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Once upon a time (say, way back in 2007), when making presentations, I used to include a slide noting worker dissatisfaction levels. At one point, eight of 10 workers were disengaged—that is, either uncommitted or actively looking for work elsewhere. Then came the Great Recession, and talk of employee dissatisfaction abated.
But it never went away. New studies by the Hay Group and the Corporate Leadership Council, which were cited in the Economist, note that employees are getting fed up. Factors include overwork, underpayment, and underappreciation. As a result, as many as six in 10 are looking to exit, according to the Hay Group. Some 85 percent of those not looking are staying still because the job market remains weak.
So what's a manager to do? First, recognize that many of your employees are unhappy. They probably feel overstretched and overburdened. Additionally, as other research studies show, a significant number distrust their senior leadership. Many feel they have made sacrifices in compensation that senior leaders have escaped. They also feel more vulnerable to cutbacks and hence are unlikely to voice much dissatisfaction.
But as every savvy manager knows, an unhappy worker is an underproducing worker. Organizations with disengaged employees go through the motions but do not put motions forward to get the job done.
Solutions are not easy. Yes, recognition and incentive programs work, but too often such programs address symptoms rather than the root causes of worker dissatisfaction. They serve as proverbial Band-Aids for deep-seated malaise. If work has little meaning, incentivized solutions are ends unto themselves, not means to an end: a more fulfilling workplace. Making work meaningful is no simple matter and frankly is beyond the responsibility of most managers. After all, businesses hire managers to get the work done, not make work enjoyable.
Finding purpose in work is an individual pursuit, but in my experience I have found good examples of how managers do create higher levels of buy-in and thereby do make the work experience more tolerable. Here are some suggestions.
Address the situation. The worst thing managers who suspect worker dissatisfaction can do is to ignore it, although that is the time-honored tradition. Avoiding the topic does not make it go way. Find ways to raise the issue at staff meetings. The blunt approach—"So what's wrong?"—may not work. People will likely clam up. But if you are clever and talk about the issue and perhaps voice your own dissatisfaction with the situation, you may have better luck. Make it safe for employees to talk about workplace dissatisfiers. Often they are simple things: input into scheduling, flexibility in work hours, or even something employees can make happen themselves, such as cleaner break rooms.
Encourage alternatives. Find ways you can improve the situations. Take the lead in addressing employee complaints. Over the longer term, the best way is to let workers figure things out for themselves. Challenge employees to come up with ideas for making improvements, either in job design or in job process. Look for ways to remove the drudge factor in favor of the value add. Replace make-work projects with make-it-work projects.
Show outcomes. Relate what your team does to what the company does. Say you work in purchasing: Find ways to link your striving for best-value, best-cost suppliers with improved-quality products. Make the link between improved quality and customer satisfaction. Such things would not have happened if purchasing had not done its job. Some companies introduce employees to customers when possible. Then employees see their products or services in use. That's a great way to encourage meaning in the workplace.
Putting meaning into work is not a managerial responsibility; it falls to the employee to find work that matters to him or herself. And when employees sign on to do a job, they have a responsibility to perform it. Yes, in times of scarcity, as we are enduring now, compensation may be less competitive and opportunities for advancement less available, but workers must do the jobs employers pay them to do. Obvious, yes, but as studies show, many employees remain disgruntled.
Simply acknowledging trouble in the workplace is a good first step. It creates an atmosphere of honesty. There is always a risk that people will reveal too much dissatisfaction, but when the manager makes it safe to offer up concerns and provides avenues of redress, workers can feel they are part of a solution rather than part of a problem. And maybe that's all that can happen in the short term. If so, acknowledge it and make the best of it. There are far too many people out of work who would readily switch places with you or your employees.