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How To Escape ‘Day Prison’ At Work

Posted by | April 27, 2015 | Productivity, Workplace

Via Forbes : Every career has its highs and lows, and some enter a dangerous state of “Day Prison.” What is “Day Prison”? Most people begin a new position with lots of energy and want to impress others. Their effort is high and their passion is infectious. People who have a good start at a new job continue to perform and when they are really talented many have an extraordinary experience at work. Once they demonstrate their capability at a particular task they continue to be assigned that same work. Over time that task often becomes very repetitive and over time they lose some of their passion. Work starts to feel like a bit of a chore.

After a number of years where people feel that work is a chore they can easily enter another dimension at work called “Day Prison.” People show up to work in the morning, and as they enter their work area they can feel the bars closing around them and the cell door locking. In day prison people are unmotivated, dissatisfied and far less productive than they could be.

In a recent Harvard Business Review article my colleague Jack Zenger and I shared a study where we examined data from 970 people in the same organization who, were between 35 to 44 years old and rated their engagement at work in the bottom 10%. They declared themselves in day prison. The demographics of this group were:

  • Less male (-3.7%), more female (+2.4%)
  • Less high school graduates (-5.9%), more Graduate Degree (+2.5%) and Post Graduate Degree (+2.2%)
  • From all levels and positions in the organization including executives. We found three executives in “Day Prison.”
  • 36% had between 10 to 20 years tenure, 30% 5 to 10 years tenure

The sample included all levels and positions in the organization including executives.

We analyzed these items on a 360-feedback survey on which these people responded significantly more negatively. We then performed a factor analysis on all the other items to which they had responded, and we identified eight distinct themes that characterized the frustrations of these employees.

Lack of pride and satisfaction with the organization. The most negative theme revolved around a lack of pride and their overall dissatisfaction with the organization. These employee were much less likely to recommend the organization to a friend and described themselves as much more likely to leave the organization. For most people their dissatisfaction precedes the lack of pride in the organization. For some people they identify a situation where the organization mistreated a customer, or did something wrong to them personally, that shook their confidence and caused a loss of pride.

Minimal appreciation or recognition. Listen to the frustrations of friends, partners, spouses and children and it is not hard to understand why this is the number two source of discontent. When we work hard and others seem to get as much or more recognition that causes a great deal of frustration. When the organization has a culture that is devoid of recognition for anyone, that is an even more frustrating situation.

Absence of challenge and meaning in work. Having a difficult job may be frustrating but when people succeed at something that is challenging, most everyone experiences a higher level of personal satisfaction and pride. Some jobs are challenging at first but after the 10,000th iteration of doing the same thing, over and over again, it becomes monotonous and boring.We heard of a woman who for 23 years had been turning denim jeans inside out after the sewing was complete by others. That task was the complete substance of her job. The company had never suggested rotating between different monotonous tasks, nor somehow expanding the job. She could recognize flaws in the sewing along with defects in the materials, but her job was to turn them inside out. She did nothing to pass on her observations.Once a job is mastered many people face a very real dilemma in deciding if they just continue doing the same job or challenge themselves to try something new. A new job with additional challenges requires some risk and many people worry that they will fail. There is a real difference between having a job and having a career. A career is broader, more diverse and utilizes a variety of different skills but one has to be willing to take on additional challenging roles and take some risks.

Unwillingness to go above and beyond basic requirements. Every day every person at work makes a series of decisions. Are they going to do minimal amount of work required to keep their job, a bit more than that or are they willing to give 110% effort. This is often referred to as discretionary effort. These less engaged individuals resisted putting forth extra effort. For some the rational was, I get very little from this organization and there I choose to only give them my minimal effort. For others it is almost as if they were afraid of being worn out or used up. Their object in life is to conserve energy.

Conclusion that they were not treated fairly. Basically people in this group felt that they continually were getting the short end of the stick while others received undeserved benefits. Most people can think of a time when they felt they had not been treated fairly and the strong emotions that emerge from that emotional upset.

Feeling of powerlessness. This group felt that they were not only treated unfairly, but that any effort to point out unfair treatment, problems or concerns would not be addressed. They felt helpless, with no advocates and no influence. They simply did not matter.

Company failed to appreciate and practice values such as teamwork, trust and valuing diversity. As these people observed the organization, what stood out to them were the failures of the organization to walk their talk.

Minimal opportunities for growth and development opportunities. This disengaged group felt like a pair of hands that got used and abused. Others in the organization enjoyed opportunities may get opportunities to develop new skills, but they rarely did.

Whose Fault is This?

It is easy to take sides in this debate. If the individuals would only work a little harder, then they would get recognized, developed and appreciated. On the other hand, if the organization really valued people they would more uniformly offer developmental opportunities, treat people fairly and give them a chance to learn new skills.

This is like doing marriage counseling for an estranged couple where both parties blame each other. The only way to move forward in situations like this is to acknowledge that both parties carry some of the blame.

Individuals

Life is not fair. Be willing to take the risk of trying something new. Quit looking for the faults of the organization. Raise the bar on your effort and see if that is recognized. It is not uncommon for a large percentage of the working population to feel that they are not being fully utilized. Over the years, we have asked groups of executives to write down in a piece of paper the percentage of their skills and talents that were currently being used by the organization. This was all executives, with no separation for levels of engagement. The extremely consistent answer over the years, and in varying industries was 40 percent. Feeling underutilized is not uncommon.

Organizations

Asking people to do the same job over and over again for years is cruel and unusual punishment and it is not making the organization more effective. Another exercise we have conducted with leaders over the years is to ask them to reflect on their own curve of excitement and creativity in all the jobs they had experienced. We asked, at what point in time in a position does the curve begin to head south? Consistently the answer to that question has been 5 years. But the negative consequence of that is not only what it does to the individual, but what they then do in providing less than positive experiences to customers, and how they infect others around them.

Warning – Your Organization Has Some of These People

It should be noted that the company where we found these disengaged employees was one of the best high performing companies in the world. It’s easy to read through the list of attitudes and assume that people like this do not exist in your company, but it’s highly possible they are alive and thriving in their discontent. They may be working in the next cubical or office. They will not tell you about their frustration unless you belong to the club of highly dissatisfied employees, but you can identify them by their lack of enthusiasm and commitment. Find them a more challenging job, recognize their efforts to succeed, listen to their concerns and coach them to develop new skills. You will not only have a more satisfied employee, you will have changed the life of an individual for the better.

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