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Preventing The Miserable Workplace

Have you ever voted with your feet?

Voting with your feet means you’ve left a job because you were absolutely miserable doing the work. You weren’t challenged by the work, you felt you were just a cog in a wheel, and no one really knew you for who you were, just the jobs that you did.

That’s the Miserable Workplace.

When you vote with your feet, you’re hoping to move into a different environment, a different work place, where what you do will be seen as important, what you produce is valuable, and makes a difference in the lives of others around you and impacts some who don’t even know who you are.

That’s the Wonderful Workplace.

Work is no fun when you’re invisible or not challenged. And Patrick Lencioni’s book “The Three Signs of a Miserable Job” speaks to three key, fundamental reasons people disengage or become miserable in their job.

First, anonymity – your manager doesn’t know you as a person, who you are, what you care about – You’re just “Joe at The Desk”.

Second, irrelevance – not being able to see how efforts the individual puts forward make a difference to the lives of others. Do your employees know how their efforts make a difference to their co-workers’ products? Your overall mission effectiveness? Ensuring a customer had a great experience? A supervisor’s effort needed for level of review? – – not knowing if there’s any difference means employees start to assume they don’t make any difference, and eventually stop trying to make a difference.

Third, is what Lencioni calls “immesurement” (yes, a little made up word, but go with it here for a second). Immesurement builds on irrelevance, in that the individual can’t point to any particular factor and determine for themselves if their efforts were successful or not. This means they rely on the objective view of others, (and this means, most often, their manager/supervisor) to determine what their level of success is, and often, are disappointed in the results.

So how can a project manager or a program manager avoid creating a Miserable Workplace?

First, don’t let your employees be anonymous. Take the time to learn about your employees. Even the silly stuff. Some managers will attest they don’t have the time to do it, but take 10 minutes out of your day. It’ll be an investment of your time that will absolutely keep on giving.

The corollary to this is don’t be anonymous to your employees. Let them know who you are – do you lead Boy Scouts/Girl Scouts? Do you volunteer with a cause you particularly care about? Are you an avid fan of (insert band/sports team name here)? What’s interesting about YOU? The foundation of trust is in sharing. Share something about yourself you feel comfortable with your team members/employees knowing about you. It’ll help make you human in their eyes and they’ll want to share something about themselves too. And prevents everyone from remaining anonymous.

Another element to consider is to ask employees what they think about the workplace. What will make them more effective? How can you help make them more effective/productive/efficient? What would they recommend you do to help the team be most effective?

Lastly, fight immesurement and irrelevance. As more and more jobs evolve from “widget production” to “knowledge production”, we need to get creative on how we measure our level of effectiveness. It’s easy to measure items turned out, number of items produced within tolerance, etc. Six Sigma started in order to drive significant variance in manufacturing out to the sixth decimal point. When we “see” the product of our labor, we know it’s a good product – we feel a sense of accomplishment – – at least I do when I put together Ikea furniture; seeing my flat box o’wood come to life, I feel fighting with that Allen wrench was worth it.

The challenge many of us face as project or program managers is how should we measure the work product that’s about contributing to the overall knowledge base? How do we enable others to see that their Allen wrench is worth fighting with? How do we help others find return on their investment that they can “see” or visualize?

What are your thoughts – How can managers/supervisors help others see their value to an organization? How should we measure value and worth when you can’t point directly to output? What are other ways to create a “Wonderful Workplace”?

Photo by Flyinace2000, via Creative Commons

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Stacey Swanson

Deb- Interesting post and a great way to think about things. For me, the key is asking people their opinions and then once you have received the opinion- do something to make things better. As a manager, if you are not going to follow up on the feedback, then do not ask the questions from the start- it just makes it worse. But, if you can do something about the feedback, people will respect you for asking!

Deb Green

Oh such a great point Stacey – rising expectations are even worse than none at all. If you ask, make sure you want to do something with the input.


Another issue I noticed in my first job is that it’s hard for folks to understand what supervisors/managers do which can hurt the perceived value of their role. I remember thinking my first couple years that a couple of managers had a cushy job and didn’t do much (of course we did all the work 🙂 – then a couple days randomly spent on the road and in the office with them made me realize all things I didn’t think about – budget forecasting, planning for the year, responding to emergency requests, dealing with personnel issues. So they definitely were busy and in a sense they were shielding the team from all the little things preventing them from doing the “work”. I’m not sure if I have an answer but perhaps managers should let their staff have a peek into some of the behind the scenes work

Dannielle Blumenthal

I think both leader/manager and employee have to commit to talking about these things as partners. The onus is on both parties…take managers out of the parenting role and empower the less powerful to ask questions and provide negative feedback. Appreciate the article overall and agree that work has to be meaningful to be satisfying!

Dick Davies

By taking the time to learn and share our unique attributes, we build a more powerful team, with more capabilities for whatever needs to be done. Great insight!

Dorothy Ramienski Amatucci

Overall, I think any good manager sticks to what he or she says. I had a manager once who claimed to have an open door policy — but was never available to discussing things with employees who had concerns! Honestly and follow-through go a long way to getting young employees to trust you.

Alex Moll

It’s easy to measure outputs, instead of outcomes. Yet, if manager and staff can co-establish deliverable (s) and track the changes that took effect, you can measure the level of effectiveness. For example, I’ve seen a range of outputs (i.e., relationships established, agreements made, guidance published, new users, etc.) from intangible to tangible correspond to outcomes (i.e., partnerships, shared information, new web links, and services delivered, etc.). Sometimes outcomes occur over time too and that’s one of the inherent challenge in performance measurement.

