When your top performers become bored
How to recognize the problem and the reasons before it’s too late
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 might capable employees start to become bored with their work in your company?
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:
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.