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Minimizing Misery
Author: Patrick Lencioni (Reprinted with permission from Society for Human Resource Management.)
Posted: July 8, 2008
Words of Wisdom
“Business situations always come down to people situations…The seven steps to build your people-reading skills are: listen aggressively; observe aggressively; talk less; take a second look at first impressions; take time to use what you have learned; be discreet; and be detached (emotional involvement blurs your vision of reality).”

What They Don’t Teach You at Harvard Business School
Notes From a Street-Smart Executive, Mark H. McCormack

People who are miserable in their jobs dread going to work and come home frustrated, defeated and weary. The cost of job misery is very real, both for the individuals who are miserable and for the companies that employ them. Scores of people suffer every day as they trudge off to jobs that make them cynical and unhappy. Over time, this dull pain can erode the self-confidence and passion of even the strongest people.

A 2005 study by the Gallup organization found that as many as three-quarters of U.S. employees hate their work, and that the primary driver of job dissatisfaction is not pay or benefits, but rather the relationship that an employee has with his or her supervisor. Such widespread dissatisfaction kills morale and productivity within companies, and drives up the cost of recruiting, hiring and retraining new employees, all of which take a huge toll on the bottom line. Gallup estimates that the annual cost to the U.S. economy due to lost productivity is somewhere in the vicinity of $350 billion.

The Three Signs

The causes of job misery are as simple as they are common. Learning the three signs of job misery is the first step toward eliminating it. The signs are:

Anonymity. All human beings need to be understood and appreciated for their unique qualities by someone in a position of authority. People who see themselves as invisible, generic or anonymous cannot love their jobs, no matter what they do.

Irrelevance. All employees need to know that their jobs matter, to someone. Without seeing a connection between his work and the satisfaction of another person or group of people, an employee simply will not find lasting fulfillment.

Nonmeasurement. Employees need to be able to gauge their progress and level of contribution for themselves. Without a tangible means for assessing success or failure, motivation eventually deteriorates as people see themselves as unable to control their own fate.

Ask most employees whether their managers are genuinely interested in them as human beings, whether their jobs have relevance to someone other than themselves or whether they can measure the success of their jobs, and most will say “no.”

Overcoming the Three Signs

Learning the three signs is one thing, but overcoming them is another. Many managers may need to fine-tune their skills or develop an entirely new skill set. Here are some tips and strategies for addressing each of the three signs:

Anonymity. The best way to remove any sense of anonymity or invisibility that surrounds an employee at work is simply to get to know him or her. To manage a human being effectively requires some degree of empathy and curiosity about why that person gets out of bed in the morning. Take some time to sit down with each of your employees and ask what’s going on in their lives. It is important to reinforce and demonstrate this interest regularly.

Irrelevance. One of the most important things that a manager must do is help employees see why their work matters to someone. Even if this sounds touchy-feely to some, it is a fundamental part of human nature. Whether helping customers, patients, travelers or their immediate supervisors, employees need to know that they are helping someone and not merely serving themselves.

Nonmeasurement. People want ways to measure their work so that they can get an intrinsic sense of accomplishment. The key to establishing effective measures for a job lies in identifying those areas that an employee can directly influence, and then ensuring that the specific measurements are tied to the person or people they are meant to serve.

Even when managers understand and appreciate the importance of addressing the three signs, they very often struggle to do so. To be the kind of leader who demonstrates genuine interest in employees and who can help people discover the relevance of their work, a person must have a level of personal confidence and emotional vulnerability. Without it, managers will often feel uncomfortable, even embarrassed, about having such simple, behavioral conversations with their employees.

However, more than anything, managers need to understand that job misery at work is costly, unnecessary and treatable. Managers can change the way they approach their jobs so that employees find true fulfillment in theirs.


Patrick Lencioni is founder of The Table Group, a Lafayette, Calif.-based consulting firm. He can be reached via his web site at www.tablegroup.com.