Fixing the ‘I Hate Work’ Blues

Many employees report they are overworked and not engaged—a recent New York Times article on the phenomenon was titled, "Why You Hate Work." The problem, says Bill George, is that the way we design work stifles engagement. Here's the fix.
by Bill George

The New York Times ran a troubling story, "Why You Hate Work," in last week's "Sunday Review." The article indicated that employees work too hard and find little meaning from their work. The anecdotes we all hear about this topic are reinforced by the Gallup Poll, which shows that only 30 percent of employees are engaged in their work.

The issues raised are ones I have worked on for many years. With the drive for higher productivity in the workplace, there is little doubt that people are putting in longer hours than they did two or three decades ago. In part, this drive comes from never-ending, short-term pressures of the stock market. An even greater factor is the global nature of competition today, which pits American organizations directly against counterparts in Asia, where work days are long and onerous.

The much greater issue raised, however, is that many workers do not find meaning in their work. A shockingly low 25 percent of employees feel connection to their company's mission. (Contrast that to the 84 percent of Medtronic employees who feel aligned with the company's mission.) In my experience, if employees don't feel a genuine passion for their work and believe that it makes a difference, engagement drops off dramatically. When engagement falls, so does productivity.

Message Not Being Heard

Many senior executives have been focused on building mission-driven organizations for the last decade. The CEOs I know are fully committed to getting everyone focused on mission through regular engagement with employees—much more so than CEOs in my generation. So if CEOs are focused on the mission, why aren't these messages getting through to employees?

“Instead of managers who control, we need leaders who inspire”

I believe the answer lies in the highly bureaucratic, multilayered organizations that companies are using to execute their plans. There is so much pressure to realize short-term results that middle managers are consumed by making this month's numbers rather than building teams that focus on achieving their company's mission. Innovating under intense operational pressure is nearly impossible.

In addition, the heavy burden of compliance with government regulations and internal corporate requirements is taking a toll on people, limiting their creativity, and causing them to be risk-averse. In this environment, desired qualities like empowerment, engagement, and innovation are subordinated to control aspects. No wonder people aren't engaged and having fun!

Finally, we have lost sight of the importance of first-line employees—the people actually doing the work—and have given all the power to middle management. We have driven down compensation for first-line employees, increased their hours, and taken away their freedom to act with myriad control mechanisms. When it comes to layoffs, it is the first-line people who get laid off, not the middle managers, as senior leaders protect the people closest to themselves.

What's the solution to this dilemma? I believe we need to restructure large organizations by giving much more responsibility and authority to first-line workers and paying them accordingly—with appropriate performance incentives. We need to trust employees, not control them, by empowering them to carry out the company's mission on behalf of customers. They should be given full responsibility for performance, quality, achievement of goals, and compliance with company standards.

To realize this change, organizational structures need to change. Dramatically. For starters, companies have far too many layers of managers. The best way to address this is to widen the span of control for everyone between the CEO and first-line employees. Instead of six to 12 direct reports, all managers should have 15 to 20 people reporting to them. For many managers, this violates traditional management principles, but it also dramatically reduces the number of layers between the CEO and first-line staff. I know many extremely effective executives, including Mayo Clinic CEO John Noseworthy and Medtronic CEO Omar Ishrak, who have more than 18 direct reports and handle the load extremely well. It just requires ensuring that all your direct reports are competent to do their roles and that you use a superb system of delegation, so that you're not over-managing subordinates.

Required: Leaders Who Inspire

Next, the role of middle management requires fundamental changes. Instead of managers who control, we need leaders who inspire in these roles. They should work alongside their employees, doing more than their fair share of the most challenging aspects of the work. Their leadership role is to champion the company's mission and values, and to challenge others to meet higher standards on behalf of their customers. It is the job of these leaders to facilitate the work of the people they lead by making their jobs easier, and removing bureaucratic impediments and other obstacles. Middle managers who cannot make this shift may have to move on to new roles elsewhere. All of these actions make these leaders more like partners and coaches than bosses and controllers in the traditional sense.

Finally, the most senior executives in the organization should be engaged every day with the first-line: working with them in the marketplace and in customer meetings; roaming around the labs, quizzing innovators, scientists and engineers about their latest ideas; visiting production facilities and service centers to check on quality and customer support. That means far less time holding lengthy business reviews in their conference rooms or having 1:1 meetings in their offices. Executives who are fully engaged with first-line employees every day will have a much better sense of how their businesses are running, and their presence will be highly motivating and even inspiring.

As a result of these changes, the employees will be more engaged and more productive, overhead costs will drop dramatically, and customers will report a much higher level of responsiveness. The executives will make better informed, more thoughtful decisions about the business because they are so much closer to their markets and the people doing the work.

Bill George is professor of management practice at Harvard Business School, former chairman and chief executive of Medtronic, and author of True North, a book about authentic leadership. He serves on the boards of ExxonMobil, Goldman Sachs, and the Mayo Clinic.

