by Bill, Management, Motivation

Unhappy Workers. Why it matters, and How to fix it (Part 1 of 2)

3 Comments 13 January 2010

Job satisfaction is on a steady decline in the U.S., according to a report released last week by the Conference Board, a non-profit global business research organization.

If these numbers don’t grab business leaders by the throat and compel them to take action, we don’t know what will. On top of a still-anemic economy and a near universal crisis of trust,  the very last thing employers need today is a bunch of disgruntled workers operating at well less than full power. But that’s exactly what most organizations are faced with.

Only 45% of workers in the CB survey say they’re satisfied in their jobs, down from 61% in 1987, the first year the study was conducted. Unlike the economy, this downward trend has been constant, not cyclical. Just like gravity, job satisfaction has gone one way in both good times and bad… down.

So, what’s worker satisfaction at your outfit? And what difference does it make?

Second question first. If you’ve been following us for any part of the last 12 years, you know our research shows that it makes a HUGE difference – to the bottom line. Contented Cows Give Better Milk. Period.

First question: What’s worker satisfaction like  where you work? How do you know? Have you done a survey lately to find out where your company stands with respect to employee satisfaction? If not, why not? If so, what did you do with what you learned from the survey? If you want some help with this, click here.

So, if workers are less satisfied at work now than they once were, what are the reasons? What’s the remedy?

In keeping with the last-in-first-out nature of this article, we’ll start with a remedy:

Manage Yourself First: People aren’t going to follow, let alone be energized and engaged by a leader who is confused, conflicted, or depressed. If you can manage yourself on your own, go to it. If not, find a coach or counselor to help.

Now to the reasons. We’ll offer two in this article, and what to do about them; then a few more next month.

Reason #1:

Author Daniel Pink probably hit on the kernel of rising dissatisfaction when he tweeted last week, “Meager money + Zero meaning = Record low job satisfaction.”  Increase the value of either of the two variables on the left side of Pink’s equation, and satisfaction is likely to rebound.

What to do about it

If you put any more money into the equation, do it in a way that serves to better differentiate (and reward) better performers. If more money’s not in the cards, or even if it is, leaders could substantially improve employee satisfaction and engagement, and thereby organizational results, by investing more meaning in people’s work. That takes two forms:

Make less meaningful work more meaningful.

  • Take all the senseless BS out of people’s jobs – unnecessary tasks, paperwork, and CYA-related nonsense.
  • When you ask someone to do something, use what they’ve done, or quit asking them to do it.
  • Ask people to develop their own best ways to accomplish results, hold them accountable, and reward them for hitting targets.
  • On the premise that we all need to see the needle move once in a while, give them some opportunities for quick wins.

Shine a light on the meaning that’s already there. This is the more likely problem, and it’s easier to fix.

  • Create a clear line of sight between their work and real paying customers. Bank tellers need to know how processing transactions makes money for the bank. Most don’t have a clue. Dishwashers and prep cooks – how does their work make diners want to come back and spend more money? And every assistant administrator in a state community college needs a firm grasp of how the decisions they make impact the quality of education in their state.
  • Here’s an assignment for today. Yes, today. Ask each team member to describe how their work is felt, ultimately, by the people who pay for what you do – customers, clients, patients, taxpayers, students, whatever you call them – the people without whom the organization would not exist. If they can’t do it, see the above bullet point.

Reason #2:

While some leaders run around telling people they’re “empowered” (gag), sadly, most of us are actually micromanaging people into less and less satisfaction.

One way to start doing something about that:

Build in flexibility. If at all possible, let go of your concern with when people show up to do their work, and what they’re doing every minute they’re on the premises. Trust us. No one ever said “I hate my job. It gives me too much control over my life.” This one will get you MAJOR satisfaction points, if you manage it well.

If work times must, by the nature of your business, coincide with customers’ and/or co-workers’ patterns, then ask your workforce to figure out a way to meet the needs of the business while providing people with maximum flexibility.

In fields where customer coverage and colleague coordination matters less, incent people to accomplish results, not punch a clock, real or imaginary. If you employ adults, treat them as such. Hold them accountable – really accountable – for excellent results, and let them figure out the best way to manage their schedules while meeting business needs. If you’ve hired the right people, they’ll LOVE their jobs.

Next month, we’ll look at a few more reasons people aren’t feeling the job love as much these days, and some remedies for each.

Til then, Godspeed.


A thought leader in the arena of leadership and employee engagement, Bill Catlette is a seminar leader, keynote speaker, and executive coach. He helps individuals and organizations improve business outcomes by having a focused, engaged, capably led workforce. For more information about Bill, his partner Richard Hadden, and their work, please visit their website at, or follow him on Twitter at



- who has written 227 posts on Contented Cows.

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3 Comments so far

  1. Gents,
    Follow regularly and got this on your newsletter yesterday. Love this – You said it so well.
    May I re-use in my newsletter, fully credited of course.
    Rick Matthews

  2. Great post, Bill. Echoes thoughts in my own post today on Gallup findings of $800M in productivity lost to disengagement in the US alone and what to do about it by giving meaning and purpose through appreciation and recognition.


  1. Worker dissatisfaction | Contented Cows - 19. Feb, 2010

    [...] a post on January 13, we wrote about the epidemic of worker dissatisfaction in the US, as reported in a Conference Board [...]

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Considered thought leaders in the arena of leadership and employee engagement, Bill Catlette and Richard Hadden speak to, train, and coach managers on leadership practices for better business outcomes.

OUR PREMISE: Having a focused, engaged, and capably led workforce is one of the best things any organization can do for its bottom line.



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