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Why Work Has a Terrible Reputation

Saturday afternoon, I went out for tacos with my daughter and her family. The restaurant was a fun local place—and the dining area was decorated with a whole host of bumper stickers. On the wall next to our table, the bumper stickers had a theme. Life is good. Work is terrible. Work, it seems, has a terrible reputation.

If work has a terrible reputation, who is at fault?

Do the workers have a bad attitude? Or are the workplaces truly bad?


“You learn in life that the only person you can really correct and change is yourself.”

– Katherine Hepburn

It’s always good to start with self-reflection first. So, what is YOUR attitude towards work? Would you rather be fishing? Or do you generally look forward to going to work? Be honest with yourself.

I don’t know anyone on the planet who hasn’t had a bad attitude about going to work on occasion. Myself included. We are going to have bad days.

So the question that I would ask you to ponder as you start up the car and head to your workplace is this: what is my attitude about work today, and how will that impact the people around me?

Servant leaders aim to think of others more often than themselves. It is far easier to mope and grouse about why we don’t feel like going to work today. It is far more difficult to stop and think about the impact of that mindset on the people we will interact with. But when we do, we quickly see the problem. Our bad attitude will rub off on other people. Bad attitudes are more contagious than the measles. If we don’t adjust our thinking, it will become a self-fulfilling prophecy at the office.

But I suggest you’ll need more than a pep talk to yourself to get your attitude on the right track. You need to know why you are going to work at all. You need to know your purpose. And here is why . . .  your purpose is a value statement about why you go to work—it is a higher order way of thinking. Your current attitude traces to volatile things—your emotions and your circumstances—things that are not accurate measures of your values and beliefs. The antidote to a bad attitude is a higher purpose.

“I’ve never known a person who didn’t light up at the memory of a truly great boss…In stark contrast, a bad boss can just about kill you.”

– Jack Welch

One of my favorite workplace book titles is The Three Signs of a Miserable Job, by Patrick Lencioni. I recently saw the author at a conference and he told me that he had changed the title of this book to something more positive: The Truth About Employee Engagement. I fail to see how that is a better title.

Nonetheless, the content of this book is compelling. It cites research studies that conclude an employee’s relationship with their direct manager is the most important determinant of their job satisfaction—more important than pay, benefits, perks, and work-life balance.

Turns out that people who have miserable jobs . . . have miserable bosses. Plain and simple.

So my second question to you as you start up the car and head to your workplace is this: What will you do today to create a positive, thriving, enjoyable place to work?  You are after all . . . the boss. You are responsible for the workplace environment.

A servant leader thinks carefully about the culture of the workplace—and sees it as their responsibility to create a place where people want to come each day, enjoy most days, and contribute their best work. This is not a philosophy—this is a set of actions you take each day to ensure people are highly engaged, not miserable.

Here are four proven ways to create a better work experience for your team:

  1. Spend time getting to know your team. People care about businesses where the boss cares about them.
  2. Set clear and inspiring expectations. People want to do great work. Describe clearly what you need them to do, and offer a good, inspiring reason for them to do the work. Measure results and celebrate wins.
  3. Cheer more than you critique. Leaders must correct the team’s errors, but they will respond more to your encouraging words. Challenge yourself to say three encouraging things per one criticism.
  4. Ask for feedback often and listen carefully. Your team doesn’t expect you to be perfect, but they need you to hear their feedback and act on it. If you don’t ask, they will assume you don’t care. See #1.

We sometimes see a television commercial that is so memorable we talk about it for months. Last year, e-Trade featured an ad that promptly grabbed our attention. You can see the spot on YouTube by searching “e-Trade Hard Work.” The ad opens with a sixty-something handsome man dancing with a pretty woman on the deck of his huge yacht. Then it abruptly cuts to a voiceover that says: “The harder you work, the nicer vacation . . . your boss goes on. Don’t get mad. Get e-Trade.”

My advice? Don’t be a bad TV boss. Be a boss that makes work the best it can be for your team.

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