Loving your work?

A recent article in the Guardian [i] said that according to a Gallup poll, 87% of people hate their jobs.  87%!!  That’s outrageous!  I’ve long felt that wanting a job that you love and looking forward to going in to work on a Monday morning isn’t too much to ask, but it seems from that statistic that maybe it is.

Let’s look a little closer at the report. I’d have to modify the statement that 87% hate their jobs, because that isn’t quite what the survey measured. It measured employee engagement, and found that only 13% percent of employees throughout the world are fully engaged with their work.  And then says that employee engagement is the degree to which employees are involved in and enthusiastic about their work and workplace.  A little journalistic licence to leap from’ not enthusiastic’ to ‘hate’ I thought (and telling that the writer used to work in the public sector? But that’s just my observation, having been there and hated that too).  Nevertheless, some very useful points.  As Richard Branson observes, miserable people do miserable work.

So what’s the problem? Why are so many people not engaged at work? Ok, as this is my blog, I’m going to use a little licence myself and indulge in some pet theories. There may be references to research to back me up, but not necessarily.  I think much of the problem is because of

  • Poor organisational culture, which is a result of –
  • Poor leadership, which in turn results in –
  • Poor management skills, with little understanding of what motivates us

Employee engagement seem to be the new buzzwords, but I’m going to stick with motivation.  The two are closely related, and I’d argue that in most cases, if you’re motivated you’re engaged.

Daniel Pink, in his book, ‘Drive, the surprising truth about what motivates us’, says there are three important motivators.  Autonomy, mastery and purpose.  (Notice pay isn’t in there.)

Let’s take these in reverse order, starting with purpose.  Now, there are any number of business books out there saying start with the purpose – as well as Pink there’s Simon Sinek, ‘Start with Why’, and Isaiah Hankel, ‘Black Hole Focus’, are among my favourites, and most famously, Stephen Covey’s start with the end in mind – so I’d say that’s case proved.  Pink obviously goes into more detail about this and does provide some psychology research to support his point. I won’t regurgitate it here – I recommend the book.  But when you have a purpose to your work, a purpose that you believe is important, then you are engaged and motivated.

On to mastery, Pink suggests that engagement is a route to mastery.  Malcolm Gladwell’s 10,000 hours of practice to achieve mastery is often quoted.  10,000 hours until you’re happy at work seems like an unattainable target. That’s about 5 years of full time work at 37 hours a week, a long time not to be happy. I’d flip that on its head though.  It’s self evident that if you’re happy at work, you’re happy to stay and practice something for five years, until you do become a master at it.  And if you’re naturally quite good at something, you’re going to be happy practising, whereas if it’s something that doesn’t come naturally, you’re less likely to be motivated to learn it, and will therefore not achieve mastery.  So first, do something you enjoy, practice till you get really good, and you’ll enjoy it even more.  Whilst I don’t want to downplay the role of mastery in motivation and happiness, to me this is less difficult to achieve than autonomy and less fundamental than purpose.

Now let’s take a look at autonomy.  I think this is where most people are unhappy at work, and where many organisations go wrong.  Who hasn’t come across the control freak boss who micromanages to the point of desperation? (Theirs as well as yours probably.)  What about the boss who loses her temper, steals credit for your work, blocks every effort you make to improve things?  What about the bullying boss? Even well intentioned bosses can have poor people management skills leading to an unhappy team – maybe so afraid of conflict he never makes a decision. Or the boss who doesn’t give clear direction on what’s required, so the team are never sure what good results look like.  I read a Steve Jobs quote on twitter today (thanks David Tovey @PrincipledSell) which really sums this up.


A great CEO isn’t someone who knows how to carry out all the operations of the organisation, but one who hires talented people who know – talented sales people, talented HR managers, talented finance teams, talented production managers.  Talented people who share their vision, values and purpose. And then a) lets them get on with their jobs, and b) listens to their suggestions for improvement and innovations.

