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What Makes Workplaces Miserable

A recent congressional hearing caught my attention. It focused on the subject of miserable employees -- more specifically, the record-low engagement of employees in the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS).

DHS was advised to spend time and money "training" managers and supervisors. The problem, the agencies were told, stems from poor work-life balance, benefits, pay freezes -- that sort of thing.

This is completely misguided. I can identify a root cause of the problem, just from knowing Gallup's decades of research on management: About 60% of employees we've studied in government organizations tell us they don't clearly know what's expected of them at work. That is a much bigger problem than pay, benefits, and vacation days. In fact, what neither Congress nor the federal government knows is that the more you aim solutions at those aspects, the worse you make the workplace.

Huge workforces, like Wells Fargo (roughly 300,000 employees), have highly inspired workplaces with fewer benefits, vacation time, etc., than the typical federal agency. They have highly engaged employees who have fun at work serving customers. What's so different?

DHS employees aren't miserable for the reasons Congress heard. They're miserable because -- unlike the employees at Wells Fargo -- they have lousy managers and supervisors. Yes, lousy managers, not lousy benefits, create miserable workplaces. And lousy managers tend to create lousy, miserable employees.

Gallup researchers discovered there actually is a silver bullet: Just name the right manager. Gallup's big breakthrough discovery is that absolutely nothing fixes the problems caused by a manager who has no talent for the task at hand. Solutions come when employers understand that the art of supervising and managing in the new millennium is closer to being a coach than to being a boss.

To predict an employee's engagement, the single most important question you can ask is, "Does your manager care about your development?" When and if you nail that one, it fixes compensation, benefits, and work-life balance -- and misery magically disappears.

Until employers take the testing and selection of managers and supervisors seriously -- promoting those who can honestly develop people -- they will continue to build factories of disengaged, miserable employees, as the federal government has at DHS.


Jim Clifton is Chairman and CEO at Gallup.

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