Commentary: A decent boss can make the world of difference at work
Job satisfaction takes many forms but beware the demoralising effects of impersonal systems for evaluating employees, says the Financial Times' Sarah O’Connor.
LONDON: The best job I ever had (apart from this one) was in a labyrinthine second-hand bookshop. The old house had books crammed into every room from the cellar to the attic.
My job as a teenager was to shelve books, organise the ever-unruly sections and run the coffee shop. The house was so big I clipped a baby monitor to my jeans so I would know when someone rang the bell for service.
There was a lot of running up and down stairs, but there was always time for tea and conversation with my elderly boss, who was clever, funny and kind.
Economists are increasingly of the opinion that the quality of jobs matters as much as their quantity. Dani Rodrik, an economics professor at Harvard, believes one of the “fundamental problems of contemporary capitalism” is “its failure to produce adequate numbers of good jobs”.
He sees evidence for this in polarising labour markets, rising geographical inequality and declining job stability.
Daron Acemoglu, an MIT professor, argues that “no known human society has created shared prosperity purely through redistribution” and that “it is good jobs, not redistribution, that provide people with purpose and meaning in life”.
WHAT KEEPS PEOPLE HAPPY AT WORK?
Economists aren’t the only ones who care. Employers struggling with staff shortages also want to know how to keep people happy at work. But what makes a job good? Researchers have come up with various definitions based on reams of survey data.
One European study concludes that “a high-quality job may have high job resources and high challenge demands, as well as high pay, job security and development opportunities”. My bookshop job ticked none of those boxes.
Similarly, when I asked people on Twitter to tell me about jobs they had loved, the stories I received ranged from working the morning rush at a “drive-through” doughnut shop to watching films to decide which age certificate they should be.
I heard from teachers, bricklayers, supermarket cashiers, electricians and academics.
Some people valued the complete opposite things to each other. A journalist talked about being a foreign correspondent during a crisis in Asia. “Everything I saw or heard on the streets felt meaningful. The invisible walls round the job seemed to have dissolved.”
Others liked jobs where those invisible walls were impermeable. “[I] don’t take my work home with me, I never think about work when I’m at home,” said another. Some loved jobs where the work itself was their passion or hobby; others found joy in the company of fun colleagues in otherwise dull jobs.
HARD TO MEASURE A GOOD JOB
One obvious conclusion is that different jobs suit different people at different stages in their life. No progression prospects and £3 (US$4) an hour didn’t matter to me as a teenager, but it would for someone with rent and responsibilities.
That poses a challenge to academics who want to define and measure the number of “good jobs” in the economy. That said, one common thread linked many people’s stories about jobs they loved: A decent boss who gave them some autonomy and “had their back”.
Research confirms the importance of good line management. One UK study into NHS Trusts found those trusts with good “people management practices”, such as supportive managers, were much more likely to have satisfied staff, lower absence levels and satisfied patients.
Research by the Office for National Statistics has found a statistically significant positive correlation between management practice scores and labour productivity. UK employers invest surprisingly little into something which matters so much.
A government survey in mid-2017 found that only two-thirds of employers had provided any training to staff in the previous 12 months, of which only 35 per cent had provided management training. The occupational group “managers” was the least likely to have received training in the 12 months before employers were surveyed, and the only occupational group where less than half received training.
CORPORATE POLICIES AFFECT RELATIONSHIPS
Training isn’t everything, of course. Bosses also need to be given the discretion, time and trust to be able to manage their teams well. Some corporate policies or targets can undermine these relationships.
Performance appraisal systems which force managers to assign a fixed proportion of their team as high, middle and low performers, for example, turn colleagues into competitors and bosses into enemies.
Software which monitors or appraises workers can similarly erode trust between bosses and their staff. The good news for employers is that you don’t have to pay spectacularly well or offer the best benefits to be a decent place to work.
The bad news is that if you run an organisation where bad managers are overlooked or even rewarded, no amount of free fruit or employee meditation apps will fix it.