Three signs of a miserable job

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How much do Americans hate their jobs? A Gallup poll found that about 77% of Americans hate their jobs. Another found Americans hate their jobs more than in the past 20 years; fewer than half say they’re satisfied. Other surveys have found that 87% of Americans don’t like their jobs.

Then there’s this University of Chicago study from last week:

86% of the people interviewed between 1972 and 2006 said they were satisfied at the jobs, with 48% saying they were very satisfied. Only 4% reported being very dissatisfied. These levels have remained essentially unchanged over the last four decades. The most satisfied workers were those working after age 65, those with more education, and those with higher incomes. Blacks, Hispanics, and people doing unskilled labor were the least happy. The results are reported in “Job Satisfaction in America: Trends and Socio-Demographic Correlates” by Tom W. Smith, Director of the General Social Survey at the National Opinion Research Center at the University of Chicago.

Not sure what to make of that diametric discrepancy. But Pat Lencioni falls firmly in the first camp–so much so that his new book (he calls it a “fable”) is titled Three Signs of a Miserable Job. Lencioni, a leadership consultant, speaker and author, writes me this thoughtful e-mail:

I became interested in this topic because, as a kid, I watched my dad trudge off to work each day and became somewhat obsessed with the notion of job misery. Somewhere along the line, I came to the frightening realization that people spend so much time at work yet so many of them were unfulfilled and frustrated in their jobs. As I got older, I came to another realization – that job misery was having a devastating impact on individuals, and on society at large. It seemed to me that understanding the cause of the problem, and finding a solution for it, was a worthy focus for my career.

No argument there. So how does Lencioni define a miserable job?

In my view, a miserable job is not the same as a bad one. A bad job lies in the eye of the beholder. One person’s dream job might be another person’s nightmare.

But a miserable job is universal. It is one that makes a person cynical and frustrated and demoralized when they go home at night. It drains them of their energy, their enthusiasm and their self-esteem. Miserable jobs can be found in every industry and at every level. Professional athletes, CEOs and actors can be – and often are – as miserable as ditch diggers, janitors and fast food workers.

Huh. CEOs are miserable?

Attend any kind of social gathering, anywhere in the country, and talk about work. The stories and anecdotal evidence confirming job misery are overwhelming. Misery spans all income levels, ages and geography. A recent Gallup poll found that 77% of people hate their jobs. Gallup also contends that this ailing workforce is costing employers more than $350 billion dollars in lost productivity. The Conference Board has found that Americans are growing increasingly unhappy with their jobs.

Anyway, his book outlines three signs of job misery:

The first is anonymity, which is the feeling that employees get when they realize that their manager has little interest in them a human being and that they know little about their lives, their aspirations and their interests.

The second sign is irrelevance, which takes root when employees cannot see how their job makes a difference in the lives of others. Every employee needs to know that the work they do impacts someone’s life – a customer, a co-worker, even a supervisor – in one way or another.

The third sign is something I call immeasurement, which I realize isn’t actually a word. It’s the inability of employees to assess for themselves their contribution or success. Employees ho have no means of measuring how well they are doing on a given day or in a given week, must rely on the subjective opinions of others, usually their managers, to gauge their progress or contribution.

So what do we do about all this job misery?

The primary source and the potential cure for this misery reside in the hands of one individual – the direct manager. There are countless studies confirming this statement, including both Gallup and The Blanchard Companies. Both organizations have found that an employee’s relationship with their direct manager is the most important determinant to employee satisfaction (over pay, benefits, perks, work-life balance etc).

As simple as the three signs are, the fact remains that few managers
1. take a genuine interest in their people,
2. remind them of the impact that their work has on others, and
3. help them establish creative ways to measure and assess their performance.

But surely managers want a relatively happy staff; after all, happy workers are hard workers. Besides, what jerk would want to head up an office teeming with misery? Why wouldn’t a manager take those easy-sounding steps to ensure a satisfied workforce?

First, many managers think they are too busy. Of course, the real problem is that most of those managers see themselves primarily as individual contributors who happen to have direct reports. They fail to realize that the most important part of their jobs is providing their people with what they need to be productive and fulfilled (a.k.a. not miserable) in their jobs.

The second reason that managers don’t provide their employees with the three things they need is that they simply forget what is was like when they were a little lower on the food chain. They somehow forget how important it was to them when a supervisor took an interest in them, talked to them about why their work really mattered and gave them a means for evaluating their progress.

Finally, many managers don’t do this because they are embarrassed or afraid to try. They fear that their employees will see them as being disingenuous or manipulative, or that by taking an interest in their personal lives they will be stepping into inappropriate territory. It’s almost as though they fail to understand the difference between the interview process (where no personal questions are allowed) and the actual work experience (treat people like a full human being).