It seems hard to believe that in the worst recession since the 1930s that any employee would say they don’t like going to work; but in fact during times of austerity employers need to work harder than ever to ensure employees are engaged. During a recession organisations may appear less flexible for employees and simultaneously much more demanding. At times this can be shown to be true with Comments such as ‘they should think themselves lucky to have a job’ might suggest that there is little opportunity to talk about motivation and personal development at such times.

Take a client of ours, we recently worked with George, a senior director in successful global multinational organisation; where he was well regarded and respected and frequently asked to get involved with high profile new products and services. A recent merger caused a change in leadership resulting in his department being sidelined with regard to new strategic developments. When we started working with him he rated his satisfaction at work on a scale of one to ten, (ten being high) as two.

So what is it that leads people to feel they don’t like going to work? Reference has already been made to impact of the economic climate and this filters through to organisational climate and culture. In practice the factors that are relevant to unhappiness are related more to how we are motivated and how managers and organisation respond to and understand this.

So what impact does this have on individuals and organisations? And does it matter ?

For employees: A greater reluctance to get out of bed to go work, less likely to give discretionary time, a feeling of ‘why should I bother’. This leads to employees who are less likely to generate creative ideas, have less energy to commit to the organisation and lower productivity at a time when organisations need more ideas and efficiencies. The economic climate and ensuing effects within organisations can often mean that employees are too worried to speak out or make constructive challenges.

For organisations: Lower productivity, probably less creativity and innovation as most of the employees brain energy is diverted to working out how to stay safe and protect themselves from a variety of perceived threats within the organisation and wider economic environment.

So given the challenging economic environment we are in and with recent gloomy predictions for the foreseeable future; what can employees and organisations do to make work more enjoyable and productive and provide the right environment for employees to flourish?

What makes going to work enjoyable?

As almost any measure of organisational commitment demonstrates the relationship with your boss and your colleagues, and development through the work you do, are key factors. In Gallup’s ’12 – The Elements of Great Managing’, five of the twelve factors are related to development at work:

  • the opportunity to do what I do best;
  • recognition and praise;
  • someone at work encourages my development;
  • talking about progress;
  • opportunities to learn and grow.
  • The Gallup factors correlate with the work of Daniel Pink (The Surprising Truth about What Motivates Us) who calls the focus on extrinsic motivation the seven deadly flaws. He advocates that what really motivates people at work are: autonomy, mastery (over my chosen work) and (meaningful) purpose.

Our work with clients suggests the following are key components that drive discretionary performance at work:

  • Identification with the culture and climate of the organisation
  • The relationship with the manager
  • Relationship with colleagues (the team)
  • Job role and content, variety and challenge, a good match to the
  • person’s desire for autonomy, mastery and purpose. A clear link to
  • where the job fits into the wider organisation mission.
  • The ability to offer ideas, suggestions, challenge, speak out/dissent
  • constructively
  • An opportunity to talk about my personal development and career
  • including making suggestions about new roles or structures
  • Clarity about expectations

So what did George find was causing his dissatisfaction at work? He was certainly finding it hard to identify with the new way of working since the merger, and was questioning whether this was consistent with his own values. However, more important, was both the nature of his work and team. Some of his colleagues were leaving the team and this suggested that the team’s purpose was eroded and less central in the new organisational structure. At the heart of his dissatisfaction lay the realisation that he was not challenged enough in his role and was frustrated by the lack of real input into strategic development and implementation of new ideas, which in his view could be central to the future.

Given that so many factors leading to positive engagement of employees are about development at work, what makes a real difference? Whilst many companies have trained leaders in holding effective career conversations, still many leaders fight shy of them, fearing they will hear something they either cannot deliver against or that it may lead to the employee leaving. The reality is that an employee is more likely to leave if you do not demonstrate an active interest in their career as illustrated in Gallup’s “12 The Elements of Great Managing”. Too frequently career conversations are reserved only for those in an organisation who are in the talent pool, for the majority of the workforce career management is left to whim and chance.

