5 Reasons Your Company is a Lousy Place to Work

Reason No. 1: Your Leadership Doesn’t Care

“Why Do I Hate My Job?”

Whenever people attend a cocktail party, invariably someone in the room will have an occupation that others will solicit for some (free) advice. Medical doctors are asked “Does this mole look cancerous to you?” Car mechanics are queried whether the “chunka-chunka” sound the engine makes means a new transmission is needed. And as an industrial/organizational psychologist, I get interrogated about “Why is my company such a lousy place to work? What do I hate working there?”

There can be any number of specific reasons why one’s work experience is lacking awesomeness. However, for the sake of these cocktail conversations, I’ve distilled the reasons into five broad buckets that I will be discussing over several articles.

Many of the worst companies I have come across are that way because leadership does not show a genuine interest in its people (and sometimes in the success of the business itself). This comes out in cocktail chatter with complaints about leadership not understanding what people do day-to-day, making seemingly random changes to strategy and structure , treating employees as invaluable, being overly disruptive, and giving off a vibe that they’re arrogant and do not listen to its people.

Your Employees Are On Their Own

Kenexa’s WorldNorms database indicates that only 60 percent of employees feel their management shows genuine interest in their well-being, and only 51 percent feel senior leadership actively demonstrates how important their employees are to the success of the company. What is more telling is that responses indicate employees just don’t know if their leaders are interested in them or not. This suggests that a large proportion of company leaders are not being as visible and as connected as they should be. And that disconnection has a direct impact on how employees perceive the company and their work experience.

Stay Visible and Listen Like You Mean It

The quick fix here is for leadership to come down from the mountain and make an effort to really listen to their people at all levels and take that into consideration when making decision. Sincerity in leaders is an immensely powerful tool. When people feel their leaders are sincere, they are more likely to trust those leaders, support their vision and strategy and exert greater effort to help achieve organization goals.

Go Beyond “What” and Tell Them “Why”

Another way for leaders to connect with employees is to take the extra time and effort to not just tell their people the “what”, but take time to explain the “why” behind decisions and changes. One of the biggest reasons why people resist change is that they are not given an explanation as to why it is important. Taking time for particularly critical changes also buys some trust that will help people go along with smaller changes without a lot of elaboration. When this effort isn’t taken, well, that’s when we hear a lot griping about how inconsiderate leaders are, and how the change isn’t good for the company, and how it’s bad to work there.

Caring Leadership Impacts Engagement

It isn’t rocket science—visibility, candor and a little humbleness can go a long way to show leadership does indeed care, which in turn, makes the organization feel like a much better place to work. This is true at all levels of the organization. Research shows people who have more frequent contact and more meaningful (sincere) discussions with their managers are much more engaged than those who do not, are more likely to stay, more likely to be more aligned to strategic goals and more likely to meet performance goals. And all it takes is a short conversation.

Reason No. 2: The People You Work with Don’t Care

Remember that team project you did in high school, but everyone else on the team slacked off and made it impossible to get anything done? Remember how fun that was?!? When working with a team of people who aren’t engaged in what you are trying to accomplish, it becomes draining. Whether it is the team you lead, your managers or your peers, when your own focus and drive is not matched to some degree by those around you, it feels defeating.

Get Everyone on the Same Page

You can always look for another team or manager, but that’s not always necessary. Misalignment of expectations is a good place to start. If you and your manager, or team, aren’t on the same page, take a step back to find out why. It could be that you are channeling your energies into the wrong thing. Or that people aren’t sure where you are headed and are waiting for you to bring them up to speed and tell them how to support you. If you’re a manager, team effectiveness can be enhanced by encouraging these conversations as well helping define roles and holding people accountable to them (and recognizing the heck out of the behaviors that are in line with what you want to see).

Establish Trust Within the Team

Another reason for this may come from a sense that you don’t have an open relationship with those you work with – and by open relationship I mean in terms of trust and communication (and not something related to key parties of the 1970s). When people can’t feel free to be themselves with their teams, can’t express ideas openly without fear they will be shot down or feel that others are out to sabotage or misappropriate their ideas, it won’t be a fun environment.

 

 As a team member or as a manager, it is always a good idea to understand where the lack of trust is coming from and how it might be (re)built. In many cases, it stems back to how the team manages conflict (or more likely not manage conflict). In other cases it comes from people failing to recognize one another as individuals (demonizing people for whatever reason).

Talk It Out

Usually the best “cure” is to just talk it out. Sounds simple, but that first step is often the most challenging, which is why the dysfunctional process takes hold over the more functional one – it just seems easier. Except it is like putting off calling an old friend. You feel guilty about not calling, so you avoid calling, and then you feel even more guilty. Once you actually make the call, the awkwardness falls away. This is also true in addressing miscommunications, conflict or lack of trust on a team. It has to start with the first conversation, and then you have to work to keep those conversations open.

