That's why they call it "work".

Complaining about our jobs is just what we humans do; it's as natural as being annoyed by ATM fees.

The problem occurs when the grudges turn into real job dissatisfaction, which yields astounding losses in output (for example Gallup estimates disengaged workers cost the economy $350 billion a year in lost productivity).

And when the job irritant reaches a level where it's the biggest source of dissatisfaction in the workplace, as measured recently by Conference Board research, it's everyone's problem.

So what causes the highest level of job dissatisfaction?

Surely it must be the number of perks offered (or not) or the physical work space, especially since many have to spend so many hours in one location? If not, then it must be our annoying co-workers, that soul-sucking boss, or the dreaded commute, right?

No across the board, says the Conference Board report.

In truth, the biggest culprits are right under our nose and largely free to execute: a lack of basic recognition and clear/fair opportunities to advance.

Three of the five biggest agitators centered on this theme--dissatisfaction with promotion policies, the performance review process, and recognition/acknowledgment (rounding out the five were job training and bonus plans).

The good news is we can do something about this.

Let's start with promotions and performance reviews. The first step is being aware these are major sources of dissatisfaction--check.

Now, knowing this you can probably imagine the fixes (just ponder what might tick you off). Research shows people expect these things from promotion policies:

  • Clarity: Everyone gets the criteria, up front.
  • Consistency: No favoritism or exceptions in the application thereof.
  • Fairness: The policy actually gives you a reasonable shot at advancing your career; it's built on enough opportunity for advancement as to be encouraging and without undue bias.

And people expect these things from a performance review process:

  • Clarity: Everyone understands the process, up front.
  • Consistency: Everyone goes through the same process in the same manner.
  • Fairness: The process incorporates well-rounded perspective from multiple stakeholders.
  • Simplicity: The process doesn't create undue burden to complete.
  • Accountability: Those who emerge strong are recognized/rewarded, those who don't are held accountable (no exceptions).

That's it--not exactly rocket science for these two items. You don't need massive insight, just intentionality.

As for the basic recognition/acknowledgment part of this, one of a few things tends to happen: a) a rare leader truly nails rewards and recognition, b) leaders simply don't reward and recognize--ever, or c) leaders have decent intent but poor execution.

Let's focus on the third, most common scenario. Here's how to do rewards and recognition right:

1. Personalize so that you don't trivialize.

A cookie-cutter approach to rewards and recognition can make recipients feel as unappreciated as if they weren't getting rewarded or recognized. Take the time to understand how each employee likes to be recognized and what makes each individual employee feel valued.

2. Get everyone in on the act.

Peer-to-peer recognition is some of the most powerful kind--so encourage it.

When you catch people in the act of recognizing someone else, let them know how much you appreciate it--reward rewarding. Provide simple recognition resources like thank-you cards or low-budget themed rewards.

Visibly place the thank you cards in displays in the hallway--you can call these areas "Appreciation Stations"--to further signify the importance of rewards and recognition to the culture.

3. Be frequent, but not frivolous.

You'll never hear people complaining that they're receiving too much recognition. Just clearly establish what behaviors/outcomes will be rewarded, whether it's leadership, risk taking, collaboration, etc. and then be sure to link it to results, not just activities.

4. Celebrate first downs and touchdowns.

It's important to support the right frequency and breadth of rewards and recognition. When major results are achieved, there are invariably important milestones that happened along the way that enabled the major achievement. The supporting cast and results that led up to the major result should be celebrated in addition to the major result itself.

5. Deliberate the delivery.

How you deliver rewards and recognition to employees can stick the landing or crash the landing. Don't kill the intent. You should think through the delivery with attention to detail.

"Table stakes" are sincerity (if it comes from the heart it sticks in the mind), specificity, and timeliness.

Sometimes the most complex issues have the simplest solutions. Good 'ol fashioned recognition and fair opportunity is the remedy to administer here.

And you're just what the Doctor ordered.