Employee satisfaction is low; what you can do about it

Are your employees happy? It may seem like an odd question to ponder in an age when "Just be thankful you have a job!" is the popular sentiment. Yet, the most recent survey by the Conference Board research group indicates that leaders would do well to take a long look at the satisfaction levels of the men and women who work for them. It suggests that only 45 percent of Americans are satisfied with their work – an all-time low since the study was established in 1987. And according to Dave Anderson, unhappiness on the job has some very real consequences.


"It is impossible to create a healthy company with unhealthy employees," says Anderson, author of How to Run Your Business by THE BOOK: A Biblical Blueprint to Bless Your Business (Wiley, 2009, ISBN: 978-0-4704964-2-8, $24.95). "And make no mistake: Unhappy employees are unhealthy employees – psychologically, emotionally, and sometimes even physically. Their misery infects everything they do. And it certainly prevents them from working at top capacity."


According to the Associated Press article that reported the Conference Board survey results, low job satisfaction can squelch innovation and productivity. It can also inhibit the willingness of older employees to share their knowledge with younger counterparts.


The recession, of course, is the most visible and obvious culprit. Specifically, though, the AP article cites anemic wage growth, rising health insurance costs that cut into take-home pay, and uninteresting work as major causes of employee unhappiness. While Anderson acknowledges that these factors play a role, he believes the root cause is something more insidious: poor leadership.


"It's a leader's job to inspire and motivate workers," he notes. "When employees can see a clear picture of where they want to go and spark their passion for getting there, money worries recede into the background. As the company becomes more profitable, they can even be eliminated. And helping employees find a sense of meaning certainly nullifies the 'uninteresting work' problem."


So how, exactly, are leaders falling down on the job? Anderson reveals three major bad habits many of us have fallen into since the downturn started:

BAD HABIT #1: Hiding out and hunkering down. As the recession got into full swing, many leaders became less visible and accessible, descending into a "bunker mentality" mode as they wait for the bad news to stop and for things to turn around. As a result, they started spending more time with paperwork than people-work, committing the sin of "over-managing" and "under-leading."

"This saps momentum and morale from the workforce," says Anderson. "In hard times, leaders should be more visible, not less."

BAD HABIT #2: Wearing your emotions on your sleeve. Are you having trouble publicly controlling your attitude and emotions? If so, you're not alone. Many leaders in today's workplace have never had to lead during a genuine crisis and they don't know how to handle it. They looked good when they had economic winds at their backs, but the downturn has revealed their weaknesses. They're negative, frustrated, and worried – and that infects their culture with the same.

"Many of these leadership amateurs mistook a bull market for brains and greatly overestimated their abilities during robust economic periods," says Anderson. "They're drained and depressed, so they drain and depress their people as a result. In addition, they're putting in extra hours to make up for shorter staffs, bringing their lives out of balance and creating more stress for them at work and at home."

BAD HABIT #3: Sinking into passivity as you wait for rescue. Many leaders have simply stopped leading. Why? Because they're waiting: for better news, for things to turn around, for the government to do something. Their passivity is paralyzing their culture and prolonging the crisis for their organization. Their people are desperately looking for leadership and become depressed and dissatisfied with their jobs when there is none.

"Unfortunately, many leaders have forgotten that in times of uncertainty, people long to be led – and they step up and respond resiliently to strong leadership," notes Anderson. "When they don't see strong leadership, they mentally check out of their jobs and begin going through the motions."

These bad habits can take over before you even realize you've fallen into them, says Anderson. But the good news is you can turn things around.


"Basically, leaders need to step up and begin leading again," he says. "It's that simple. You need to rise above your fear and focus more on inside decisions than on outside conditions. And you need to search inside yourself and discover that you care enough about your people to inspire and positively impact them, day in and day out."


An Employee Happiness Revival: Five Ways Leaders Can Help Put the Spring Back into Their Workers' Steps

By Dave Anderson, author of How to Run Your Business by THE BOOK: A Biblical Blueprint to Bless Your Business (Wiley, 2009, ISBN: 978-0-4704964-2-8, $24.95).

Redefine the vision for your company in 2010. Get clear about where you're going and enroll others in the campaign. It's time for leaders to pull those dreams out of the mothballs and create a new and bold vision for their organization. They should also redefine performance and behavioral expectations (core values) for their people. These aspects of business are often watered down or forgotten about completely during a downturn. But the fact is, it motivates people to know where they're going and what is expected of them along the way – as well as what's in it for them when they reach the destination.

"Without clarity of vision, core values, and performance expectations, you have chaos in the cubicles as people run on their own agendas – and unwittingly work against one another – since the leader failed to create a common vision that unites the team," says Anderson. "Great leaders don't allow people to live in gray areas because they know that it is tough to be aggressive and confused at the same time. Get clear about where you're going and what you want! There are plenty of things you can delegate as a leader, but vision and clarity for your organization isn't one of them."

Stop micromanaging. The tendency during a downturn is to begin nitpicking and second-guessing your people, making every decision and coming up with every idea yourself. This sort of micromanagement saps the energy and morale from your team. You treat people like children and then wonder why they act like children! Increase the latitude and discretion of your best people and watch their motivation and creativity levels soar!

Celebrate singles. Business leaders love to celebrate the homeruns in their business. But in a downturn, there are fewer "big hits" to cheer, and much time can elapse between such occasions. This lack of positive reinforcement can lull a culture to sleep. Begin looking for the "little" things that people do right and that go right and celebrate those. Reinforce them publicly, quickly, and loudly! This attitude of "good finding" begins to shift the culture in a positive direction, as it builds up people and starts a positive chain reaction throughout your organization. Remember: Reinforced people tend to reinforce other people.   

Lead from the front. Get out of your office and reengage with your people and customers. Become more visible, accessible, instructional, and motivational and eventually you'll become unstoppable. Ask more questions and give fewer answers. Questions engage employees and show that you value them.

Some leaders have gotten so dazed by data and numbed by numbers that they've lost touch with their people, Anderson points out. They're sitting in their offices collecting calluses on their backsides trying to "turn the numbers around," when they need to get out front, put some calluses on their feet and turn their people around – and then their people will turn the numbers around!

"Quite frankly, the biggest morale problem in most businesses today is rooted in the fact that the leaders of the organization have stopped leading," says Anderson. "Instead, they tweak, tinker, tamper, manage, massage, maintain, administer, and preside – but have no positive impact on their people or culture. This is why the old saw is true: 'A fish rots at the head.' In other words, when you're having problems in an organization, you don't try to fix it in the middle or at the bottom. If you want the organization to 'get right,' the leadership must 'get right' first!"

Set shorter-term goals. Long-term goals are less relevant during a downturn because of uncertainty. Besides, when things are tough, you need to see something happen now.Shorter-term goals – daily goals – narrow an employee's focus and cause him or her to get into motion and take action today! These goals liven up a workplace, creating energy, urgency, and more teamwork as people rally together to meet them.

You can set a combination of activity and results goals, since if you manage the right activities, you will end up with the desired results. By putting the additional structure that daily goals bring into your workplace, you create positive motion and employee energy that evokes emotion and shakes out apathy.


"It's tough for anyone to be inspired when they're bored, worried, or looking over their shoulder wondering who or what is next on the chopping block," says Anderson. "Short-term goals help define the role and contribution of each employee. They add meaning to each job, and people long for meaning. Meaning motivates more than money. Just ask any volunteer who donates labor in return for being part of something bigger than him or herself – and who does so for no financial benefit."

About the author:
Dave Anderson is president of Dave Anderson's Learn to Lead and has given over 1,000 leadership presentations in thirteen countries. He is the author of If You Don't Make Waves, You'll Drown; Up Your Business!; How to Deal with Difficult Customers; and the TKObusiness series, all from Wiley. He and his wife, Rhonda, are cofounders of The Matthew 25.35 Foundation, which helps feed, educate, and house destitute people throughout the world. For more information, visit www.learntolead.com.

About the book:
How to Run Your Business by THE BOOK: A Biblical Blueprint to Bless Your Business (Wiley, 2009, ISBN: 978-0-4704964-2-8, $24.95) is available at bookstores nationwide, major online booksellers, or directly from the publisher by calling 800-225-5945. In Canada, call 800-567-4797.