By Melissa J. Anderson

According to Mercer’s recent What’s Working survey, “rank-and-file” employees are considerably less satisfied with their jobs than their managers – across several different measures. It seems that the higher individuals climb the ladder, the happier they are with their jobs.

Michael Burniston, US and Canada leader of Mercer’s Human Capital business, said, “Across virtually all aspects of the work experience – such as pay, benefits, performance management, careers, work environment and management effectiveness – nonmanagers hold distinctly different views than do their bosses.”

For example, when it comes to recognition, 82% of senior management agreed with the statement, “When I do a good job, my performance is rewarded.” Fifty percent of management agreed, and only 34% of non-management agreed with the statement. Similarly, 80% of senior management said their organization does a good job of matching pay to performance, while 55% of management agreed, and 38% of non-management agreed.

And it’s not just about pay – measures of for career opportunity, management quality, work environment produced similar numbers. Why is there such a divide between workplace satisfactions across levels of an organization? Are business leaders unable to accurately assess the situation on the ground in their companies?

Satisfaction Levels

When it comes to the opportunity for career growth, 82% of senior management said they have sufficient opportunities for growth and development, while 59% of management and 47% of non-management said the same.

Attitudes toward fairness and trust were also interesting. According to the study, 78% of senior management felt promotions were given to the most qualified employees, while 53% of management and 35% of non-management felt promotions were doled out fairly. Relatively high levels of senior management and non-management felt that their departments are well managed (75% and 69%) while only 54% of non-management agreed. A high level of senior management (82%) said they trust senior management to communicate honestly, while 60% of management and only 44% of non-management agreed.

Finally, when it comes to the workplace environment the numbers followed a similar trend. While 78% of senior management felt teamwork and cooperation are rewarded, only 53% of management and 36% of non-management agreed.

According to Mercer, these disparities should give leaders pause.

“This should be of significant concern to business leaders, as they may be making decisions based on their unique perspective – one that is not shared by the majority of their employees,” Burniston added. “Decision makers may underestimate the degree of discontent in their workplaces and have an inaccurate view on what could be done to increase employee engagement and productivity.”

People-focused Companies

According to a recent Guardian article by business writer Gary Hamel, one reason behind the differences may, first of all, be related to a misunderstanding of the value of employee engagement. He wrote:

“I believe there are many managers who have yet to grasp the essential connection between engagement and financial success.

“Companies that score highly on engagement have better earnings growth and fatter margins than those that don’t —a fact borne out by the Towers Watson study, as well as by the work of Professor Raj Sisodia of Bentley College.

“This correlation between enjoyment and profitability is likely to strengthen in the years ahead.”

But that’s only part of the problem, Hamel said. He attributes much of employee dissatisfaction with a change in the way individuals in today’s workforce are managed. While in the past employees were expected to work “obediently, diligently, and expertly,” he believes today’s business leaders would do better to shape their companies in a way that empowers companies to be the best they can. “To put it bluntly, the most important task for any manager today is to create a work environment that inspires exceptional contribution and that merits an outpouring of passion, imagination and initiative,” he writes.

Based on Hamel’s assessment, the satisfaction disparity may be based on an out-dated view of workers as cogs in a machine, rather than individuals. Hamel adds that managers can change this vision. “It is managers who empower individuals and create the space for them to excel, or not. It is managers who help to articulate a compelling and socially relevant vision and then make it a rallying cry, or not. It is managers who demonstrate praiseworthy values, or not.”

Companies can get more out of their people if they pay more attention to the gap in engagement between upper, mid, and lower level employees – and work to change perceptions around individual effectiveness.