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Book Review

Fable illustrates how bad jobs get that way

The Three Signs of a Miserable Job: A Fable for Managers (And Their Employees)
by Patrick Lencioni
Jossey-Bass, $24.95

Russian novelist Leo Tolstoy wrote that every unhappy family was unhappy in its own way, but best-selling author and management consultant Patrick Lencioni maintains that all miserable jobs are pretty similar.

While long commutes, low pay, and menial work can make a job difficult, it is the boss who determines whether employees are suffering or fulfilled, Lencioni says in his new book.

"The Three Signs of a Miserable Job" uses the fictional story of retired chief executive Brian Bailey to show the consequences of bad management and what companies can do to turn morale around.

After selling his company, Bailey is appalled by the indifferent and inefficient service he encounters at a local pizza parlor. Looking for something to do, he invests in the business, takes the weekend-manager job, and tries to motivate the staff.

That's how he discovers the three signs of a miserable job:

Anonymity. Management has shown little interest in their employees, their backgrounds, or their lives.

Irrelevance. The employees have no idea that their work matters to anyone, including management.

"Immeasurement." The workers have no objective way to gauge their performance. Their success, such as it is, depends on the opinions and whims of someone else.

The restaurant's atmosphere -- and fortunes -- improve considerably after Bailey gets to know his staff, suggests ways they can measure their effectiveness, and helps them see how important their work is to him, their co-workers, and the customers.

Eventually, Bailey goes on to apply the same principles at a sporting-goods chain and a hotel company.

As at the restaurant, initial reactions to his concepts range from cautious optimism to outright skepticism. Ultimately, however, most of the executives and employees embrace the new ideas, and the businesses improve.

The book ends with examples of how the symptoms of a miserable job can crop up everywhere -- from routine secretarial work to the glamorous world of professional football.

"I wanted to make it clear that the same thing that a busboy needs at a restaurant is needed by the VP of marketing at a high-tech firm," Lencioni said.

The author himself worked in a restaurant when he was a teenager, but it was seeing the frustration his father experienced in his job as a salesman that inspired the latest book.

"I remember thinking at a very early age that this was wrong," he said.

"He succeeded in spite of his managers, not because of them, and that's crazy."

In a world of layoffs, outsourcing, and offshoring, some readers of "The Three Signs of a Miserable Job" may question whether companies care about making their workers happy.

Lencioni said that many managers say they would love to retire and do "meaningful" work, like teach children to read.

What they need to realize, he said, is that their current jobs already provide an opportunity to influence people's lives.

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