Give Thanks If You’re Not Miserable at Work… Most People Are!

Originally published on Nov. 2010.

This time of year in the US we celebrate something called “Thanksgiving.” According to Wikipedia, it’s one of the busiest travel times annually, and the night before Thanksgiving is one of the most crowded times for bars and pubs due to college students returning home for the holiday. Traditionally, it’s a time to be thankful for our good fortune . . . a time when sometimes-whiney, often-ungrateful cynics (like me) pause to reflect on what we’re grateful for in our lives. This year I sincerely hope it’s a break from moaning about the economy, condemning the evils of outsourcing, and endlessly ragging on one political party or another’s ineptness. After all, in the United States of America we continue consume 30% of the world’s resources and produce 30% of the world’s waste in spite of making up only 4% of the world’s population. And most of us shower in water clean enough to drink while nearly a billion people (1 in 9) around the world don’t have access to clean drinking water. So when people ask me how I’m doing, I say something like, “Well, no one’s shooting at me, or blocking my access to YouTube, and the gas main under my home hasn’t blown up!” My life is truly blessed!

Grateful Not to Be Receiving a Steady Paycheck

In addition to the above-mentioned problems I don’t have, there’s a long list of items that I’m extremely thankful for, including not having a regular job in a typical corporation. Yup, that’s right—while many of my friends and colleagues are grumbling about the loss of their jobs and the threat of being plunged into financial ruin if they can’t find another one tout de suite, I’m grateful to be an independent consultant without a steady paycheck. Why? Aside from years of experience in Corporate America that were, shall we say, less than life-affirming, there is growing evidence documenting what I’ve always sensed about working in the corporate world: It’s is a soul-sucking experience most of the time. (If you’re a business owner or executive reading this, don’t worry. I’m sure your company is fine, and it’s just “the others” that are messed up.)

Although you might think people would be grateful for any job during tough economic times, Gallup’s famous Employee Engagement Survey this past year found that worker satisfaction in America is at an all time high, with less than 34% of people happy in their jobs. And only 13% of US workers hate their jobs, a new low. WOW! Although I can’t confirm this based on my own delightful work experience, Americans “hate” or “don’t like” their jobs more now than during any time in the past 20 years. And the misery isn’t limited to low-paying jobs for displaced autoworkers in Detroit. It spans all income levels, ages and geographic areas. What gives?

Other research found that 63% of employees don’t trust their senior leaders. And what’s happening globally? HBR said: “We surveyed approximately 9,800 full-time workers, ages 19 to 68, in Brazil, China, Germany, India, Mexico, Japan, the UK, and the U.S. Our most striking finding was that fewer than half of all surveyed professionals have a high amount of trust in their companies: Only 46% place “a great deal of trust” in their employers, and 15% report “very little” or “no trust at all.” (The rest, 39%, say they have “some trust,” which is not completely pessimistic but does want for enthusiasm.)”

More disturbing stats: “A survey from EY discovered something that should give managers at all levels pause: Fewer than half of employees participating in the survey have “a great deal of trust” in their boss (46 percent), their team (49 percent), or their employer (49 percent).”

Wow, now that is sobering data! I can understand lack of trust in senior leaders, as they’re typically blamed for everything by people with a helpless victim mentality. But co-workers? This is a new twist on workplace dysfunctionality. Just stop reading for a minute and look around the office at your co-workers. According to this study, half of them don’t trust you! As a project manager, I hope you haven’t done anything to deserve that, but we’ll talk about that later.

That Sucking Sound Is Your Company’s Profits Draining Away

Deloitte found in their annual “Ethics and Workplace Survey” (PDF) that lack of trust and lack of transparent communication are the reasons most commonly cited by employees planning to leave their jobs. Losing talented people is expensive, as anyone who’s lost a critical resource in the middle of a high-priority project can attest. But even people who stay contribute less when they are not “engaged“—the popular buzzword these days for employees who give a . . . er, give a hoot (in other words, enthusiastically care) about their work.