    • Grace Kahng
    • CEO, Santoki Productions
    I see the stranglehold on productivity and the human spirit that these "middle managers" have on their first line employees on a daily basis.

    From chain restaurants where all the "first line" employees are female--working as waitresses and expedited to also bus tables (those jobs were eliminated) while the male managers walk around doing NOTHING but criticizing and micro managing the 54 year old waitress/busser/janitor for the "way" she was sweeping the tables.

    And ALL these middle managers are rewarded for basically making first line employees lives miserable.

    The question is-----are CEOS bold enough to get rid of the layers?

    Seems to me that those empowered to make change in a company are often the source of the problem. It means shedding layers of people who are their peers and fellow tribesman.
    • Krista
    I agree with your post but who is going to admit to their boss they hate work? The polls show that but I think management thinks "that's not us" and so doesn't take action.
    • eliza
    Having worked in biotech for many years, it was NOT motivating to have to attend all day - ALL STAFF Retreats or meetings that are nothing more than a lot of empty hoopla... where the CEO is a 'rock star' and we all wave and cheer and 'commit' to the 'mission'.
    Motivate me = pay me more!
    • Varun
    One way to engage first-line workers is to examine them by surveying - do you know your leader? How well do you know and in what way? That way you can evaluate how an employee is connected to an organization's vision and its prime drivers - the leaders. The other half of the story is to eventually find a fix.
    • Sherry Buffington
    • CEO, Consultant and Trainer, Star Performance Systems
    Thank you for a great article and truly important research. We are at the edge of a huge power shift which will require a whole new approach to leadership and the sooner leaders learn and begin applying the new model to workplaces, the healthier businesses and the economy will become.

    Regarding leaders who inspire, I recently completed a whitepaper based on research into the core attributes of truly great leaders - those who fit the "Level 5" criteria presented in Jim Collins' book Good to Great. Using an assessment that measures natural attributes, development levels, reactionary patterns and function-specific emotional intelligence in conjunction with interviews, our research team uncovered specific factors that result in inspired leadership. The leader profile which emerged from this study is very different than that of most leaders and very different than what most organizations believe make great leaders and look for. Among the key factors were healthy development of the feeling function (which many organizations discourage) and infinite patience with people interestingly coupled with slight impatience for getting things done. In exploring this seemingly incongruent pairing, we discovered that great leaders are not just people-centric, they are peop
    le-impassioned. They genuinely care about their people and get to know them at a far deeper level than the average leader. This deeper awareness allows these leaders to intrinsically inspire and motivate their people which results in self-sustaining drive. Self-driven employees free up tons of time and energy giving leaders the space to become even greater.

    The whitepaper can be downloaded free at
    • Bill George
    • Professor, Harvard Business School
    Sherry, Thank you for sharing your comments. The findings from your research are entirely consistent with my research and also my personal observations of my leaders. I hope that your work will help "move the needle" toward leaders who are well grounded psychologically and willing to share their feelings - to be patient when appropriate (something I never have been) and impatient when necessary. Bill
    • Andy
    • COO, Video Symphony
    In other news, it was found that most people actually enjoy their work life more than they enjoy their home life. They may also get some pleasure in complaining about work. That's not to say that there aren't awful places to work, but the reality is that there really is no crisis of people hating their jobs.
    • Isabel Filippini
    the middle management behauviour is highly influence by the way they are measured and by the top management behauviour. Micromanagement, the attrition, leaders who move frequently from one position to another thereby focusing on short term results, and the internal driven focus to survive on the power positions of the company is what derails good leadership. On your proposal to increase the span of control I agree that this will be benefitial for the middle management, however I would keep actual span of control between employee and first line managers in order to really facilitate the work of the team.
    • Kapil Kumar Sopory
    • Company Secretary, SMEC (India) Private Limitede
    There is a fallacy in a generic statement that staff productivity is low in most of the corporates and others. It is so because there is no perfect formula to measure the level of productivity. there is a vast difference between qualitative and routine work. Whereas a worker at the shop floor completes his duty hours and is off thereafter, it is not easy to determine what was his real performance during the day. Did he simply pass the day or was he also aware of what was expected of him and in fact did that ? Simply being in the office does not necessarily imply good productivity .
    • uma arora
    • Chief facilitator and CEO, Idam Learning
    Good article and great research.
    i am not sure of its applicability globally. Where was this research done? I find good managers and bad managers in senior management as well as middle management. In some cases, an organisation is saved because they have a good set of middle managers who inspire. The critical piece is do our managers/leaders have learning agility? Do they understand the aspirations and motivations of the young generation?
    • Bob
    • Director, Former Global Integrated Energy Companies
    Bill reiterates points taken across the past 30 years of management change. Layers HAVE been removed, but companies opt for inexperienced (less costly?) middle managers with no front line supervisory experience. It's the front line supervisor (FLS) - the person with the most direct contact to the "first line" employees - who ultimately engages and inspires...and increases productivity, competitiveness, ROI and EPS.

