Friday, November 14, 2008

Cheer up; we’re only happy when we’re miserable


If you enjoyed The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People by Stephen R Covey and Patrick Lencioni's The Five Dysfunctions of a Team, then you might like another Lencioni book, The Three Signs of a Miserable Job , though I'm afraid his novelised business manual, which recounts the "unforgettable story of Brian Bailey, an abruptly retired executive searching for meaning", didn't do a single thing for me.
More objectionable than anything else is Lencioni's thesis that "the universal causes of anguish and frustration at work" are: (1) Anonymity. Management shows little interest in you, your background or your life; (2) Irrelevance. You have no idea your work matters to anyone; and (3) Immeasurement. You have no objective way of gauging your performance.
My objections, conveniently, are threefold: (1) "immeasurement" is not a word; (2) While "anonymity", "irrelevance" and "immeasurement" can make people unhappy, they do not do so "universally". If you simply see work as a way of making money, then these qualities could make a job attractive; (3) There are evidently more than three signs of a miserable job and to discover how many more you need only ask some miserable friends and colleagues.
I've just conducted an emotionally draining straw poll of six professionally discontented acquaintances and been cited no fewer than 11 reasons for why they spend their days wanting to die, ranging from back-stabbing colleagues to poor pay and a sudden but overwhelming sense of mortality and correspondingly intense desire to spend less time on hold to the IT helpdesk.
A glance at the surprising amount of more scientific evidence on the subject of job satisfaction doesn't provide much more in the way of clarity. Here's a UK survey showing that low-paid workers are happier than those who take home more than £13,000, raising the possibility that a lack of responsibility is the key to avoiding misery. Here's a US survey stating the clergy are the happiest of professionals, raising the possibility that having a vocation is the key to avoiding misery. And here is a series of British surveys showing that hairdressers are happiest, suggesting that asking 20 people a day if they're doing anything nice at the weekend is the key to eliminating despair.
The list goes on. In the course of just an hour of searching I discovered reports suggesting that everything from being Welsh to being self-employed were the keys to unlocking contentment. Meanwhile, a 1990 study by Richard Arvey, a professor at the Industrial Relations Centre of the University of Minnesota's Carlson School of Management, argues that about 30 per cent of general job satisfaction is associated with genetic factors. In other words, a proportion of people will be happy or unhappy, whether they are running BHP Billiton or wielding a "golf sale" sign.
Perhaps the simplest way of summarising all this is to say that each unhappy worker is unhappy in his or her own way. There appear to be as many ways to become dissatisfied as there are studies into the subject of job satisfaction. But while it is impossible to generalise about the causes of misery, it is possible to generalise about misery in general. And if a book were to be written on the subject, it would need to be entitled The Three Truths of Professional Misery and would make the proceeding points.
Truth One: something that makes one person happy or unhappy at one time can make another person unhappy or happy at another time. Not only does this apply to all of Lencioni's cited causes of misery but to most causes of satisfaction and dissatisfaction. A stressful job can be wonderfully distracting if you're going through a divorce or bereavement. A high salary can sometimes cause anxiety. People with mentally exhausting, cerebral jobs often fantasise about doing something menial and mindless for a living, and vice versa. And even the most common complaint about work - long hours – can be a huge source of comfort to some people. A 1999 survey in the UK even found that those who spend lengthy hours at work tend to be far happier than their less industrious colleagues.
Truth Two: something that makes one person happy or unhappy at one time can make the same person unhappy or happy at another. Job satisfaction is not a fixed thing. Yet another study published this year found that job satisfaction fluctuates wildly over the course of our careers: those over 65 tend to be the most satisfied, while people under 29 are the least happy in their work.
Meanwhile, Howard Weiss, associate professor of psychology at Purdue University, has discovered that our feelings may fluctuate on even an hourly basis. He told 24 managers in a Midwestern office to fill in mood surveys four times a day for 16 days and found moods and attitudes varied dramatically.
Truth Three: workplace misery does not actually matter that much.
At least, as far as employers are concerned. It is taken for granted in business that happy employees make better employees but there is a wealth of evidence that throws doubt upon the link. The UK economy actually boomed in the 1990s as general job satisfaction declined. And according to a research project published this year by Wright State University, people who are happy in their work don't necessarily perform better than people who aren't. Though we probably don't need scientists to tell us this.
The list of famously miserable but successful people is lengthy – Winston Churchill, Gordon Brown, Stephen Fry – and we all know from experience that unhappiness can be motivating. To see the phenomenon in action, I suggest reading The Three Signs of a Miserable Job: it will have you wanting to do something else in no time at all.


1conoclast said...

This one I'm going to link to!

CAT said...

sure, go ahead. anything to spread the wisdom