Understand Situations

We are wired with a decision making heuristic known as “fundamental attribution error,” which means our natural inclination is to attribute behaviors (especially negative behaviors) of others to their personality, whereas our own behaviors may be shaped by the environment. In other words, you came to work late because traffic was bad. Your coworkers were late because they’re lazy. If you can focus not on the personality of your team, but come to understand their situation, you can probably get more people on the same page. Someone may be a jerk because they are really stressed and don’t feel any one will support them. You haven’t realized how much work they have, and perhaps they haven’t realized that all they had to do was ask for support.

Align and Communicate

So your team might be lousy, but ask yourself how you can make the most of it. Are you aligned with teammates? Do you have the same goals? Are you being open and communicating freely? Remember, for all the negative things you are thinking of others, they are probably thinking negatively of you.

Reason No. 3: Real Action Doesn’t Happen

Driving in Neutral

How are some companies such lousy places to work? Ahhh… let me (continue to) count the ways. So far we talked about leadership and teams not caring.

Sometimes it seems everyone is so busy getting things done, that at the end of the day, nothing is getting done. Be it pushing papers (real or virtual) around or shuffling deck chairs, activity isn’t the same as action. When activity doesn’t result in meaningful movement or feel like it contributes to the success of the company, it ends up being disengaging and demotivating to people. It is especially painful when the useless activity is getting in the way of your needs. You just feel stuck and nothing moves forward.

Understand the Demotivation

The biggest obstacle to action is that inaction often provides a more immediate and certain reward. Consider the challenge that some companies have in getting people to use a new process or software program, but find that people avoid it or revert to old processes instead. They sometimes just keep training people and trying to cajole them (or threaten) as if that is the solution. The reality is that the old way is just more rewarding to keep doing things the old way. It is faster to people, more familiar, and they are certain they can the job done. Compared to the new way which requires more time to learn and figuring out, and uncertain if things can get done. Which is more appealing?

Show Them the Honey!

To bust inaction you have make the consequences of change and action more appealing and apparent than what currently is. Even if you aren’t in a position of power, you can sometimes evoke action by reinforcing small baby steps along the way. Look at what is motivating people away from the change. Counter that by providing more reinforcements for the desired change – that includes make the consequences for adopting the change more positive, more immediate, and more certain.

Reward the Right Action

At a more systemic level, action is about reinforcement, and in organizations that means we’re talking about performance management. What is being rewarded and recognized?

Many companies and managers practice the folly of rewarding A while hoping for B (you can find the classic Steven Kerr article on this here). I see this all the time in companies that spend a lot of money on training people to do something differently (B), but when they get back on the job their performance management system hasn’t changed, and people are still being reinforced for the same old things (A). If you want help with meeting customer needs, but the company is only rewarding people who get their paperwork in, guess what the focus is going to be on. Change the reinforcements (i.e., performance management goals), and you’ll get the actions you need.

Be Aggressive. Be Be Aggressive.

Another enabler of inaction is that companies often reward compliance to the point that people don’t make their own decisions. As a result, people stay inside the box, only doing what is required and not committed to real action or change.

Companies that feel vibrant and have a lot of real action going on are those that encourage people to go and do and to take reasonable risks. Popular in these companies is the mentality that is better to ask forgiveness for having done something, then to wait for permission for something and never doing it. People are truly empowered and enabled (as opposed to being burdened and restricted). These are high performance cultures – they are about doing and getting feedback to do better. The result is a lot of energy, focus, and action.

So consider for what behaviors your company is rewarding your employees—inaction, reaction, or real action. If it is the latter, I’m confident you probably enjoy your job a lot more than those responding to the former.

Reason No. 4: Everyone is Afraid to Try Something New

Trepidation

Innovation has been heralded as the key to business success. Yet it is hard to think how innovation is going to lead the way when everyone is afraid to try something new. The “same old same old” may be comforting, but it is also boring, and boring stinks.

Get Over Your Fear of Change

One of the biggest obstacles to real change is fear. As much as people might like the idea of something new or different, they often hold onto the devil they know over the one they don’t. Fear is amazingly powerful, and yet often flimsy. It is like a huge cardboard cut-out of a monster. Faced head on it looks terrifying, and yet if you dare to push it, you realize it is nothing. The best way to adapt to change is to face the fear, poke holes in it, and make people realize it is something to get excited about.

For yourself, make sure you are recognizing your resistance to change or why others around you are resistant. What would make you feel more at ease? Often change brings a lot of unpredictability, but some studies have shown that when people are more likely to accept change or innovations is when they reframe the change as a choice. Focus on what the risks of not changing and on the gains of changing. Another element of fear is lack of control. So another way to help you and others get over the fear is to focus on what you can control over what you can’t (e.g., the new systems are coming in – I can be the first to get trained on it).

 

Find Your Early Adopters

If your culture as a whole is change adverse, take on the role of the revolutionary (or cowboy if you prefer to wear spurs and a hat). This means finding ways to excite people about new ideas (and not necessarily your own ideas). Don’t feel you have to change everyone and everything at once. Find the early adopters who can help you along, and know who the real change agents are in your company. Look around for people who do seem to get things done and connect to them (Malcolm Gladwell talks about the “Law of the Few” in his book, The Tipping Point. These are the people you should be looking for – you can see them summarized here in Wikipedia, but if you haven’t read the book, it is a very worthwhile read).

