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Wednesday, October 02, 2013

Why They Call It Work

"To have a right to do a thing is not at all the same as to be right in doing it." - G. K. Chesterton

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Why They Call It Work

The halls are alive with the sound of carping. Last year, only 50% of U.S. workers were satisfied with their jobs, the lowest point yet in a steady decline that began in 1995, reports the Conference Board. And with the exception of a few anomalous years, job satisfaction in the United Kingdom has been dropping since 1991, according to research done at the University of Kent. Participants in these studies complained, among other things, about lack of personal fulfillment; “robotic,” meaningless work; work/life imbalance; insufficient acknowledgment of efforts; and lack of influence with supervisors.

Conventional wisdom blames such pervasive disgruntlement on poor leadership and lousy work environments. But have working conditions in the past decade really degenerated so much for so many? The decline in satisfaction has persisted in periods when employees have had tremendous leverage and when they’ve been lucky to have jobs at all. Moreover, the average worker spends more than two hours of each eight-hour workday surfing the Internet, conducting personal business, or just “spacing out.” That suggests many employees have autonomy and a manageable workload.

Maybe employees are dissatisfied because they have been taught to expect too much from their jobs. In the mid-1900s, organizational behaviorists concluded that great work environments would produce happy, productive workers. At the same time, humanists began arguing that work should be a vehicle for growth and self-expression. Those ideas became part of the conversation for companies and observers of companies, including management consultants and the business press. Employees, as a result, came to expect that their jobs would be satisfying and meaningful and that their employers would help them grow professionally and develop their “true potential.”

Such expectations represent a corporate ideal akin to the romantic ideal that guides some people in their quest for a mate. Those animated by the romantic ideal believe that they will someday find “the one” and embark upon a life of bliss untroubled by personal faults, limitations, and weaknesses. Fortunately, most mature adults eventually abandon that myth. Those who don’t not only are doomed to disappointment but make life miserable for their mates.

Similarly, employees animated by the corporate ideal believe in the existence of a “right” job that meets all the needs on their own, personalized versions of Maslow’s hierarchy. But even a good job in a good company is bound to produce disappointment. In time, these deluded souls will realize that the business is more interested in what they do than in who they are. They will be required to perform tasks they consider tedious or misconceived. They will find that their input is not always welcome. As a result, they will feel frustrated, disappointed, and demeaned.

Much misery could be avoided if employees held less-exalted ideals about work. Why does a job have to be meaningful and fulfilling? Isn’t it enough that work is simply worthwhile–which is to say worth the employee’s time, considering his or her circumstances? A former student of mine sells a remedy for irritable bowel syndrome, a job she doesn’t find particularly meaningful. But she does believe that for someone with her skills, experience, priorities, and goals, selling this product for this company is certainly worthwhile. Consequently, she believes that she has a good job. And she does. The pharmaceutical company she works for pays her a decent wage, provides good working conditions, and does not waste her time. That should be enough.

Employees should not demand that companies imbue their lives with meaning. Employers and employees have something the other needs. One of the keys to a mutually beneficial relationship is a realistic understanding of what that something is.

(The HBR List: Breakthrough Ideas for 2006 - 20. Why They Call It Work, E.L. Kersten)
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