Skip to main content

Project Managers can Prevent the Three Signs of a Miserable Job

Patrick Lencioni’s book “The Three Signs of a Miserable Job” is an easy-to-read parable covering key sources of employee disengagement and what can be done to eliminate them. 

The book takes the functional manager’s view – Lencioni states on his web-site “The primary source of job misery and the potential cure for that misery resides in the hands of one individual – the direct manager”. For staff working in a matrix organization, a significant proportion of their effort is spent on projects, hence Lencioni’s recommendations should be adapted for use by project managers as well.

The three signs that Lencioni identifies are irrelevance, inability to self-measure performance or success (or as Lencioni’s puts it, “immeasurement”) and anonymity. Let’s review some ways in which project managers can reduce these sources of misery.

Unless we are sociopaths, we want to know that the work we are doing is making a difference to someone, somewhere – without that we feel irrelevant. Projects are a medium for generating value through change, and if that change is expected to positively impact some stakeholder community, then that is something to feel good about.

Project managers should always ensure that their team understand the benefits of the work they are doing. This should start as early as the project kick-off meeting but that should not be where it ends. If the project manager can solicit periodic visits by representatives from stakeholder groups to talk to the team it can help to revitalize stress-dampened spirits.

Regular recognition of a team member’s efforts is important, but a generic “keep up the good work” is no substitute for one’s ability to quantify the progress they are making for themselves. As Lencioni explains, this is one of the benefits that salespeople enjoy – they have a very quantitative method of assessing if they are succeeding! For those of us whose days are spent in a never-ending stream of meetings without producing or selling anything tangible, self-assessment can be a little more challenging.

Projects provide an excellent opportunity to avoid this source of misery. By defining and completing a backlog of work items, team members are able to quantify their own progress. While this is not the primary rationale for scope decomposition, project managers could use this as part of their “sales pitch” to convince team members that this is a necessary practice. This is also the rationale behind the agile practice of using sprints or iterations – it is a lot easier to assess progress against work items that can be completed within one sprint than it is against activities that span multiple weeks or months.

Employees want to be recognized as individuals. The ubiquitous use of the term “resource” should be banned – it furthers perceptions that team members are a fungible commodity. We may only work with assigned staff for a brief span of time, but it is in our projects’ best interests for us to get to know them as more than just a set of initials on a Gantt chart activity line.

It is a good practice for project managers to meet with team members as they are assigned to a project to review their work assignments and to set expectations for expected performance. This also provides a great opportunity to learn something unique about the team member and to share something unique about yourself with them.

Other opportunities for avoiding anonymity could be to start your team meetings by having someone talk about something interesting they did over the previous weekend. You could facilitate a team building exercise to identify team members based on a unique attribute, behavior or experience.

If you can demonstrate to your team members that you recognize and respect them as unique individuals, help them understand how the work they are performing matters and help them measure their own performance, you may realize John Quincy Adams’ quote “If your actions inspire others to dream more, learn more, do more and become more, you are a leader.”

Don’t forget to leave your comments below.

Comments (6)