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Determining why employees find work miserable

Bob Milligan for Progressive Cattleman Published on 24 July 2018

I use a book by Patrick Lencioni, The Truth About Employee Engagement: A Fable About Addressing the Three Root Causes of Job Misery, as the basis for this article.

The book tells a fable about Brian Bailey who, after an exceptional career as a CEO, retires when the company he led is sold.

Think about what you would do if, unexpectedly, you no longer had a ranch or farm. You would probably go nuts. That is what happened to Brian, plus he had a yearning to better understand why he had been so successful as a leader and supervisor of people, and why he observed so many miserable employees.

After several failed attempts at retirement, Brian became the weekend manager and part owner of a struggling downscale Italian restaurant, Gene and Joe’s. In the next three sections, I will explain how Brian identified and corrected the three root causes of job misery.

Immeasurement

As he started as the weekend manager, Brian visited with Joe, the remaining owner from Gene and Joe’s. Joe described his employees as “… my employees are a motley crew. At least the ones who stick around.” After two nights of observing, Brian told Joe he wanted to make a major change.

Joe was relieved but confused when Brian explained the major changes as: “I want to give the employees a clearer sense of what is expected of them.”

At his first meeting with the staff, Brian confirmed the employees were clearly miserable at work, and then told them: “I’m here to tell you my job is to get you to like your jobs. To look forward to coming to work.”

Brian concluded the meeting with, “In addition to being on time, I want everyone here to start measuring what you’re doing. … And don’t worry. I’ll be helping you figure out what you should be measuring and how we are going to go about doing it.”

After discussion with each employee, measurements were developed for each Gene and Joe’s employees. Examples are:

  • For the order taker at the drive-up window: number of orders without errors and number of customers who smile when ordering

  • Waitresses: tips and number of impromptu positive customer comments.

  • Cooks: timeliness of finishing orders and positive customer comments on food.

Irrelevance

As employees began to measure their performance, their attitude and the performance of the restaurant began to improve. Brian then called another meeting. He began by stating, “I want you all to figure out who is the beneficiary of your work.”

Using questions and group input, the staff identified who each benefited. Examples:

  • The waitresses: The customers in many ways, not just by serving food

  • The dishwasher: The customers by providing clean plates and silverware

  • The cooks: The customers by cooking excellent food and all employees by making their jobs easier

Anonymity

Brian discovered his third cause of misery at work partly by accident. An early event Brian observed with horror was the staff quickly closing the restaurant when a bus approached at closing time. As staff motivation was slowly improving, a bus again arrived near closing.

By habit, the staff raced to close the restaurant; however, Brian “flipped on the dining room lights – to the horror of his employees. Then he went to the door, opened it and waved the bus full of hungry basketball fans inside.”

“Though they (the staff) were initially less than excited, as soon as the customers started coming inside, the mood changed. Within 10 minutes, the dining room was as lively as it had been just an hour earlier, and the crew regained their momentum.”

After the bus departed, as a reward, Brian traded Italian food with local Chinese and Mexican restaurants, and the crew gathered to eat their reward. As they talked, Brian made an important observation: “It was the first time he could remember hearing them (the employees) talk at any length about their lives outside Gene and Joe’s.”

Brian’s theory

At the two-month anniversary of his work at Gene and Joe’s, Brian’s wife, Leslie, took him to dinner to celebrate. Although they had agreed not to discuss work, Leslie asked how work was going and “Why don’t you tell me about your theory?” Here is a little of what Brian said and did:

  • Immeasurement: Brain felt comfortable about the first part, saying: “Basically, a job is bound to be miserable if it doesn’t involve measurement.” He added, “If you don’t get a daily sense of measurable accomplishments, you will go home at night wondering if your day was worthwhile.”

The discussion then turned to what to measure, and Brian added a very important point using the experience of his employees at his earlier company, JMJ: “But they didn’t measure everything.

We didn’t want them creating a bunch of bureaucratic tracking systems for every little activity. … The key at JMJ was always to measure the right things. If you measure the wrong things, people still will lose interest.”

  • Irrelevance: Brian began by explaining irrelevance as “the feeling that what you do has no impact on the lives of others.” The challenge is: “It (the person impacted) really depends on the situation and the job and, more important than anything else, the person.”

    Concluding, Brian stated: “Every person who works has to know that what they do matters to another human being. … If a manager has any responsibility in the world, it’s to help people understand why their work matters.”

  • Anonymity: Brian shared his third job misery by driving Leslie to a warehouse-looking building that housed a soccer field. Playing soccer were two Gene and Joe’s employees. Brian explained to Leslie what had happened after serving the passengers on the bus: “He (Brian) started learning things about them that he wouldn’t have imagined.”

Brian explained: “How can a person feel really good about going to work when they don’t feel like anyone there knows who they are? Or cares?” And, importantly, he added: “It’s really the person’s manager who needs to know them. Co-workers too, but the manager is the key.”

Encore

Brian soon moved on to other challenges to test his misery theory – immeasurement, irrelevance, anonymity – and ended up in London, England. One evening, Brian opened a package with the restaurant as a return address.

Inside were two T-shirts where, beneath a picture of two smiling faces, were the words “Migo and Joe’s Pizza and Pasta. Here. There. Everywhere.” Migo was one of the “motley crew,” as Joe described his staff, when Brian came to Gene and Joe’s. He was now the co-owner.  end mark

Bob Milligan is also professor emeritus, Dyson School of Applied Economics and Management, Cornell University. Contact Bob Milligan

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