On Having a Miserable Job

Isn’t it just amazing what we learn to be satisfied with?

We think, sometimes, that living the way we do is inevitable.[1]  Or we think that doing what we would have to do to live otherwise would be wrong or just that it would be too much work.  But however it might be explained, you know a lot of people live in situations that could be a great deal better if they would choose to make them better.

I have an example, as you probably expected.  This is from a book called Three Signs of a  miserable 3Miserable Job.[2]  My son, Dan, recommended it to me and then it turned out that I liked it even more than he did; or at least for different reasons.  The story is told by a man who has substantial skills as a manager—big time, small time; it doesn’t seem to matter—and who applies these skills to a run-down Italian restaurant in Nevada.  This guy doesn’t look all that miserable, but pictures of drive through windows aren’t all that easy to find.

“Brian” is the character representing the management perspective of author, Patrick Lencioni.  This is a very brightly told tale and I was reading along, enjoying it without paying a great deal of attention, until I came to this passage:

Brian is meeting with the staff, preparing to begin the magic overhaul.  He says, “I’m here to tell you that my job is to get you to like your jobs; to look forward to coming to work.”  Harrison, one of the employees, says, “Is there something in it for us?” 

Does that strike you as odd?  I think I would have puzzled about it for a while.  Very likely, I would have dumped it all over the Northwest Corner Caucus at Starbucks the next few mornings.  Brian was outraged!

How about not being miserable?  How about making your life a little better and having pride in your work?  Don’t you think that would be a good thing for you and your family and friends?  Or do you enjoy having the life sucked out of you every time you put on that damn Gene and Joe’s T-shirt?

That’s the passage that woke me up.  All these guys hate coming to work.  They hate working here.  Spending every day doing something they don’t like rather than doing something else or doing it in a way they would enjoy more, doesn’t seem to occur to them.   Now let’s back up a little.

Brian asked them at the first staff meeting

“How many people here get excited about coming to work?  How many of you are in a really good mood when you’re driving here?”

Patty said, “Well, I’ve got three little kids at home, so I’m just excited to get out of the house.  But I’d rather not be coming here.”

And Carl added, “I actually get kind of depressed when I wake up on Thursday mornings, because I know that I’m going to be here a lot for the rest of the week.”

The job is bad.  It is depressing.  But it is the way it is.  Nothing about it suggests that it could or should be otherwise.  And in this story, it never occurs to anyone that it could be otherwise.

Brian got to wondering how people with this attitude came to work at Gene and Joe’s, so he put the question to Joe, the owner. 

“So turnover’s a problem,” asked Brian.  Joe nodded in exasperation.

“Why do you think?”

“Heck if I know.  Most of these people aren’t exactly go-getters, if you know what I mean.”

Joe constructs the problem so that is flows naturally from the character of the employees.  To me, that puts Joe in the same category as Patty and Carl.  Here’s a really bad restaurant run by people who don’t want to be there and run by an owner who thinks it is the character of the people he hires that best explains why the place is so depression.  It is also, by the way, not making any money.

miserable 4The piece of Patrick Lencioni’s tale that so grabbed my attention is that the idea of having a meaningful job had to be sold to the restaurant workers.  Brian said, for all practical purposes, I can make your jobs meaningful and engaging and the employees replied, for all practical purposes, why would we want that?  Or maybe, we don’t believe you.  Or maybe, we don’t know how to do that anymore.  Or maybe, but all our friends have jobs like this one and they aren’t complaining.

I tell you what it did remind me of, though.  In Martin E. P. Seligman’s work on “learned helplessness,” he dealt with dogs that had learned that there was nothing to be done.  In all fairness, it is true that the dogs were exposed to electric shocks while being leashed on the shocking end of the cage.  That’s how they learned that nothing could be done.  Then Seligman and his associates took the leash off.  Nothing happened.  The dogs lay on the floor and accepted the shocks because they were knowledgeable dogs; they were experienced dogs; their experience had taught them that nothing could be done.

That puts the dogs at the same place the restaurant workers are when Brian says, “I’m here to tell you that my job is to get you to like your jobs; to look forward to coming to work.”  The good news for the dogs is that they could be retrained—it takes a long long time—so that when the light comes on indicating that the shock is near, they take off for the non-shocking end of the cage.  The good news for the employees at Gene and Joe’s Italian Food is that Brian persuades them to try the new system and it brings them to life.

My great hope is that if I ever get stuck presupposing the meaninglessness of what I am doing and assenting to it, that I will be jarred awake by remembering that it really doesn’t have to be that way.

And while I’m at it, I hope that for you, too.



[1] Words are just so much fun.  Back behind inevitable—way, way back behind it—is a verb “to evite,” which means “to shun.”  I strongly suspect that the people who took the e- from electronic and the vite- from invitation to create evite either didn’t know the earlier word or just didn’t care.  I am more likely to get an evite to a large gathering than I am to be invited by email or phone.

[2] It was written by Patrick Lencioni, who subtitled it, “A Fable for Managers (and their employees)”  Lencioni is president of The Table Group, a management consulting firm specializing in “organizational health.”  His part in the story is played by “Brian.”

About hessd

Here is all you need to know to follow this blog. I am an old man and I love to think about why we say the things we do. I've taught at the elementary, secondary, collegiate, and doctoral levels. I don't think one is easier than another. They are hard in different ways. I have taught political science for a long time and have practiced politics in and around the Oregon Legislature. I don't think one is easier than another. They are hard in different ways. You'll be seeing a lot about my favorite topics here. There will be religious reflections (I'm a Christian) and political reflections (I'm a Democrat) and a good deal of whimsy. I'm a dilettante.
This entry was posted in Paying Attention, Political Psychology and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.