Deb Green

@Dannielle – I’m so glad you pointed out that relationship management is a two way street. If you’re unhappy in a relationship, what are you doing to help change it? Great point!

Deb Green

@Dorothy – ouch… more like a not-so-open door, right? If you can’t stick to your word, it’s hard to have anyone trust you, regardless of their age.

@Alex – you’re on the money there. I have a half-baked blog about measuring performance. Too often we measure activity, not progress. I heard a presentation once where the speaker described measurement as giving numbers about things we control, but aren’t necessarily relevant to the mission or objective of the program. The example she used was in looking to measure how effective a program was at fighting homelessness. They measured “hots and cots,” or how may hot meals and how many beds were provided at a shelter and what the occupancy rate of the shelters were throughout the year. So that’s great to measure what you did – but how does that measure tell a story on you how effective you were at getting a homeless individual off the streets permanently?

Measuring activity is easy – but measuring effectiveness is tough. As you point out, it can be done, and when done well – brings you closer to the ultimate objective.

Warren Master

Deb, I like your upbeat way of fleshing out these workplace & workforce kerfluffles. Very practitioner oriented.

David B. Grinberg

A few necessary components of “a wonderful workplace” include: one in which every employee receives equal opportunities to advance on a fair and level playing field; one that is diverse, inclusive and free of discrimination and harassment; and one in which employees know their rights and how to exercise those rights if needed. See:



Deb Green

Those are absolutely, and unequivocally, required components for a good work environment.

I guess I’d argue that the presence of these elements in and of themselves do not constitute a wonderful workplace – but you sure can’t have one if they’re absent.

Dannielle Blumenthal

How did this thread get revived? Well it is important so glad it did.

With the growth of products like Yammer, Jive, Socialtext, and even instant messaging at work, this whole conversation is becoming irrelevant. Of course also places like GovLoop.

The power of a superior (leaders, manager, supervisor) to create a lousy work environment is directly correlated with their ability to shut people up. More specifically the power to stop people from forming groups where mistreatment is openly aired (you could never really stop people from having one on one conversations offline).

Older folks like us are just starting to grasp this premise. But the younger generation is very intuitive about it. They have no problem marching into a classroom, an office, anywhere really and taping what’s going on then posting it online.

(As I recently learned when I lost my temper with my daughter, and she taped me on her iPhone, then played it back for my husband! Yes – that actually happened and I was mortified!)

Once people find out who is good to work for, which department is good to work for, which agency is good to work for, what’s going on in the private sector vs. the public sector, etc. the system will correct itself. For survival’s sake, leaders will have to adapt to the empowered workforce.

The empowerment of employees is something I care a lot about. As a communicator with a lot of background in internal communications and organizational development it has frequently been depressing to see the gap between what we say to the outside world, and how we treat people on the inside.

(And sometimes fulfilling – because of leaders and non-leaders who have integrity and really treat people with heart – the problem being that as a rule they never want credit or publicity for it at all and are horrified when you suggest it.)

I was watching Joel Osteen on TV a couple of weeks ago and he talked about salvation arriving “suddenly.” It is my feeling that the moment of salvation for employees has arrived, thanks to G-d’s infinite mercy in providing us the tools of the Internet and social media.

Everett Marshall

A colleague forwarded this thread to me just as I was returning from lunch (some great Thai food!). My fortune cookie read, “To get a friend, be a friend.” I think that fits well with your notion that managers who engage with their employees (share with them, inquire about them, etc) can help create more engaged employees (ie “To get an engaged employee, be engaged!”). When done with some authenticity, this also allows managers to begin creating a climate of trust (which Lenicioni also talks about in his book, “The 5 Dysfunctions of a Team”).

Deb Green

I’m so glad your friend forwarded this thread to you – I’m a Lencioni fan too. Have you read Silos Politics and Turf Wars?

In any case, the absence of trust is really the result of invisibility – if you’re just “Joe at the Desk” then I’ve not connected with you, nor sought an opportunity to trust you. That means we’ve not connected and can therefore be disengaged. Great point and I’m glad you made that connection!

Samuel Lovett

I’m glad that this post was trending today. It got me thinking about what employees who work in an office environment where their managers don’t care whether it’s miserable or not are supposed to do… I wrote a short blog post as well about a friend of mine who is have workplace troubles.


I’ve posted a blog on mobbing specifically, as I think it warrants a closer look.

Mob behavior is especially common in very hierarchical/militaristic environments such as the Federal gov’t, or in organizations with poorly or loosely structured systems such as startup companies.

Nader Majlessi

One more advice for managers is to be fair to every employee. I resigned from a good job at USDA, Rural Development because of favoritism.

Denise Eblen

I just read this book and like everything I have read from Patrick Lencioni, I was impressed by how he so clearly outlines very widespread workplace themes. I also recommend Five dysfunctions of a team (there is even an anime edition!)

Martha Austin

It is irrelevance and immeasurement (I love this word. It is profoundly accurate) that often lead to the other more specific issues, frequently labeled as performance issues, we see in the workplace. The good news and bad news is that I believe the solution to the problem lies not within the organization but within the individual themselves. When we begin to teach ourselves, and our employees, to put their attention and energies toward the parts of the job they truly love much of the other stuff starts to fall away. (Understanding that every job has certain “chores” that must be done.) And in those cases where our “loves” are not in alignment with the particular job, we need to teach ourselves and our employees to recognize the warning signs within themselves and choose to do something differently (which may or may not mean a different job.) As I have trained individuals in this recognition and clarification process, they have told me that not only did they find themselves in a job they loved, they also noticed improvements in their family life and health. I’d say that’s a big win all the way around. Most folks don’t even realize the burst radius of The Miserable Workplace. Thanks for bringing this out.