It seems obvious to me that disengaged employees would be less productive than highly motivated, engaged employees, but some people have felt the need to spend enormous amounts of money proving it. To anyone who has had an unpleasant work experience, this should seem a bit like researching the impact of lack of food on human health. But, hey, bring on the results. Gallup found that the ratio of engaged to disengaged employees was far greater in world-class organizations vs. average organizations, and it’s also clear that it’s worth over a half a trillion USD in lost productivity annually in the US alone. Other research found that organizations where 65% or more of employees are “engaged” outperformed those where less than 40% of employees were engaged, even in a bad economy. Based on stockholder returns (some financial analyst’s assessment of business success—certainly not the only measure of success), companies with high engagement had about 20% higher than average shareholder returns. Those with low engagement had returns 44% below the average. That’s a spread of over 60% in returns—nothing to sneeze at, especially if you purchase your own company’s stock.

Mass Exodus

Leaders who don’t turnaround their relationships with their employees better hope the economy doesn’t pick up, because when it does they’re going to have to deal with significantly increased turnover. According to Deloitte, over a third of employed Americans plan to look for a new job as the economy picks up. As I’ve alluded to before, this is mostly because they have lost trust in their company, feel they’ve been treated unfairly or unethically, or they’re unhappy with the lack of transparency in communication from their leadership. Naturally, the employees most likely to find another job are the top performers. And Right Management’s Employee Satisfaction Survey this past May found that more than half of employers had lost top performers over the past six months.

Don’t Worry! Happiness is in Fashion!

You may have heard about the country of Bhutan’s Gross National Happiness, or GNH as they call it, introduced in 1972 by King Jigme Singye Wangchuck. A sophisticated survey is used to measure the wellbeing of the Bhutanese people.

But the pursuit of happiness isn’t limited to this tiny Asian country nestled in the Himalayas near Bangladesh and Myanmar. Shawn Achor has made it famous with his “Happiness Advantage” book and TED Talk. Gallup recently published a book about the 5 essential elements of wellbeing. One of my colleagues, Dr. Gerald Wagner, is a fellow at the Gallup Institute, current Director of Bellevue University’s Wellbeing Institute, and the founder of In a recent email, Jerry shared with me some of the exciting work happening in the wellbeing movement:

The city of Victoria in Canada has undertaken a major effort to establish itself as a city known for its “happiness.” In 2008, Victoria happiness advocates, led by Michael Pennock, a creator of the Bhutan happiness survey, brought together a partnership to launch a Happiness City campaign. The Victoria partnership included the City Council, the University of Victoria, the United Way, the Victoria Foundation, the Vancouver Island Health Authority, and the provincial Ministry of Healthy Living and Sport. Victoria used the Bhutan happiness survey to gather subjective data from its residents. In October 2010, the city of Victoria conducted a second survey, and will do so on a bi-annual basis to attempt to ascertain the effectiveness of actions taken to improve wellbeing. Now the city of Seattle is organizing to implement a program similar to that in Victoria. They have a goal to include other cities as collaborators.

To me, this rising interest in wellbeing is something to be enormously thankful for. My dad didn’t expect to like his job—and he didn’t—but he had to go in and do it every day for over 40 years, like it or not. Today, even the harshest of managers should be compelled to change by the growing body of research linking productivity and profitability to increased employee engagement. Happy countries, happy cities—how about spreading happiness to the corporate world, where personal misery results in far more than just a drop in productivity and profits? At the very least let’s spread this happiness stuff to our projects. After all, if your project is done on time and on budget, meeting all product requirements, but your team loathes you, each other and your company—is that success? And will they do a fantastic job on the next project?

Just to be clear: I’m not suggesting making teammates happy at the expense of achieving project success. I’m suggesting teammate happiness as a critical ingredient to that success.

Who Will Make Employees Thankful for Their Jobs?

You. Yes, you. I have searched for over 20 years for someone who feels responsible for causing workplace dysfunctionality, and I have never found the culprit. I therefore conclude that many years ago aliens landed on Earth, set up sick, twisted, dysfunctional workplaces, then left. Or—and this is an even scarier possibility—WE are causing it!

