Can We Be Happier in Our Job?

November 18, 2010
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Writing articles and blogs is not my day job; I make time for composing them at odd
hours. It is a privilege to be on SmartData Collective’s Advisory Board and a contributor
of an exclusive monthly article to the website. One challenge for me is determining what
topic to write about. I get ideas from many sources, including other authors’ articles and
blogs.

Most of the articles I read can be roughly grouped into one four categories:

Writing articles and blogs is not my day job; I make time for composing them at odd
hours. It is a privilege to be on SmartData Collective’s Advisory Board and a contributor
of an exclusive monthly article to the website. One challenge for me is determining what
topic to write about. I get ideas from many sources, including other authors’ articles and
blogs.

Most of the articles I read can be roughly grouped into one four categories:

Technical – Examples involve data governance and master data management.
They are aimed at IT specialists.

Methodological – These articles describe managerial techniques and solutions.
They typically involve customer relationship management, enterprise performance and risk management, profitability reporting and analysis, business analytics, and operational and financial planning.

Motivational – Few in number, but often provocative. They are appeals to
managers and specialists to forge ahead – to be innovative or drive organizational
change.

Inspirational – These are similar to motivational articles, but go a step further.
Their intent is to make the reader think more deeply about their personal role.

As I am not very technical, my written content is typically methodological, and
sometimes motivational. With this piece, I decided to try my hand at being inspirational.

You be the judge.

How excited can you really be about your job?

For many years, surveys in the personnel and human resources field have reported that
levels of employee job satisfaction are a mixed bag – a bell-shaped distribution curve
with job-lovers and job-haters on the curve’s opposite tail ends, and many people in
between who cope and tolerate in the middle section of the distribution curve. With the
recent economic downturn, it is common knowledge that a substantial portion of the work
force is overqualified in their current job positions with little possibility of advancing
soon to a job more suitable for their capabilities.

What can be done to shift the curve’s distribution for the worker population toward
the happy end and away from the dejected end of the distribution curve? Now I may
be writing out of my comfort zone and area of expertise. I am not a psychologist or
psychiatrist. I don’t even know the difference between the two, but that does not matter
here. I will simply draw on my more than 40 years in the work force. Here goes.

A starting point to thinking about how to improve job satisfaction might be to distinguish
between what a person like you or me can personally control, what we can influence in
others, and what we cannot control.

Personal control – You have freedom to prioritize and make decisions.

Influence on others – You can persuade others and possibly build coalitions of
colleagues with a common understanding and agreement.

Out of our control – You cannot directly affect decisions or events that affect you
or others. These can be external (weather, an accident) or imposed (laws, rules, by
a supervisor).

Obviously, there is more fun and fulfillment with the first two. The last one – out of
your control – can be a happiness detractor. The amount of its adverse impact on you
is based on your coping style as well as the magnitude of the event or pressure. An
onerous situation is having managers above you who have not or will not make the
effort to understand your unique personality and how they can help you maximize your
contributions to your organization.

What truly motivates workers?

The New York Times best-selling book Drive by Daniel H. Pink has stimulated me and
supported some of my own ideas as to what truly motivates people. It is not necessarily
rewards or punishment – carrot or stick. Pink challenges long-held beliefs that employees
are much more externally motivated “wealth or profit maximizers” than internally
motivated “purpose maximizers.” He suggests that, above a certain salary compensation
level, pay-for-performance incentives provide little motivation. Instead Pink proposes
the primary motivators are (1) autonomy (to allow self-direction with less control),
(2) mastery (continuously getting better at something you care about), and (3) purpose
(letting our instinctive curiosity pursue a cause larger than ourselves).

High performance thrives from the drive in individuals to direct our own lives, to extend
and expand our abilities, and to live a life of purpose. This confirms what many of us
already know in our hearts. In my opinion, traditional managerial motivational techniques
presume that employees are generally passive and need to be nudged – wagon-pulling
horses pursuing a carrot. But if we remember our childhood of exploring, testing and
discovering, those were rich experiences. Why can’t our work be our play?

Wouldn’t it be great if we worked for an employer that fostered a work and job
environment where we as individuals genuinely felt like part of a team and could use our
strengths and skills to contribute for the good of the whole? Wouldn’t it be fulfilling if
there were less unwarranted, negative dissent? I believe that constructive, positive dissent
is healthy. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if senior management clarified employee decision
rights so we could know what we can and cannot do without needing approval?

It is frustrating to me to observe special interest groups, so polarized, lobbying for power,
when what we all need is to do the right things for all people. Shouldn’t we care more
about each other and less about confrontation?

Managing knowledge workers

Several years ago I was heavily influenced by a Harvard Business Review article,
titled “Managing Authenticity” (December 2005), about how to lead clever employees.
The authors’ premise was that the employees who might most determine an
organization’s success are clever people – employees whose knowledge and skills
enable them to produce disproportionate value for an organization. Examples are
the pharmaceutical researcher who formulates a new drug or the programmer who
creates a new piece of software code. Their single innovation may bankroll their entire
organization for a decade.

But to assure this success, managers must harness their talents, which is not always
easy to do. The authors’ belief is that clever people don’t want to be led and should be
managed differently. Clever workers don’t care about titles or promotions. And they’re
easily bored. Their managers should be a benevolent guardian, not a traditional boss –
by protecting them from complex rules and office politics. Managers should create a safe
environment where clever workers can experiment – and fail. Respect their expertise. If
you guide your clever people the right way, then you unleash their full potential. They
and your organization win.

The future work world

I realize this article is not a typical one about data management, cloud computing,
analytics or business intelligence software. I normally write about those. This article
describes something I simply wanted to express in print. My grandsons are now ages 9
and 11. I wonder what kind of work world they will experience. How similar or different
will it be compared to our job experiences? Can we hope that the trend will be away from
managers manipulating others for their self-interest and toward managers who make an
effort to understand individuals’ unique skills and build teams?

How many books have been written about leadership and managing people? Probably
thousands. I’m not sure that books with the formula for high job satisfaction that I’d like
to see have yet been written, or if so, that they have been widely read and promoted. I just
hope workers can be provided the opportunity to be fulfilled and productive and to make
a difference.