Anatomy of a Miserable Job



I’m convinced that the world lumps too many work issues under the umbrella banner “work-life balance”.

Sometimes, it has nothing to do with balance at all.  

Sometimes, it’s because we’ve landed ourselves a really miserable job.  Wouldn’t matter how short the hours were.  If we’re in a bad work situation, we’d be miserable.

But what actually makes a job miserable?

This is the very question posed by Patrick Lencioni in his book The Three Signs of a Miserable Job.

He answers it by way of a fable, through the story of Brian Bailey, a senior executive abruptly thrown into retirement after his company was unexpectedly sold.

Through a series of interesting twist and turns, Brian ends up working as the manager of an Italian fast-food restaurant in Lake Tahoe.

Through Brian’s stint at this restaurant, Lencioni explores the reasons employees may be indifferent and downright unhappy at work.

Here’s a Cliffs Notes version of the book for you.

The three signs of a miserable job:

1.  Anonymity

A friend of mine became quite unhappy at work after a company re-organization.

Due to the re-shuffling of teams, she ended up reporting to a manager in Dallas, while she remained based in NYC.

She had no previous working relationship with her new boss and had never met him in person.  Despite regular conference calls, she felt isolated, being the only person in NYC.

Although her main job responsibilities did not change, in her mind she went from being a great contributing member of a solid team (prior to the re-org), to an invisible cog in the wheel.

“People who see themselves as invisible, generic, or anonymous cannot love their jobs, no matter what they are doing.”

2.  Irrelevance

Except for the heavy travel, I loved the years when I was a consultant.  I believe it’s because of this:  I always knew that my work mattered.

My clients asked for and needed the service I was providing.  I had an almost daily validation of my relevance to the clients I served.

And by extension, I was relevant to my company.  I was providing billable service that brings in direct revenue to the firm.

When I left consulting and moved to industry, I no longer directly interfaced with the company’s customers.  It was harder to see how my work directly impacted them.

“Even the most cynical employees need to know that their work matters to someone, even if it’s just the boss.”

3.  Immeasurement

Lencioni was quick to say that you won’t find this word in the dictionary – so don’t try!

He used the word to refer to the absence of a meaningful way for us to assess our progress and contribution towards the end goal.

In the book, we see this situation through Carl, the person responsible for taking orders from the drive-thru window, handing out the food, and collecting payment for it.

At end of any given day, Carl had no good way to assess whether he’d done a good job or not, or if he was improving.

“Employees need to be able to gauge their progress and level of contribution themselves.  They cannot be fulfilled in their work if their success depends on the opinions or whims of another person.”

What About You

Do you recognize these signs?  Have you experienced any of these?  Were you able to address them?  What did you do?   Please share your thoughts in the comments section below.

Lou is the Founder of Second Breaks, a site dedicated to the pursuit of life’s second acts.  Visit her at

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