying work,'' Professor Ronco says. ''Everyone has been working to maximize job satisfaction and give people more autonomy and control. When you have that, you have a lot of problems, too.''
The problems include worker ''burnout,'' an inability to assess one's performance, difficulties in sustaining motivation, and, strange as it may seem, a desire for monotonous tasks.
At least some of these problems can be lessened by helping workers learn to structure their time, Mr. Ronco says. He adds that ''people who are good at reflection and introspection are also better at handling autonomous jobs.''
The research, which will be published in a forthcoming book titled ''Making Work,'' focused on people in smaller organizations to avoid what Professors Ronco and Peattie call ''bureaucratic crosscurrents and contingencies.''
But the findings should aid in job design at larger businesses, too. There, technology is taking over tasks that can be performed by rote and workers are increasingly being given positions that offer more creativity, autonomy, and control. As Frederick A. Roesch, a Citibank senior vice-president, noted at a recent Boston University management seminar, ''Jobs have got to change. What (will be required) is more creativity.''
And data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics predict that the fastest-growing occupations in the period 1978 to 1990 will include a number requiring independence and creativity, including computer systems analysts, computer programmers, aeronautical engineers, and employment interviewers.
The desire for more satisfying work is present in upper management as well as lower-level positions. Parker, Eldridge, Sholl & Gordon Inc., a Boston-area executive search and management consulting firm, recently surveyed 1,000 upper-middle managers who were seeking new positions. The typical respondent was a man in his early 40s, making in excess of $60,000 annually. Only 33 percent of those responding felt adequately challenged. And 92 percent thought they had management talents that were not being tapped.
One solution to this dissatisfaction, says Parker, Eldridge president Calvin K. Sholl, is ''to capitalize on their entrepreneurial inclinations by giving them more autonomy'' within the organization.
But companies giving workers more freedom need to ''recognize (they) are giving them a mixed blessing,'' or inherent problems, Mr. Ronco says. These require a balancing between various aspects of the work, researchers say.
Among the problems faced by workers in ''ideal'' jobs are:
* Burnout. Because people in good jobs are motivated by more than money, they find it hard to limit their efforts. ''People who love their work and work 60 hours a week can't do it for more than a year or two. Then they get at loose ends,'' Professor Ronco asserts.
To avoid burnout, companies will ''have to put into the job design'' some rest from responsibility, Professor Peattie says. Alternatively, they could rotate employees into less pressured positions.
* A lack of engagement. Often people in satisfying jobs enjoy the work so much they ''can't tell when they are working,'' Professor Peattie says. ''If your time is not (closely controlled) it is not always clear from from what part of your time the income flows. So you don't know whether you really are accomplishing something,'' Mr. Ronco says.
* A difficulty in assessing performance. Many satisfying jobs require close interaction with people. But work with people leaves no clear, measurable output , the researchers note, and may leave workers wondering if they are performing well.
* The burden of providing initiative. Good work allows the employee to form and shape his task. ''On a minute-by-minute basis he has to keep things moving along,'' Mr. Ronco notes. Fishermen in the study told researchers that ''the hardest part of the day is getting up at 3 in the morning,'' since they answer only to themselves.
* A desire for monotonous tasks. ''The literature on job satisfaction says a lot about exposing people to . . . planning and thinking and creating,'' Professor Ronco notes. But the workers he studied also found satisfaction in repetition and boredom. ''They like the nuts and bolts,'' he says. For example, Professor Peattie says, potters like to spend time pounding the air out of clay.
Professor Ronco contends that by understanding the potential problems workers face in jobs with high levels of autonomy and control, it may be possible to teach managers ''how, if you are in a highly satisfying work environment, you get the most out of it.''