Signs of a Miserable Job (or Employee)

Why do companies have trouble keeping valuable employees?  At least part of the answer may be that the person has simply become miserable in his or her position.  The concept of the “miserable job” is the subject of best-selling author Patrick Lencioni’s latest book—The Three Signs of a Miserable Job.  While I prefer non-fiction when it comes to discussing business issues, Lencioni’s “fable for managers (and their employees)” regarding the sources of job dissatisfaction provides food for thought, but not a complete answer.

Well, just what are the three signs of employee unhappiness?  According to Lencioni, the first is “anonymity”–the feeling that your supervisor doesn’t really know or care about you at a personal level.  The second is “irrelevance”—the feeling that your job simply doesn’t matter.  The final sign is “immeasurability”—a feeling of lack of control caused by the absence of objective measures of job performance and professional development and the need to rely on the unpredictable whims of others to learn just what is considered to be successful behavior within the company.

Not surprisingly, Lencioni believes that the three signs are closely related—as companies grow people more distance develops between people leading to a growing sense of anonymity; then, as people begin to lose touch with one another they get less and less feedback on the quality and importance of their work, which leads to the feeling of immeasurability; and, finally, as people lose track of how their work fits into the total picture they gradually begin to feel irrelevant.

Can the “miserable job,” or more correctly, the “miserable employee,” be avoided?  Let’s hope that managers can do so by understanding and apply some basic techniques of empathy, attentive oversight and proper job design.  The fictional manager in Lencioni’s book tries to get to know his workers through outings and asking simple questions about their day-to-day lives.  He also makes an effort to remind employees about how valuable their work is to customers and other departments within the company.  Finally, he devises ways to enable employees to grade themselves against objective measures of customer satisfaction.  These are all good lessons; however, they need to be genuine and part of the larger process of evaluating employee performance and distributing rewards.  For example, allowing employees to grade themselves does not solve the immeasurability issue if bonuses and promotions are dolled out based on subjective factors over which employees have no control and may not even be aware of.

Obviously there is more to job dissatisfaction (and preventing it) than just the three signs identified by Lencioni.  The book itself touches on other motivators such as the size of the paycheck that an employee receives and it is widely known that managers are admonished to offer their employees more autonomy and opportunities for advancement in order to retain them and keep them from seeking greener pastures.  Nonetheless, the book is an interesting read and a reminder to managers to regularly consider how employees are being impacted at a personal level as the company grows and changes.

By the way, ever feel miserable (or something else) after you receive an e-mail from a colleague?  Well, that’s no surprise to Kristin Byron, the author of “Carrying Too Heavy a Load?: The Communication and Miscommunication of Emotion by E-Mail,” which will appear in the Academy of Management Review in January 2008.  Based on her research, which is briefly summarized in a note appearing in Fast Company, she reports that e-mail messages are consistently perceived by recipients as being more negative than the sender intended and even e-mails that the sender wrote to convey a positive message are often misinterpreted by the recipient as more neutral.  The lack of formality associated with e-mail—short terse sentences, misspellings, and no opening or closing to the message—contributes to the perception that messages are more negative than they are intended to be.  Sounds like this is another reminder that face-to-face contact or a phone call should be used at appropriate times to make sure that there are no misunderstandings even if you think your e-mail messages have been clear and concise.  Moreover, the personal touch is a good way to reduce distance and avert the problems of anonymity discussed above.

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