That’s both the good news and the bad news. It’s a common human habit to blame others, but we’re often like the prisoner sitting in our jail cell jangling the keys in our hands. I’m sure there will be some protests and “yes, buts” from more than a few valued readers, but my years of experience convince me that the happiness of a project team is most directly impacted by their project leader. Deny it if you like. It’s a cold, hard fact that most people’s “happiness coefficient” (which I define as their salary divided by their blood pressure) is most strongly impacted by their direct manager. OK, some of the people on your project team don’t directly report to you, but if they interact with you a lot then you’re a primary influencer of their happiness level. And as such, you can significantly improve their experience of the workplace.

Project team members also dramatically influence each other, so please don’t wait to become a project manager to start spreading happiness in your path. It’s not an either/or choice. After many years of using only brute force (mostly out of habit), I have discovered that results can be achieved in a healthy and satisfying work environment, without riding your co-workers like rented mules. No one can give you what you deny yourself! Grasp this golden opportunity to own your power and use it for good, not evil.

Start with Building Trust

If you’re determined to increase the Employee Happiness Coefficient on your team you may be asking, “Where do I start?” My recommendation is to start with building trust because it has a huge impact of employee happiness. Let’s take a look at a few more results from the Maritz Research poll I referred to earlier. For example, over half of respondents (58 percent) with strong trust in their management were completely satisfied with their job, while only four percent with weak trust in management were completely satisfied with their job. Nearly two-thirds (63 percent) with strong trust in management would be happy to spend the rest of their career with their present company. This compares to only seven percent for those who have weak trust in management. Only three percent with weak management trust look forward to coming to work every day. For those with strong management trust, 50 percent responded they look forward to coming to work every day. Now that is something to be thankful for!

If you don’t have a clue how to build trust, start by making a list of all of the ways you can imagine to undermine or destroy trust—then reverse each item in the list. Here’s an example to get you started:

How to Undermine, Shred or Completely Destroy Trust in the Project Team Reversal » How to Create or Increase Trust in the Project Team
Take credit for the work of others. Come on, do I really need to fill this side in for you?! Give it a shot yourself.
Blame others for problems that occur, even if you contributed to them.
Set false deadlines to make sure there’s enough pressure on the team to keep them motivated.
Don’t waste time getting to know people as human beings. It’s business, not personal.
Throw your teammates under the bus at critical review meetings in front of senior executives.
Never breathe a word of appreciation for the good work of your people. They get a paycheck, for pity’s sake!
Don’t reveal anything of yourself personally, especially any vulnerabilities.
Blame and shame people publicly for mistakes, and berate them harshly so they’ll never do it again.
Never ask for ideas from your team. After all, you’re supposed to know everything. That’s why they put you in charge!
Agree to nonsensical schedules and unreasonable demands of executives and other stakeholders, no matter how ridiculous they are, then take your team on a death march to make it happen.
Don’t express any interest in people’s personal lives, or their cultures.
Never apologize when you hurt someone’s feelings or anger a co-worker, even if it is entirely your fault.
Keep information secret. This project is on a “need to know” basis, and they don’t need to know.
Don’t spend precious project time talking about the big picture or the overall purpose of the project. Just tell people what tasks to do.
Micro-manage your team to be sure they do everything just right.
Don’t worry about what happens to your team members after the project is over. It’s every man for himself.

Also, Patrick Lencioni’s The Five Dysfunctions of a Team has some terrific trust-building exercises in the appendix.

Call to Action

Are your teammates thankful for your presence on the project team? Are your most talented people inspired, enthusiastic and engaged in their work? Do you know how to find out? Don’t be satisfied merely to be a worker collecting a paycheck. Make a positive difference. Start today by building trust. I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that, as a project leader, every interaction either builds or undermines trust. Trust takes a long time to build and only a nanosecond to destroy, so start building trust in your most important relationships now. If you do, I’m guessing that a year from now you’ll be on the list of what your teammates are thankful for.

NOTE: For more information about water pollution, check out All About Water Filters.

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  1. Great insights Kimberly. I like your words “It seems obvious to me that disengaged employees would be less productive than highly motivated, engaged employees, but some people have felt the need to spend enormous amounts of money proving it.”

    Employee engagement is a very important factor to the success of any company. It refers to how connected an employee is to their job and the level of emotional commitment they have to the organization and its goals.

    You can check our guide also.

    Thanks again for the great piece.

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