In George’s case he was nervous of talking to his manager about his dissatisfaction, as he had previously experienced a negative response in a similar situation, when the conversation and issues were ignored until he told his manager about a job offer from a competitor. What particularly upset George in that situation was the fact that he felt he had to threaten the organisation in order for it to take him seriously, and then the response was in the first instance to offer him more money (extrinsic motivation, one of the ‘seven deadly flaws’ of motivation identified by Dan Pink).

In many organisational climates managers are still fearful of having a robust career conversation with their employees, why is this? In the case of George you could argue that the organisation is fearful of upsetting the status quo: he is very useful and productive, he is often given difficult client problems to sort out and is not hard to manage. Opening up a dialogue may put his manager in a difficult position because he may not be the person with the power to make change happen. Additionally, it does not appear a pressing problem compared to clients and bosses who are demanding work and attention. However, George has been offered another job with a competitor and in fact the lack of attention could mean that the organisation is about to lose a very valuable resource, expensive to replace, and one who particularly understands the culture and way of working.

So what can be done?

By individuals:

People need to have clear self insight and an element of courage before they can make accurate and constructive career decisions so the following steps will help: Identify what is important to them: What are their key values? What really motivates them at work and what do they enjoy doing? What are their strengths? What is causing dissatisfaction and what is their concern about having a conversation with the line manager?

We live in a very busy world where there can seem to be little time for reflection, so much so that many people have almost lost the ability to do so. However, for effective career choices, it is important to stand back and evaluate where they are and where they want to be along with what steps they will need to take to achieve this. It may even be possible to identify a potential opportunity and any gaps where they may need to learn and grow.

In addition it is important not to leave all the work to the manager, so preparing for a structured and constructive career conversation with their manager using the outlined points can make a significant difference to the quality of the conversation and the outcomes.

By organisations:

There are a variety of things an organisation can do to support employees becoming more engaged in their work and with the organisation and a selection is listed below:

  • Ensure opportunity for career management support is open to all rather than just the minority in the talent pool
  • Ensure line managers, no matter how senior, are skilled and equipped to have robust conversations about careers from a strengths based perspective and recognise how to provide ongoing support and action
  • Focus on ensuring positive/constructive relationships at work
  • When allocating roles for people allow them to work where they are
  • operating from their strengths
  • Recognise the impact of the organisational culture on people’s behavior
  • and the need for the actual values of the organisation (rather than the
  • stated values) to link to those of the employees.
  • Examine leadership styles and working practices, do they allow for
  • people to have autonomy, mastery and purpose at work?
  • Consider opportunities for career coaching conversations either with a
  • mentor or outside coach.

So what has happened to George?

George decided that he needed some coaching to help him decide what action to take. As a result of the coaching George had a conversation with his line manager and much to his surprise, the company has taken his career needs seriously. They have suggested a couple of suitable new roles for which he is applying. He now feels more valued and even in the event that he does not get chosen this time around feels more positive that the organisation is listening and is interested in him. He is also preparing his longer term career plan with his coach.

The focused and serious conversation has saved the company from losing a valued employee with significant knowledge and experience in the business, which would be useful to a competitor. For George, he feels encouraged by the response from his employer and is looking forward to a new challenge within the company where he can continue to make a significant and valued contribution.

About the authors:

Gill Amos is a coach and consultant in the field of career management and leadership development and Adrienne Rosen is a coach and consultant in talent identification and development and career management.
They can be contacted at:

[email protected]      [email protected]


Daniel Pink: The Surprising Truth about What Motivates Us (2010)
Gallup: 12 the Elements of Great Managing (2006)
Social Intelligence and the The Power Of Small Wins :
Want to truly engage your workers? Help them see their own progress by Teresa M. Amabile and Steven J. Kramer HBR May 2011
Leading Clever People, Rob Goffee and Gareth Jones HBR March 2007 Biology of Leadership, D Goleman and R Boyatzis, HBR, September 2008 The Management Century, Walter Kiechell III, HBR, Nov 2012