Miserable at work?

Miserable at work?

Lately, I seem to be running across, in a variety of contexts and forms, the observation that a high percentage of workers are not happy with their jobs and their managers.

So, I embark here on a series of posts—perhaps two, three or more, depending on my reading and thoughts in the coming weeks—to give my perspective on why so many people seem to be miserable at work, and what we as managers can do about it.

My evidence is a bit random and anecdotal, but it all leads nonetheless to the distinct impression that ever-increasing numbers of people are complaining these days about their companies and their bosses. And, while much of the survey information is US or UK-based, my numerous interviews and conversations with business people in Europe and Latin America cause me to believe that things are certainly not better in other parts of the world.

Of course, the information I cite here is by no means scientifically gathered; it is based on hundreds of personal interactions at my seminars and conferences, as well as a number of surveys I have looked at recently in the press and on the Internet. So, we should not even pretend to treat it as “research”, merely a series of observations.

Nevertheless, it is striking that evidence from the past 10 or 20 years causes one to surmise that most modern organizations are dismal places to spend time, and that most bosses are quite unpleasant folks to work with. Here are a few examples from my recent reading and Internet searches:

In general, we are experiencing a deep crisis of confidence with respect to those in charge. Wherever I go these days, throughout Europe, the United States, and Latin America, I hear people say that we are experiencing a “leadership crisis”.  We all seem to be wondering where to look for true leaders.

We live in an age of great cynicism about leadership, and of deep disillusionment with our leaders.  In 2008, a Harvard University study of confidence in leaders found that 80 percent of those polled thought that the United States was suffering from a leadership crisis.  In general, respondents showed little confidence in the integrity and ethics of leaders in a wide variety of sectors, including business, government and religion.  People gave leaders low ratings for their knowledge, skill, and capacity to inspire loyalty or enthusiasm in their followers.

In the workplace, a large majority of employees seem to have little trust in their management teams. Time and again, business executives come out quite low in terms of honesty and ethics, relative to 20 other professions. In one 2008 Gallup poll, only 12% of respondents felt that business executives had high or very high integrity, while 37% were rated low or very low.  These results are the poorest in the history of the survey. Somewhat surprisingly, business executives came in behind lawyers, real estate agents, union leaders, building contractors, and bankers.

On a personal level, as well, people seem deeply dissatisfied with their jobs and their bosses. In 2009, the Conference Board reported that job satisfaction in America had hit an all time low, with only 45% of workers reporting contentment at their jobs. In fact, since the Conference Board began tracking these numbers in 1987, they have noted a steady decline in overall levels of satisfaction expressed by US workers.

According to an article in Psychology Today from March 2010, the most common complaint heard in organizations today is “my boss makes me miserable”.

One of the most striking indictments of the management profession comes from Richard Layard’s research for his 2005 book, Happiness. Layard is founder of the Centre for Economic Performance at the London School of Economics, a member of the British House of Lords, and a proponent of the new science he calls “happiness economics”.

Among the questions Layard asked in his study was a straightforward one: “With whom are you most happy interacting?” In response to this simple query, a broad cross-section of the population ranked “the boss” dead last.  In fact, a majority of people would choose to be alone rather than in situations where they have to spend time with their boss.

In his 2010 book Redefining Management, London Business School professor Julian Birkinshaw sums up the situation of the workplace this way: “The harsh reality is that today’s large business organizations are—with some exceptions—miserable places to spend our working lives.”

Of course, there are many exceptions. Nevertheless, over the next few weeks, I will present some of my findings and my personal views on why so many individuals seem disenchanted and disengaged in their work, and discouraged with their bosses. And, I will discuss some of the ways we might address these issues through our everyday approaches to management and leadership.


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