Opt for Slow and Steady Change When You Can

People sometimes get impatient with change and give up too soon. Research has indicated that incremental change tends to be more successful (in long term) than radical changes because you can build support, breed trust and celebrate small wins along the way (thus reinforcing change as it happens rather than imposing it). Early Adopters can help make these small wins happen and guide things along.

Another trick with incremental change, when possible, is that unwittingly, as you go along, you’re building familiarity with the new, and that helps overcome the fears that people have of the unknown. For lack of a less grotesque metaphor, it is the “frog in the boiling pot of water” effect – by slowly making changes (turning the heat up), the full change will be in place before people have the opportunity to reject it (poor frogs).

Make the Case for Change

If people can’t see the value or purpose or goal behind adopting something new (or being asked to come up with a new way to do things), it is going to be a much tougher battle to promote the change or garner their ideas. The biggest failure of large scale change and small is not the value of the change itself (in most cases it will make things better), or the programs/technology (they are often well-designed and chosen). It is the lack of good communication supporting the purpose of the change.

In reality, there are a large number of factors that explain why people don’t adopt change or are afraid to contribute to change. These are just a few key ones. But at the end of the day, it is how well people feel prepared for change. No one likes feeling cornered or forced into something – so the less change feels abrupt, coercive, or random, the more likely you’ll create support for change. And if you find yourself the resister of change, go back and get the details you need to help move it forward.

In the next part of this article, we’ll close out the major reasons behind lousy companies with a discussion around the Lack of Vision. Also, check out my other two blogs on how leadership and teams not caring can contribute to a lousy workplace.

 

The Lack of Vision

The fifth potential reason why your company might be a sucky place to work is that it lacks vision. Without a vision that everyone can get excited about, people around you at work are aimless and perhaps there is no clear reason for why you should getting out of bed in the morning and go to work. O.k., maybe that is taking it a bit too far, but the reality is organizations that are highly engaging and exciting, have very strong, emotional visions. When I talk to people who work in these organizations, invariably the first thing they will talk about is its mission or vision – their reason for being – and how it inspires them. Without vision, you are without inspiration, without substance to what your people do every day.

Make Your Vision Emotional and Motivating

Looking across a number of companies in different industries, sizes, and geographies, one of the most consistent drivers of engagement is leadership providing a motivating vision of the future. In low engaging (read: lame) companies, you often find vision lacking, and usually when asked what guidance the leadership is providing, it is often very tactical (if any guidance is offered at all). In other words, they talk about what needs to be done rather than given a compelling reason to do it.

Reason No. 5: The Lack of Vision

 Senior leaders aren’t particularly great at providing a motivating vision of the future – according to Kenexa’s WorldNorms database about 59% of employees feel they do. More telling, however, is to see the impact of this vision on engagement. For example, for a large global financial services company, among those employees who felt leaders were providing a motivating vision of the future, almost 83% were engaged, in contrast to those who didn’t feel leaders providing this vision that were only 27% engaged. This pattern is similar across any number of industries and geographies. When leaders are passionate about the company, their people are much more likely to be passionate about the company.

Unfortunately, leaders often forget that vision is emotional and should be something everyone at every level can relate. Leaders who do a good job conveying vision create an alignment across their company that puts everyone on the same page. They break away from talking in terms of the business (X% increase in sales) and talk in terms of people and passion (e.g., one financial organization serving farmers talks about “Helping farmers feed the world”). Vision can help lead the company though tough times and inspire it to new heights in good times. If you feel your company is aimless or don’t feel your work has purpose, it could be due to lack of vision.

Connect Locally

Although senior leaders and executives have a responsibility for creating a compelling vision, that doesn’t mean managers and employees are off the hook. It is just as important for those receiving the motivating message to make it more meaningful at their level of the organization and to their jobs. When this connection is made, the vision can take life – it becomes real. When it isn’t made, it begins to feel hollow, or that leadership is talking about someone else. Feeling excluding from something seemingly cool and exciting to others, makes one less connected and less likely to contribute.

Managers have a responsibility to help distill leadership communication and vision into relevance. In other words, how do these words of passion come into play in what the department or team is doing every day. Managers need to be just as inspirational, and even though they may talk about things from a tactical perspective, they still need to bring in vision and passion and emotion. Employees need to take it one step further – how can I bring this to life? What can I do?

Listen. Seriously.

And if it all sounds like “yadda yadda yadda” to you – step back and make sure you really are listening. In a world inundated with communication and messaging, we sometimes numb ourselves from hearing the more relevant, more significant messages.

Beyond the Five Reasons…remember it doesn’t have to be this way Although these are some of the broadest buckets that help me through the cocktail chatter around why some people hate where they work, this is by far not inclusive, nor is it to be defeating. If you recognize your company or work experience in some of this, the good news is that most businesses can recover from these dysfunctions—even if it is just at a local level. It does require some commitment and follow through to make it happen (dysfunctions have a nasty way of being entrenched). Improved clarity and consistency, enhanced visibility, and more personal connections can create substantial progress in moving your company from “suckiness” to “awesomeness.”

 

Jeffrey A. Jolton, Ph.D

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Business, HR, Leadership