Patricia McGuire
University president

Patricia McGuire

President of Trinity Washington University.


Stop whining!

Q: Is it possible to be successful in a job that you don't like? A business group called the Conference Board got lots of publicity Jan. 5 by claiming worker satisfaction had fallen to its lowest level ever. Their numbers and methodology were questioned by other experts, but the issue of whether there's a link between job satisfaction and success is an interesting one.

No whining. Ever.

Not at work. Not about your existential ennui with this job that is supporting your lifestyle. Not about your co-workers who have to put up with your obsession with your unhappy choice of this occupation. Not about the size of the paycheck you have not exactly earned, what with all the time you've spent tweeting your complaints. Not about your boss who, unbeknownst to you in your narcissistic focus on your own misery, has spent sleepless nights trying to figure out how to make you happy.

As an employer, I have developed an admittedly hard-line approach to chronic whining in the workplace. (This is not the same as legitimate complaints about unfair labor practices or truly bad management, which demand and deserve redress.)

The kind of "job dissatisfaction" that the recent Conference Board study reports is emblematic of the modern American culture of complaint, where no slight, whether real or perceived, is too small to blow up into a world-class grievance. Chronically unhappy workers infect others, diminishing productivity and enlarging the opportunity for real professional dysfunction.

In my experience, an employee who is chronically unhappy -- as opposed to upset about a specific issue, e.g., not getting a raise -- rarely is able to achieve success in the very workplace that is causing the unhappiness. Momentary unhappiness about a particular issue is normal, and can be resolved with good communication and an action plan to redress the problem.

But often, the source of chronic workplace unhappiness is more internal with the individual, rather than something over which the employer has control. Often in such cases, the ultimate solution is separation -- preferably with a voluntary agreement, sometimes with a firmer push. My philosophy is that we don't really fire employees, but rather, we help individuals find new opportunities for greater satisfaction elsewhere.

I tell my students, "Do what you love. Love what you do." Sometimes, they argue with me: "I have to support my family. I can't leave this job even though I hate it."

Of course. For many workers today, especially in this grim economy, the thought of finding a new job is truly daunting. But there's an ethical issue at the heart of this dilemma: If you have to stick with your current employer for a while, even if it's not your preferred job, you have an ethical obligation to deliver an honest day's work-- and that includes minimizing the whining. By accepting your paycheck, you also accept the fundamental professional expectation of basic loyalty to your company.

Beyond accepting the fundamentally ethical obligation to do your job well without trashing your employer, people who are unhappy in their current occupations should give serious consideration to retooling their skill sets to move into a new line of work. This usually means going back to school.

Ironically, a recession is a great time to return to school to acquire some new knowledge, skills and perspectives on contemporary career opportunities. Many working professionals enroll in Trinity's School of Professional Studies, for example, completing baccalaureate degrees or earning credits to change careers, or taking master's degrees to move into management positions. Returning to school is a productive and enjoyable way to get out of the rut of complaining about your boss. Learn how to become the boss!

I practiced this piece of advice myself when I was a young lawyer working for a public interest group. Like many 20-something workers, I liked some parts of the work, especially with the clients, but disliked the organizational structure and pay scale. As time went on, I found that my joy in the work did not outweigh my unhappiness with the way the office was run, and I got into more frequent arguments with my boss.

I decided I needed a change -- so I went back to school to pursue graduate studies in administration. I took some courses in organizational development, management, and strategic planning, and suddenly, I had an entirely new portfolio of knowledge and skills to complement my legal training. I moved on to a new job where I could run the office, and even today, as a college president, I still draw upon the work I did as a graduate student in the management program.

The ability to work is the most human of all endeavors, and we humans need work in order to fulfill not only economic, but also social, intellectual and spiritual needs. Taking pride in one's work -- whether making a humble hamburger or writing a letter or teaching a child or curing a sick patient -- is essential for happiness, not only in the workplace, but in life itself.

By Patricia McGuire  |  January 11, 2010; 12:06 AM ET  | Category:  satisfaction Save & Share:  Send E-mail   Facebook   Twitter   Digg   Yahoo Buzz   StumbleUpon   Technorati  
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Love it, Patricia! Using "these times" to tool up by going back to school - oh, and no whinning. Own up to our happiness and show up for our work - or changes it, and then own up again. Attitude is everything. I've seen it over and over in my speaking and consulting on this very issue of retention - set some ground rules, listen to real issues, get rid of complainers and provide opportunities for growth...

Thank you!

Misti Burmeister, your fellow Post contributor. :)

Posted by: Misti Burmeister | January 11, 2010 8:47 PM
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