Dec. 2, 2019

The Hidden Cure for Work Misery

There's a potent cure for job misery hiding in plain sight in your workplace. But, to find it, you have to understand what's likely causing your misery in the first place. [i]

If it seems like who you are and what you're doing, don't matter much to the people you work with, it's pretty likely you're miserable at work.  At least, according to Patrick Lencioni, author of 'The Truth about Employee Engagement.'   He claims that feelings of anonymity, exacerbated by lack of attention to measuring or noticing our progress, results in feeling irrelevant. These feelings of irrelevance can lead us to start mentally composing resignation letters while sitting in rush hour traffic.

Could this be because humans, as the herd-mammals that we are, have a couple of hard-wired needs that aren't optional if we want to be happy?  It turns out that according to a 75-year study on adult development conducted by Harvard researchers, our need to matter to other humans while simultaneously spending whatever heartbeats we have left on earth doing something meaningful is not really negotiable in the quest for life satisfaction.

So, what's the cure for this misery that's hiding in plain sight in every workplace?

Wait for it…it's ahem…teamwork.  No! Don't stop reading!  You may think teamwork is just another thing that's causing your misery, but I promise, if working with other humans has been adding 'suffering-sauce' on top of your suffering, what you've been doing is not teamwork at all. 

But, if what you've been doing isn't teamwork, then what the heck is it? 

It's this exact confusion about the ways that humans work together that's keeping the curative powers of teamwork hidden in the back of your supply closet. One way I've found to help clear up this confusion is to 'locate' our human collaboration habits in something familiar to us - the place we live. 

Let's say you live in a neighbourhood where people generally do their own thing. But they also share the effort of creating a pleasant community by following general rules about noise, mowing lawns, or shoveling snow.  While you don't know everyone in your neighbourhood, you recognize neigbours you regularly see in the hall, at the mailboxes, walking dogs or out raking leaves. When you see them, you might say hello or comment on the weather but otherwise, you pretty much mind your own business unless there's a specific reason to connect. The organization you work in is like a neighbourhood.  If your office is down the hall from mine, we may see each other at a few meetings and share a general interest in making the organization successful.  But we are NOT a 'team' no matter how many 'We are One!' team development sessions we are forced to attend.

So, what else is not a team?

Well, if one day your neighbour, Bob, tells you and a few other folks he's planning a yard sale, and asks if you'd like to bring a table and some stuff to sell – even if you all agree to participate and everyone makes a few bucks, you did not accomplish this as a team. That's because it was a simple, short-term project that didn't require you to build new trust or engage in anything but pleasant exchanges, and everyone's self-interest was enough to get the job done.  No altruism required.  This way of collaborating is called a working group, and most of the so-called teams you think you're on are actually working groups. Which is fine – as long as you only have simple, quick things to do – and the people doing them aren't already miserable at work.

So, what IS teamwork then? 

Well, imagine a few neighbours spontaneously go to Bob's for a barbeque after the yard sale, and after a glass of wine and some discussion about what a fun day it was, Bob suggests you work together to create a community garden.  Here's where teamwork is going to be required. This is because creating a community garden is a complex goal that will take some time to achieve.  It'll also require vision, inspiration, trust-building, engaging in healthy conflict to make good decisions, and a certain amount of altruism to be successful.   If Bob leads the project and has the skills of an effective team leader, those who join the ‘Community Garden Team’ will soon begin to care more about the project and each other than they do about being right or inconvenienced. THAT is a tell-tale sign that actual teamwork is starting to happen.

Luckily for Bob and the Community Garden Team, the skills required to be a great team leader are attainable by anyone with a little curiosity and practice.

Just like the coach of that amazing soccer team you played on as a kid, a great team leader knows how to get the best out of us. They do this by inspiring us with vision, genuinely caring about our development, welcoming our unique contributions, and cultivating the psychological safety to make the whole experience more about 'we' than 'me.'  On that soccer team, this made us show up for practice, be excited about the game, bring our best skills and energy, and care deeply about the outcome.  And don’t forget the power of the visual scoreboard that measured our progress, oriented us and kept us focussed.  Who wants to play (or even watch) a game where only the referee gets to see what the score is?

Connecting with others and engaging with them in meaningful work is essential to human happiness.  Without it, we are genuinely miserable. Being a part of something bigger than ourselves to accomplish a goal we care about is a powerful cure for the job misery caused by the anonymity, lack of measurement, and irrelevance we can experience in our modern workplaces.

And it's the cure that's hiding plain sight. 

Curious about how you too can develop the necessary skills to be a great team leader? Sign up now for our Building Better Teams program.


[i] This article was also published on Medium, November 25, 2019: