14: What Makes Work Worthwhile

Turnover in the service industry is extremely high, and many employers take it for granted that they will be faced with a revolving door of front-line workers. The problem is a vicious cycle: employers refuse to treat employees well because they think they're going to leave, employees will leave because they're not treated well, and the cycle perpetuates.

The author cites employment surveys that support both sets of attitudes: employees are "loyal to the highest bidder" and the majority will leave if offered a little more money, meanwhile they have an intense dislike for their employer (both the company and their supervisor). One feeds the other.

The author refers to surveys that rank jobs in terms of employee satisfaction, noting that it's not about the money: many of the most satisfying jobs are not high-salary positions. Also, there is no one "best" job for everyone, but a best job based on a person's unique characteristics: attitudes and personality.

Work and Play

Whether a task is defined as work or play is a matter of individual perspective - whether the person face with that task sees it as a pleasant or unpleasant experience, and what they get out of it. To a person who loves what they are doing, work can seem a lot like play.

Some tips to the employee:

The author tells of his work on a project where he interviewed a number of people in jobs that seem unbearable to many: working in a laundry, on a hog farm, in a foundry, and found both people who hated and loved the very same jobs. It's a matter of attitude. The author found that there are four factors common to whether a person enjoys their work:

  1. Choice - People who have a positive attitude feel they have choice. The work must be done, but they can choose how to go about it, what order to do the tasks, etc., and so long as it's completed with reasonable quality and efficiency, they're not hassled.
  2. Risk - People enjoy work that has some degree of risk. The possibility that things may not turn out well drives them to ensure that it does. It need not be risk to life and limb, merely the possibility of a negative outcome. If it weren't for that, there's no pride in getting it right.
  3. Score - The ability to keep score makes work meaningful, and people are drawn to numbers as a measure of success. A worker in a laundry kept mental note of the number of sheets he folded, a carnie kept track of the number of riders served. This isn't the same as the performance metrics used by the boss, but merely an informal measure kept by the employee himself, to give him a sense of accomplishment at the end of the day.
  4. Purpose - Good work gives a person a sense of purpose. Even if the job consists of routine and monotonous tasks (or especially when that is so), having a big-picture perspective gives meaning to work and gets the worker emotionally involved.

A couple of anecdotes follow that suggest a fifth point: genuine appreciation. The praise of a supervisor is valued, but means far less than the genuine appreciation of the customer. Find opportunities to get the cooks out of the kitchen, to watch people enjoying the fruit of their labor, and they'll return to the line with a renewed sense of satisfaction.