Too many work problems get lumped under the umbrella banner work-life balance, I’m convinced.
The thing is, it often has nothing to do with balance at all. If you’re stuck in a miserable job, no matter how much (or how little) time you spend there, you will feel miserable.
Fair enough. But what actually makes a job miserable?
Patrick Lencioni tackles this question in The Truth About Employee Engagement, previously published under the title “The Three Signs of a Miserable Job.”
He tells the fictional story of Brian Bailey, a senior executive abruptly thrown into retirement after his company was unexpectedly sold. Through a series of interesting twist and turns, Bailey ends up working as the manager of an Italian fast-food restaurant in Lake Tahoe.
Through the lens of Bailey’s restaurant stint, Lencioni explores the reasons employees become indifferent and downright unhappy at work.
Everyone knows what a miserable job is.
During my 15-year management consulting career, I had the opportunity to peek behind the curtain and see what’s going inside different companies across different industries. I got the chance to work with people from all levels, from the IT technician to the senior management of large Fortune 100 companies.
One of my biggest takeaways from that period is that miserable jobs come in all shapes and forms. It has nothing to do with the nature of the work, the level or position of the person in the organization, or the financial rewards of the job.
Lencioni supports this observation. He writes:
Miserable jobs are found everywhere—consulting firms, television stations, banks, schools, churches, software companies, professional football teams, amusement parks. And they exist at all levels, from the executive suite to the reception desk to the mail room.
But, we all know how a miserable job feels.
It’s the one you dread going to and can’t wait to leave. It’s the one that saps your energy even when you’re not busy. It’s the one that makes you go home at the end of the day with less enthusiasm and more cynicism than you had when you left in the morning.
The Three Signs of a Miserable Job
Lencioni lays out three underlying factors that lead to a miserable job. None of them are paradigm-shifting. They all seem obvious and easy to resolve. And yet, as Lencioni points out, they are largely “unaddressed in most organizations today.”
People who see themselves as invisible, generic, or anonymous cannot love their jobs, no matter what they are doing.
I know someone who became quite unhappy at work after a company re-organization. Due to the reshuffling of teams and manager responsibilities, she ended up reporting to someone in Dallas, while she remained based in NYC.
She had no previous working relationship with her new boss and had never met him in person. While there were often conference calls between the newly formed team, she felt her new boss (or her other teammates) didn’t know her at all and did not seem interested in getting to know her, outside of her work outputs.
Although her primary job responsibilities did not change, in her mind she went from being a great contributing member of a solid team (before the re-org) to an invisible cog in the wheel.
Even the most cynical employees need to know that their work matters to someone, even if it’s just the boss.
I loved my consulting years, and I believe it’s because of this: I always knew that my work mattered.
I was helping my clients, and they needed the service I was providing. I had an almost daily validation of my relevance to the group (in this case, my clients) that I served. And by extension, I was relevant to my company, because I was providing billable service that brings in direct revenue to the firm.
Fifteen years in that world would have been untenable had I felt immaterial to my clients and the company I worked for.
Lencioni was quick to say that you won’t find the word in the dictionary, so don’t even try! He referred to “
He referred to “immeasurement” as the absence of a meaningful way for us to assess our own progress and contribution towards the end goal.
Employees need to be able to gauge their progress and level of contribution themselves. They cannot be fulfilled in their work if their success depends on the opinions or whims of another person.
The important point here is that we should be able to figure out—by ourselves—whether we’re doing a good job or not. Whether we’re improving or have plateaued. We cannot rely solely on other people’s feedback (or lack thereof).
What to do About it
Most of the advice in Lencioni’s book focused on what managers can do to address the issues of anonymity, irrelevance, and immeasurement within their organizations.
Individually, we can use the same lens to look at our current jobs.
If you’re dissatisfied in your current role, it pays to understand the factor(s) that contribute to your unhappiness. The solution isn’t always to look for a new job, change companies, or switch careers altogether. Sometimes, it’s about resolving issues within your current role and organization.
If you decide to look for a new direction, it will only serve you to consider these three factors as well. Consider how they may play out in your new job, new role, or a new career. Don’t leave it to chance and assume that these will be resolved simply by changing jobs.