    Unfortunately, being a great FLS is not only a matter of education, or experience, it's more a matter of innate ability that must be recognized and allowed to flourish. I've seen more poorly promoted front line managers destroy morale and productivity, than good ones who help create and insure that the daily employee experience remains exciting and engaging.

    Even more unfortunately, it's the C-Suite that is most at fault, for how a CEO and his/her directs behave on a daily basis is instrumental in engaging productivity (hence earnings). The brand experience starts at the top...and brand experience is as important (maybe MORE important) inside a company, as outside.
    • Leonard
    • Sales VP
    I agree with just about all you write here, Bill. I think all the arguments here have missed something, however. The blame is put (usually correctly) on top and middle managers for essentially disenfranchising their front-line employees. I think the FL workers also have a responsibility to shout out when they see something not working, or when they see opportunities missed, or when they see a colleague getting screwed by bureaucracy. If these voices are forever quiet, the supervisors up the chain will have little incentive to act on their behalf. Yes, the system may be stacked against you, but you shouldn't give up doing what is right! (Or be willing to take your talents to the competition--the ultimate middle finger move.)
    • Vibhuti Jha
    • President, Human Potential Project
    Today's workplace suffers from a problem what we call the modern indentured servitude and the employees are stuck with overwhelm in their workplace. These two makes "work" a very unexciting proposition. We have virtually rented out ourselves for a rent , called wages, and the mood is negative or degenerative. The leadership role therefore is all about managing the mood of the enterprise and it's people and create a superior architecture for the future. Unless the leadership ventures out to identify that part of their role , employees will not be happy going to work.

    I will be happy to share our two of many white papers on Moods and Leadership.
    • meghana ahuja
    • researcher
    I am a researcher in marketing managment and teach business studies to class 12 and 11 at a local icse board school in india and have for the past fourteen years been teaching at schools and colleges intermitttently.

    This word 'engagement' is fascinating to me as a teacher because that's what i have been trying to do all this time; to get my wards to be involved, to be engaged in and with what they are doing; work or study. As a person I myself have always believed in the full-minded devotion to one's day's tasks to achieve results and utilise resources optimally. if we can afford to teach the youngsters the power to innovate over all pressing deadlines, they simply wont have to dodge any but will comfortably maneuver their careers.
    • Aim
    Hate your work? Go get another job! Everything has a price, and in most cases it is factored in the compensation packages.
    • Chris Lyons, CPA
    • Project Lead, Syntax Core Business Services, Inc.
    This great article triggers other thoughts that dig deeper into the problems with management in different industry environments. For example, my experiences in public accounting compared to experiences in charitable asset management and academia contrast greatly in magnitude. My experiences demonstrate that public accounting leaders are lacking much more greatly in emotional intelligence, communication skills, long-range planning and additionally full of knee jerk reactions based on some short-term issue. A key illustration to this point is the well- known fact of high turn-over in public accounting- in a large part from letting people go. The leaders will say that the person is not cut out for public accounting but the reality is that the leaders are not cut out to develop employees and build meaningful long-term relationships. The only way the public accounting environment in whole can change in regards to its not so great reputatio
    n of treating people is to face the cold hard truth of the leaderships general lack of intepersonal skills, and then change can take place.
    • Erica
    • Senior Teller, BB&T
    Great article and I agree that upper management is out of touch with whats going on down in the trenches. Not only are we dealing with cut backs in help and hours, immediate management is trying to micro manage everything down to our emotions, which is just disgusting.
    • Michael Cavanaugh Blaes
    • Founder, Blaes Corporate Consulting
    My observation is that the fundamental issue is finding meaning in work. In my work as a compliance officer at two organizations, one a large domestic bank and another a large foreign conglomerate I learned that the most important part of a compliance program is providing folks with the message that what they do matters. At IMI we spent approximately 20% of the compliance training outlining the amazing things being done at IMI and about 25% of the time allowing folks to tell their own compliance stories. The point: If people sincerely believe that they're part of something bigger than them they will be loathe to put it at risk. Then - if you give them the tools to spot issues, they'll take it from there. Believing in the company and what it does is the greatest motivator in a leader's quiver.
    • Jo
    • AD
    The lack of trained managers is also an issue, throughout many companies, managers are simply people who have done the job for a long time and moved up the chain, the bad habits they have formed throughout the years continue ever onwards and are forced upon newer teams below them. These sorts of managers also tend to apply a sticking plaster to a problem, they create needless extra processes to re-inforce a weak point, instead of looking at the overall issue and re-engineering. This leaves their teams with endless hours of admin, keeping them away from there front line jobs and reducing productivity.
    • Ajeet Tiwari
    • Process Trainer,
    The ideas reflected in this article are very practical and feasible to hang on. Thanks a lot for writing such article which empower the population who does all the work and collide with blame.