If you find yourself unhappy or unfulfilled with aspects of your work, understand that you are by no means alone. According to a survey conducted by the Conference Board, more than half of all US workers are estimated to be unhappy in their jobs--an all-time low.
Of the thousands of people we've interviewed for our new book, What Motivates Me, many feel about their work the way this man colorfully described his job: "I haul my sorry carcass out of bed every morning and trudge off to my job, do work I won't get credit for, get yelled at by the boss for things that aren't my fault, try my hardest to keep everything afloat, then return home to repeat the process the next day."
Ever felt like that?
But we've also found stories that gave us hope. There are individuals and teams among us who are deeply fulfilled by their work, who are passionate about what they do, and are energized when Monday comes. Here are a few things we've noticed they do differently:
1. They watch the small talk.
Here's some interesting science: People who spend more of their days having deep discussions and less time engaging in small talk are happier, says Matthias Mehl, a psychology professor at the University of Arizona. This researcher has found that substantive conversations seem to hold a key to happiness. Why? Because human beings are driven to find and create meaning in their lives. "By engaging in meaningful conversations, we impose meaning on an otherwise pretty chaotic world," the professor says. In his studies, the happiest people--based on self-reports as well as assessments from people who knew the subjects--had twice as many substantive conversations and only one-third of the amount of small talk as those who were the most unhappy. Small talk made up only 10 percent of the happiest people's conversations, while it made up almost 30 percent of the unhappiest. We, too, can testify that people who are more talkative will actually make themselves happier and more successful by focusing their conversations more on substantive work issues and cutting back on fluffy chatter. As a step in the right direction, we recommend they try to have just one more thoughtful conversation each day about an important work issue, and also to walk away (nicely of course) from one bull session about nothing.
2. They make every assignment a challenge.
A unique ability cultivated by some talented people we've studied is to look at each big project not only as getting things done but also as an opportunity to expand their skill sets. It's a subtle psychological shift but an important one. It means they do more than the minimum required: researching industry trends relating to their assignments, talking with colleagues inside and outside the organization for best practices, and taking the time to dream up innovative ideas that might help their projects. When evaluating those ideas, they'll look in terms of the potential value that could be generated for the organization--the return on the investment of time or resources--then cull the list down to one or two that have the most potential to help them personally excel as well as have a meaningful organizational impact. The bottom line: The amount and quality of work a person contributes to the organization will most likely be valued. But even if it's not, take our word for it--most of us intrinsically feel better about ourselves when we give our all.
3. They get a good coach.
Even high-achieving sports superstars like Tiger Woods or Gabby Douglas need coaches. Every great employee needs to be pushed to find what he or she is truly capable of, which means we need someone to instruct, guide, and push us. All those who hope to excel in their work should choose a mentor, whether it's their boss, a senior colleague on their team, or someone else in the organization or even someone outside work, like a family member. They need to ensure that there's trust in the relationship, the mentor has sufficient time to invest, and there's good chemistry. Then, week by week, ask the coach to help you understand what success looks like, honestly assessing strengths and weaknesses and assisting in defining the next steps in your career progression.
4. They try to bring purpose before jumping ship.
Some people, in seeking to reach a level of fulfillment in life, will leave their jobs or turn from secure pathways to "find" themselves. Over the years it seems we have advised a whole stadium-full of bright-eyed people such as this to not forget to keep the lights on at home. Before you leave for pastures that may or may not be greener, and give up your known world in the process, try bringing purpose to a current role. All of us should take a long look at our current jobs and ask if we can sculpt things where we are. We also push people to understand exactly what difference they could make or would want to make in their roles. And better yet, we suggest that they bring others into the exploration and have regular conversations about their career goals with their manager, peers, family members, mentors, or other leaders whose opinions they value. For those unfortunates who still feel unable to build at work, all is not lost. There's always the opportunity to put extra time and energy into a nonprofit or school that is making a difference and needs their drive and talent.
5. They avoid whiners.
We all know who they are: There's typically a group of people who complain about everything at the office. If the boss pulls out her wallet and starts handing out twenty-dollar bills, this group will later moan that they weren't fifties. But complaining with no solution is a toxic habit. Sometimes making a positive difference at work is simply a matter of how a person chooses to think. We often ask people surrounded by whiners to look for ways to be authentically positive; for instance, publicly acknowledging a co-worker's accomplishment on completing a project. And even if it doesn't help change the office environment, we remind them they can always do this at home: telling their significant others or kids why they are inspiring, always using specific language, not vague platitudes.