When your top performers become bored

How to recognize the problem and the reasons before it’s too late

Fred Mael

A trusted employee tells you that some of your top staff are bored with their jobs or their assignments, grumbling about it to each other, and considering looking for opportunities elsewhere. As a CEO or senior manager, your reaction is a mixture of disbelief, confusion, and annoyance. You are always too busy, can’t find enough hours in the day to get everything done, and always find the battle to grow, position, and promote the company fascinating. These are hardworking, capable employees with successful track records, not prima donnas or people crushed by depression or non-work problems. They are not doing assembly line or other repetitive work that you might consider boring. You have three primary questions: Why have these staff members become bored? Why didn’t I know about it? And, what’s the big deal about being bored – why is it my problem? Let’s address each question separately.

Why Now?

Why might capable employees start to become bored with their work in your company?

Work emphasis has changed. Perhaps the company started as an R&D shop and has now matured into a production-oriented operation. Perhaps the focus changed from product and process development to packaging and marketing. The need for innovation has subsided while the need for consistency and dependability has risen, leaving these employees finding themselves out of step with the organization.
Credentials have outstripped work demands. The company continues to bring on highly educated and/or experienced personnel, but there is not enough high-level work to go around. Either senior employees get to do the substantive work and junior ones are frustrated and bored, or less expensive junior ones do the actual work while their senior staff find themselves relegated to nitpicking and micromanaging. Resentment simmers and work hoarding becomes the only antidote to being underutilized.
Too much bench strength. In “feast or famine” and seasonal businesses (consulting, accounting), companies may stockpile talent for the boom times but have no mechanism or enunciated explanation for how employees should spend their time during slowdowns.
Stunted growth. An employee can no longer grow from this type of work and needs new challenges to feel vibrant – however, the employee is too valuable to the company or too well-liked by the client(s) to stop doing what he has always done.
Specialization. As the company has grown, work has become more segmented and specialized – the person’s job has become narrower and more routinized. While more efficient for the organization, the individual contributor may feel stifled.
Meeting-itis. When the company started, everything was informal and meetings were impromptu conferences that lasted ten minutes. As work became more formalized, the calendar has filled up with more weekly meetings, often with fixed minimum times and unclear agendas. Some people are more adversely affected by the tedium of meetings than others.

Why Are They Hiding It?

Most good managers pride themselves on being responsive and interested in employee satisfaction and productivity. Why, then, might bored employees hide their boredom-related unhappiness from the boss, especially when the same employees would let the boss know that they were overburdened and needed relief? The reasons may include:

Fear for their jobs. Employees who are underutilized may be unhappy, but they may have financial responsibilities that make staying employed a priority. They may feel that if they raise the issue of their not having enough work or that their work could be done by someone with less experience or education (read: cheaper), management might deduce that they are indeed expendable. Better to act busy, complain only to close confidantes or spouses, and hope for a new infusion of business or some other change of situation.
Being given worse “busywork” assignments. Some employees are justifiably concerned that if they say they are bored, management will not take the time to address the problem seriously. Rather, the bored person will be “plugged in” anywhere a free hand is needed, or be assigned to deal with a personnel issue no one else wants to touch. The result is that the bored person may feel that she is now vulnerable to be placed in even more boring roles, knocking her self-esteem and standing in the company down a few more pegs. Worse, because of being tied up in busywork, she may feel even less likely to be considered for the next interesting assignment.
Boredom has negative connotations. The bored employee may feel that he or she is totally to blame for being bored. Perhaps he should have marketed himself better, both internally and externally. Perhaps she shouldn’t expect to always have interesting work and should be tougher-minded. Formerly engaged employees, who always wore their busyness as a badge of honor, may be vaguely ashamed of now feeling superfluous. They may feel that it is better to make believe that they are busy than to admit that they need help to extricate themselves from their boredom. What they don’t realize is that by holding this secret shame, they may detach themselves from their coworkers and become lonely, dispirited, and cynical. Even if the bored person is somewhat to blame for his predicament, he would still benefit from having others point out his blind spots and lend a helping hand to get him back on track.

Why Should I Care?

A manager or CEO may be inclined to dismiss being bored as a minor annoyance, hardly anything for management to have to attend to. In fact, boredom is seen by many as a boutique emotion of recent vintage and a result of modern society being impatient, overly stimulated, and unrealistic in its demand that work and life always be interesting and meaningful. Unfortunately, that view would ignore the fact that chronic boredom is associated with a host of ills including increased alcohol and drug abuse, excessive smoking, pathological gambling, increased stress-related ailments, alienation from coworkers, and excessive eating and weight gain. Being underemployed, defined as being in a job whose demands are below the person’s capabilities, is associated with frustration and discontent, reduced job satisfaction, reduced organizational commitment, and increased job searching behavior. It also spills over into negative attitudes towards work and one’s career in general, isolation from family and friends, marital tensions, and hampered decision-making ability.

You may feel that your employees should be able to grow up, find something productive to do, or try harder. Fine – but you ignore the discontent of these employees (and soon to be ex-employees) and the loss of their expertise, experience, and loyalty at your own peril. Establishing a culture in which people can admit to needing more challenging work without fear of punishments such as being sentenced to busywork is an important first step. Additional steps will have to take the individual, the direction of the company, and the resources you have available into consideration. Leaving the company may be the employee’s best recourse – but it shouldn’t be the first and only option.

Fred Mael (www.maelconsulting.com) is an organizational psychologist who does consulting in areas such as talent retention, organizational culture, and performance management, as well as executive and work/life coaching. This article appeared in the August 2003 issue of Baltimore SmartCEO magazine.