I was catching up with a friend last week who sounded down — her energy was unusually dim, and she couldn’t seem to muster any excitement about her typically invigorating career. As we filled each other in on our lives, the conversation turned to a recent incident at her office. She told me a story that explained her funk and made my skin crawl.
My friend, who I’ll call Marie, has been struggling at her job for months despite loving the actual work she does. Despite being hired a year ago to revamp a department, she’s been blocked at every turn. The organization isn’t actually interested in the quality bump she’d specifically been hired for: They’re focused on satisfying the arbitrary requirements and personal taste of exactly one leader — a leader who has zero expertise in Marie’s area.
She churns out the same excellent work she’s been known for her whole career — work in which she takes an enormous amount of pride. Her reports come back with the leader’s changes — changes that include a tremendous number of inconsistencies and errors. Marie feels embarrassed by the work, and I don’t blame her. It’s especially galling for someone who finds so much fulfillment in producing high-quality output.
Marie talked to her boss and said she simply wanted to do the best work possible and that she felt downtrodden by attaching her name to error-filled documents. She asked her boss to stick up for her and resist those changes, and Marie even offered to speak directly to the leader in question. Her boss listened, and she flat-out admitted that their team’s quality was sinking to unimaginable lows.
“Everything is full of problems and errors, but you just need to do what he says,” her boss said. “It doesn’t matter how this stuff turns out.”
And then, she delivered the knockout punch: “We’re getting paid either way.”
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That one sentence stopped me in my tracks. No wonder Marie felt so discouraged. Her boss had explicitly told her to stop caring about the quality of work and to simply punch a timecard. Marie’s work — and her contributions as a team member — don’t matter.
As Marie’s friend, I’m angry on her behalf. As a leader, I’m stupefied.
Look, it’s not new for an organization to fall in line behind an erratic leader. And indulging the whims of people farther up the chain is an unavoidable part of the working world — it simply happens sometimes. But it takes a major toll on the morale of employees, and as managers, it’s our job to support our reports through the very real, very valid frustration.
What’s more: When leaders or managers ignore the purpose or sense of pride our reports get from their work — or worse, eliminate them entirely — we’re being downright cruel. Beyond the personal, it’s a major business mistake: Employees need more than a paycheck to stay. With retention being a major stressor for human resources professionals, we can’t afford to drive employees away. Marie is a high-performer with excellent relationships across her organization, and it would be a loss to the company if she moved on. But unsurprisingly, she started updating her resume and LinkedIn the minute that conversation with her boss ended, and she’s already taking interviews.
All of this — Marie’s rock-bottom morale and the very real flight risk for the organization — could have been avoided with some stronger management skills. Certainly, one manager might not be able to change the entire culture of an organization — but there are plenty of ways to keep morale up when an employee feels discouraged.
A manager can validate their report’s frustration and provide understanding around how much they value their work. A manager can advocate for more autonomy for their report — or act as a buffer between them and leadership. And if that fails, a manager can be supportive and help the employee pursue other projects or skill acquisition to maintain their sense of purpose.
But above all, don’t do what Marie’s manager did. You can’t make employees feel like cogs in a machine whose work does not matter and then expect them to give it their all. Your reports are complex human beings. Value the pride they take in their work, and understand that while money is important, purpose is, too.