Employees Are Like Muscles

I’ve had a lot of different jobs over the course of my adult career. I had even more working as a college student and earlier when I lobbed newspapers onto front porches and strapped toddlers onto horses on a kids’ carousel. In high school I worked at a kids’ amusement park in a tourist town in South Jersey. They’d never get away with that today–leaving a kid on a horse by himself, even a little horse. Parents are too fearful nowadays.

I have now arrived at that point in life where people come to me for advice about jobs and careers. I’ve committed just about every mistake possible, so I like to think of myself as a “Guru of What Not to Do,” which can be very valuable. That’s what I told the young woman who came to me this week feeling overlooked, overwhelmed, and “over the hill.” Alice (not her real name) agreed to let me write about her and her ongoing complaint to management that they were not using her to her full potential.

As I listened, I realized that this wasn’t about an overly ambitious person or a prima donna. Her story had to do with a talented professional with a graduate degree and private equity experience doing purchasing orders and bookkeeping. She felt that she was wasting her time as well as the company’s. When I asked about management’s response, she said that they told her they were fully aware of it, would look into it, and would get back to her. But after all those promises, nothing had happened. I made a joke about not being out of the “woulds” yet. She smiled politely.

In Love’Em or Lose’Em: Getting Good People to Stay, researchers Beverly Kaye and Sharon Jordan-Evans cite an example similar to Alice’s. Theirs is about a woman who left her company because she wasn’t invited to be part of new projects that not only would have led to her professional growth but benefitted the organization. However, no one had taken the time to ask her about it until the day of her departure, and by then it was too late.

Most employers are aware that people leave their jobs mainly because of their boss and not the company, although I have talked to enough tech workers at Silicon Valley companies to question that conventional wisdom. Pingpong tables and workout facilities don’t cut it anymore, not with a 60-hour workweek. In general, though, anyone who has worked for more than a few years has had to deal with an egotistical, self-promoting mob boss. Actually, not all mob bosses are like that. Sociopaths, sure, but even they understand the importance of keeping their employees satisfied (and alive).

98 percent of employees who stay at their jobs do so for three reasons: (1) exciting work that challenges, (2) career growth, learning, and development, (3) working with ‘great people.’

But what keeps employees from leaving? According to the authors, 98 percent of employees who stay at their jobs do so for three reasons: (1) exciting work that challenges, (2) career growth, learning, and development, (3) working with “great people.” I find two things really interesting about this. First, money and benefits appear on the list of reasons but not in the top three. Second, meaningful work and mission appear to be even less important, which is not what I expected at all.

Granted, you can design a survey to say just about anything, but this makes me wonder if the dichotomy we speak about at my own work is artificial. Or if not artificial, then certainly off the mark. That is, we talk a lot about money and mission and how to balance them. But employees want to use their gifts, work on projects that they can genuinely contribute to, and go beyond their current job responsibilities. Those are the things that inspire and motivate them to action.

So, it turns out that employees are like muscles. You use them or you lose them. Who knew?

Alice did.


Image credits: feature by Victor Freitas; woman by John Arano. Like fiction? Check out the “Mercury trilogy” (The Gringo, Laura Fedora) and the autobiographical Nine Lives here. Also, go to Robert Brancatelli. The Brancatelli Blog is a member of The Free Media Alliance, which promotes “alternatives to software, culture, and hardware monopolies.”

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