As someone who has always hated being told what to do or what to think, autonomy is right up there, I need no convincing of its importance in a motivated workforce.  Do you?

So that’s kind of my main pet theory really, good management leads to committed and engaged workers, poor management doesn’t.  The culture of the organisation comes from the top. What is accepted, what role models and behaviours are accepted, define the culture of the organisation. Token efforts at ’employee engagement’ such as away days or other team building programmes won’t work. They need to be ingrained in the culture of the organisation. Sinek tells how Southwest Airlines looks after employees first.  Happy employees mean happy customers, which in turn mean happy shareholders.  When employees trust that their employer will look after them, you don’t get the bad press that Amazon is suffering.

Moving away from businesses I have a pet theory about the public sector too. In the same way that the culture of businesses comes from the leadership, I believe that the culture of our public organisations comes from its leadership, our political masters.  In a climate of cutting expenditure, doing more for less, criticism and harsh targets, no amount ofc9e42240 desire to serve the public will survive that onslaught.  Managers under increasing pressure will put their teams under increasing pressure.  Autonomy? No.  Mastery? Probably not.  Purpose? To serve the public? Or serve the politicians?

As a former public sector employee myself and with friends who still work there, I know how demoralising it can be.  I really wish that the political masters would realise that most people want to do a job to the best of their ability; public sector workers are often motivated by the purpose (easy to accept for police, firefighters, nurses, teachers, not so obvious for civil servants and council staff perhaps, but I believe it to be true) of serving the public. But they are also individuals who need to fulfil that purpose, achieve mastery and have autonomy.

I’ll finish with some thoughts from Nic Marks of Happiness Works, also quoted in the Guardian article.  He says there are five things that will lead to engaged employees. I like these a lot, and can see how it would lead to a happy workplace. Do you think these create autonomy, mastery and purpose? I’d love to hear your views.


Connect with workers by fostering better relationships between employees and with customers. As part of this, think about enhancing collaborative spaces.

Be fair to your workers. Pay them fairly and ensure that they have a good work/life balance.

Empower your employees. Delegate more and ditch micromanagement.

Challenge your workers. Search for the “sweet spot” in which you stretch people without overloading them.

Inspire your workers by communicating the bigger picture of what you’re trying to achieve.

Further reading  

Stephen Covey. The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, Simon & Schuster Ltd

Malcolm Gladwell, Outliers: The Story of Success, Penguin

Isaiah Hankel PhD. Black Hole Focus. How intelligent people can create a powerful purpose for their lives, Capstone

Daniel H Pink. Drive. The Surprising Truth about what Motivates Us, Canongate

Simon Sinek. Start with Why. How Great Leaders Inspire Everyone to Take Action, Portfolio Penguin


[i] http://www.theguardian.com/the-b-team-partner-zone/2015/aug/18/steps-happier-workplace-unilever-bteam-innovation-network

About the Author Lindsay Milner

Lindsay is the owner of Silvern Training. Before that she had a very varied working life, doing everything from admin, volunteering, sales, teaching, training, fundraising, management and chairing a board of charity trustees. Now wants to change the world of work by improving workplace cultures so that people can look forward to Monday mornings. Also likes to support individuals to speak up, be better listeners and to take action.

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Leave a Comment:

Zahir says 23rd October 2015

A very thought provoking and relevant article. It amazes me organisations invest so much money in advertising and technology but give very little regard to their most important asset – their staff. In particular, cultivating an environment of confidence, motivation, enthusiasm and dedication takes strong leadership. Your ideas are a good suggestion. Great post!

lindsaypmilner says 27th October 2015

Thanks Zahir. I agree it is a shame that so many organisations waste the talent and commitment of their employees. It does take strong leadership, and I think many managers are afraid to take that strong leadership role, and act out of fear, believing that strong leadership is something quite different.

I’m planning to post some ideas on how employees can take matters into their own hands and improve their work situation in a future post, so I hope that will help.

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