Making Work Worth It

We’ve all seen him: that employee standing still amid a flurry of motion, with an expression that clearly says, “Why do I have this job?” These days, though, it’s no longer just the lone worker in a sea of busy people. Recently, I stood in line at a large airport’s Starbucks that was fortunate enough to have four employees. Three of them were watching the fourth do all the work. As they stood there wearing the increasingly commonplace face of indifference, it occurred to me that if this is part of the heavily predicted “new normal,” the future is likely to be very abnormal.

We can try to analyze the causes—the disintegration of effective parenting, poor leadership, low pay, the many COVID-19 issues, or people simply no longer caring. But let’s consider taking a break from the “What’s wrong with people these days?” movement and start to examine the job itself. People (including me) talk a lot about employee engagement, which is in equal measure extremely important and largely lacking. While engagement certainly plays a part in this disconnect, it’s time to explore what we may have done to make work itself not really worth it.

Many people say that jobs they’ve held five years or more are much harder today, requiring more effort and producing less fulfillment. Why would that be? Let’s take a quick look at what may have changed about how we do our jobs and how we might attempt to make some improvements.

Recent technology has not improved much. Many agree that technology seemed to get better over time until about 2015, when software somehow got slower or weirder, problems increased, and things became more tedious. Suddenly, tech advances didn’t seem so advanced.

If we’re being honest, we might admit that software is not always the solution, especially when the software is not any better. To keep selling software, we have to give it more bells and whistles to compensate for the fact that it’s not much of a step forward. It’s like selling cereal. If all you have are carbs and sugar, you’ve got to put honey in it and a cute bear on the box (because honey is not sugar, and bears aren’t at all dangerous) to sell more of it. Lately, it seems some software is missing the basic functions—much like your first experience staring into a box of Grape Nuts cereal and realizing immediately there’s not a single grape or nut in there!

My aim is not to beat up the software (and apparently the cereal) industry. Some software giants are actually my clients. But a quick survey in most companies will tell you software used to be better. “Used to be better” should not be something we hear about technology.

Some great systems don’t work for humans. A job that requires a person to continually correct failures, with those failures often being the same failure requiring repeated correction, burns people out. It seems every industry has that one job that nobody can do for more than a year before quitting with extreme disgust. In such jobs, the system in general may be great in its effectiveness; it’s just not anything an actual person wants to do for a living.

Certain systems or supervisors can lead to an employee’s waning job performance or growing dissatisfaction. It’s called set-up-to-fail syndrome, and it’s certainly nothing new. What is new is that we’ve taught young employees to work smarter and not harder, and they were definitely listening: Today’s young workers will not put up with what a 26-year-old would put up with in 1998. And they shouldn’t. Things should, in fact, be better and easier.

Talent irrelevance keeps some great candidates pigeonholed. Sometimes you can’t be promoted to a job that maximizes your talent unless you’re good in areas where you don’t have any talent. That sounds convoluted, so I’ll provide an example. Kelsey is a teller who wants to be a sales rep at the bank. She has an excellent manner with customers and she’s a very good salesperson already, with many clients daily seeking her advice on new bank products. However, she’s not great with details and her money count is often off. She’s told she must improve a natural weakness before she can use her real strength: She can’t be a sales rep unless she’s a great teller. She quits, and someone who can’t sell but can count gets the sales job.

Irrelevant talent as a prerequisite is quite common. As antiquated as this mind-set might seem, many organizations heavily defend it. It’s like promoting someone to be a lifeguard because they’re really good at cleaning the pool—it’s ridiculous.

We’ve all learned the importance of leadership skills, employee engagement, and clear communication that creates a vision people can easily follow. As important as those three things are to keeping employees on the job, we have to make sure the job itself is worth having first. Great guidance and care don’t mean much when your basic existence is intolerable. It’s like kindly and clearly explaining where the fire exits are to a guy who’s already on fire.

As we all know, people are more likely to be committed when they feel appreciated. People who feel valued are much more likely to value their job and their direct supervisor. But as quiet quitting (reducing your efforts at work), boss blaming, and generational shaming become the trends, it is time to look at how we may have made the work itself the thing that is driving this “decade of our discontent.”

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