Patrick Lencioni: Miserable Jobs

Patrick Lencioni interview
Patrick Lencioni

Patrick Lencioni is a consultant, bestselling author, and president of The Table Group, a consulting firm that specializes in executive team development and organizational health. He speaks and consults to organizations ranging from Southwest Airlines and Cisco Systems to the NFL, NBA, and the US Army.

Lencioni’s books include Silos, Politics, and Turf WarsDeath by Meeting, The Five Dysfunctions of a Team, and The Three Signs of a Miserable Job.

We asked Lencioni why the number of people who are unhappy with their jobs is at an all-time high, how that impacts business results, and what we can do about it.

Interview Summary: The Three Signs of a Miserable Job

  • Anonymity: People need to be understood and appreciated by someone in a position of authority
  • Irrelevance: Everyone needs to know their job matters to someone
  • Immeasurement: Employees need to be able to gauge their progress and level of contribution for themselves

Source: The Three Signs of a Miserable Job

McLaughlin: How prevalent is job misery and what is the impact of all that frustration?

Lencioni: Attend any kind of social gathering, anywhere in the country, and talk about work.  The stories and anecdotal evidence confirming job misery are overwhelming. Misery spans all income levels, ages, and geography. Studies have found that a majority of people hate their jobs. Some research suggests that this ailing workforce is costing employers more than $350 billion dollars in lost productivity.

People who are miserable at work become cynical and demoralized; they are drained of energy, enthusiasm, and self-esteem. That makes people less effective, both personally and professionally. Job misery produces the exact opposite of the profile we find in a successful organization, which is a fulfilled workforce with low turnover and high job satisfaction.

McLaughlin: What causes job misery? 

Lencioni: The primary source of job misery and the potential cure resides in the hands of one individual—the direct manager. There are countless studies confirming this, including by both Gallup and The Blanchard Companies.

Those studies have found that an employee’s relationship with his or her direct manager is the most important determinant to employee satisfaction. That relationship has more influence than pay, benefits, perks, work-life balance, and so on.

Even employees who are well paid, do interesting work, and have great autonomy, cannot feel fulfilled at work if their managers fail to provide them with what they need on a daily or weekly basis.

McLaughlin: Given the productivity problems associated with unhappy employees, why has it become accepted for work to be miserable for so many people?

Lencioni: That’s a good question. I don’t know if it is accepted. If you are an employee in a miserable job, I think you’ll always be focusing on what’s next—you’ll be counting the days until you can retire or find some other way out of the situation.

And I think that some companies do intend to alleviate misery for their employees, but go about it in the wrong way. Perks are nice, but they don’t make employees happy over the long term. People want to be known for who they are and to know how what they are doing matters.

Organizations should not accept that employees are going to be miserable. Again, this comes back to direct managers. As simple as The Three Signs are, the fact remains that few managers take a genuine interest in their people, remind them of the impact that their work has on others, and help them establish creative ways to measure and assess their performance.

Many managers think they are too busy. Of course, the real problem is that often managers see themselves primarily as individual contributors who happen to have direct reports. They fail to realize that the most important part of their jobs is to provide their people with what they need to be productive and fulfilled in their jobs.

Some managers forget what it was like when they were a little lower on the food chain. They lose sight of how it felt when a supervisor took an interest in them. Other managers may be embarrassed or afraid to try. They worry that their employees will see them as being disingenuous or manipulative, or that by taking an interest in their personal lives they will be stepping into inappropriate territory.

McLaughlin: What’s the most effective way to diagnose whether or not you are creating a miserable environment for employees?

Lencioni: If leaders really think about it, they’ll know whether their employees are miserable. We can tell when people are working hard and are enjoying their jobs. If you really don’t know, then it is worth asking them.

As leaders, we sometimes struggle with the simplest things. It’s not hard to say to an employee “How can I make your job better?” But for some reason we hesitate to do so. We can also assess if we’re managing against The Three Signs by asking three simple questions: Do I really know my employees? Do my employees know why their jobs matters? And, do they know how to measure their success?

McLaughlin: Any ideas on how consultants can help their clients understand that they may be creating a miserable work environment—without spoiling the client relationship?

Lencioni: I believe that as consultants we need to give our clients what I call “The Kind Truth.” If your clients need to hear that their work environment is less than stellar, then you need to tell them in the kindest way possible.

We’re consultants. That’s what we do. It may feel like you will risk losing the client but, in reality, I think it will make your relationship with your client stronger.

McLaughlin: Of the signs of a miserable job, is one more common than the others?

Lencioni: I think that anonymity is probably the most common. I think that as a culture we are taught that “work and home are separate.” So we don’t always feel comfortable asking questions that seem somewhat personal.

McLaughlin: Are there specific organizations that could serve as role models for making sure that jobs are not miserable?

Lencioni: Well, I think that Southwest Airlines does an amazing job at making their employees happy. Southwest’s philosophy on management is simple. They do their best to live by the Golden Rule and “treat people the way you would want to be treated.” I believe that The Three Signs are really about treating people well.

A couple of other companies that put a lot of thought into how they manage their people are Chick-Fil-A and In-and-Out Restaurants.

McLaughlin: If you could give a manager one piece of advice about creating a better workplace, what would it be?

Lencioni: Take a genuine interest in your employees. Ask them about their lives and what matters to them. And remember that, as a manager, your ability to affect your people’s lives is huge.

McLaughlin: Thanks for your time.

Find out more about Patrick Lencioni, his books, and services at

You might also be interested in our interviews, Patrick Lencioni: The Dysfunctions of a Team and Patrick Lencioni: Getting Naked with Clients.

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