Why You’re Miserable in Your Corporate Job

I’ve begun writing the book, Corporate Life is Hell:  12 Steps to Personal Freedom and Liberated Leadership.

Despite its main title, it is a book with a positive message about creativity, purpose, responsibility, courage, and yes, even love.  It is a Leadership book which asserts that Everyone is a Leader, and as such, only you can take the steps to create the job (and life) you want.

But first, I need to cover what I mean when I say corporate life is hell.

I’ve worked in corporate America for over 20 years (18 years internally and 4 years as an external coach and consultant).  I’ve spoken with hundreds (maybe even thousands) of corporate leaders during that time and I can say with high confidence, there is plenty of disillusionment, disengagement, and even unhappiness in the corporate world.  Not long after I started my Leadership Coaching practice I started sharing with people that it was my mission to Liberate Corporate America from Hell.  I came up with that clever little saying after working through my own demons that I wrestled with during my corporate career.  I was usually pretty nervous to say it out loud, for fear of being judged, but as you can guess, I got nothing but recognition.

Anyone who has spent enough time in the corporate world, particularly in any kind of management job, understands immediately what I mean.  Regardless of how they personally feel about their current job, the people I talk to can always recall a time when they were unhappy in their job, or they can see friends and colleagues who are miserable in their job.

Why are people in corporate jobs so often miserable?

It’s strange when you think about it because corporate life is actually pretty cushy, with it’s air-conditioned offices and ergonomic chairs. Over the past 50 years laws and policies have steadily chipped away at blatant mistreatment and discrimination.  There may be exceptions, but for the most part, people are paid fairly well.  You might complain, but tell that to the person barely surviving on minimum wage at a fast food restaurant.  All in all, if you’re doing your job, you are probably getting a healthy paycheck direct deposited in your bank every 2 weeks as you sail along.  What do you have to complain about?

The fact is, most of us still find corporate jobs somewhat less than satisfying, if not outright miserable.  The Gallup organization has, for years, demonstrated that around 70% of the corporate workforce is “disengaged,” with a good chunk of those being “actively disengaged,” which means they work counter to the interests of the company.  There are a myriad of reasons for why this is the case, but I’ll summarize them in 3 categories.

The first set of reasons for corporate hell are all about Power.

Everyone’s heard that the number one reason people leave their job or company is their immediate boss.  It’s true, no one has more influence over the quality of your work life than your immediate supervisor.  That person typically holds the power to promote, fire, and add and subtract job responsibilities.  They evaluate you and are responsible for how you get labelled in the performance appraisal process and how you get rewarded come bonus time.  Even if they lack some of that power, they are still the organization’s face of that power to you.  Ask anyone what makes their job great, or what makes it hell, and the chances are very high they will tell you about their boss.

The dynamics of power in affecting the quality of corporate life go far beyond just your boss.  Power is at the heart of corporate politics.  The very definition of the word politics is acquiring and retaining power.  When you and a colleague are competing for the favor of your boss, it’s politics, and it’s miserable.  Even if you say you don’t play that game, you are probably disgusted by those who do, and frustrated by the impact it has on you.  When you are concerned with looking good to your superiors, it’s a form of politics, and because you don’t control how your boss thinks and feels, you can feel powerless in this game.  When conflict and disagreement at work (both of which are normal and healthy) devolve into politics and power struggles (both of which can be destructive and unhealthy), it’s hell.

When you are the boss, you’re still subject to the miseries of power dynamics.  You’re the boss and you expect people to do their job.  But for reasons you can’t quite put a finger on, some people just can’t get it together.  You tell them over and over what you want and how to do it, and still, they don’t get it right.  You then feel powerless to get what you want from people.    You start resorting to the only power you think you have, which is your hierarchical power over the promotions, rewards, and workload of your employees, and we’re back to square one about the boss being at the center of corporate hell.  What is fascinating to me is that very often in my experience, the same exact person can experience the frustration of power dynamics from all three perspectives:  they are frustrated by their own boss, and yet they don’t realize they are doing the same things to their own employees.  And then they may still find themselves embroiled in power struggles with peers and colleagues.  It doesn’t matter where you sit organizationally.  Power dynamics exist, and they can be the source of your dissatisfaction in your job.

The second set of reasons for corporate hell are all about Idiocy

Yes, you read that right, I said Idiocy.  Corporate life can be chock full of decisions that make no sense and work that seems like a waste of time.  I’m not necessarily saying it IS idiocy, but in the eye of the beholder that’s how it feels.

Large organizations, by their very nature, will have conflicting agendas, limited resource pools, and marginal ability to move and create change quickly.  What it feels like to be in an organization beset by these forces is that priorities are always shifting, clarity is always elusive, and aligned effort is always lacking.  The easiest thing in the world is to sit within this feeling and point the finger at all the idiocy (and actual idiots!) you see around you.

After enough times of your project budget getting cut, or your department getting reorganized, or the promotion going to that idiot, or your job getting eliminated, you start to think what’s the point of all of this?  You lose sight of any sense of purpose to what you are doing.  Somewhere, far off, there is a reason your company is in business, but the path between here and there seems pretty overgrown.  This leads to the last category of reasons corporate life is hell.

The third set of reasons for corporate hell are all about Disconnection

When you no longer feel the connection between  your own work and the success (or failure) of the company, you disengage.  Getting a paycheck is not enough to keep people engaged.  By definition, being engaged means caring, and as The Beatles said… “money can’t buy me love.”

Money can satisfy us in the short term, like right after we get a raise, but it very quickly settles into the status quo.  The steady paycheck creates a feeling of safety, but it can never create a lasting sense of purpose and engagement.  There are exceptions to this, and Dan Pink’s excellent book Drivegoes into this in great detail.  True engagement comes from purpose, and purpose can often be found simply enough in the feeling of belonging to something bigger than yourself.  The disengaged 70% aren’t really feeling that.  If you are one of the 70%, you live for the weekend, and feel anxiety every Sunday night.  You are probably a different person at work than you are at home, and whether you are aware of it or not, that takes a toll.  Keeping a lid on the full expression of who you are is stressful, saps your energy, and is ultimately a source of misery because you feel disconnected from your true self when you’re at work.

An extension of this feeling is that you start to feel disconnected from the people you work with. If they don’t know who you are and get to see the real you, then you likely don’t get to see the real them, and the result is disconnection.  (as an interesting side note, Gallup has identified one of the most predictive survey items for whether or not you are engaged in your job as “I have a best friend at work.”)

Now, all the reasons above about Power and Idiocy get worse, because there is no foundation of personal connection.  Now it feels like you just work with a bunch of assholes and idiots, and that is hell.  Finding personal fulfillment in your job feels like a pipe dream.  It’s now become a soulless place, which is why I chose to call it hell.

It does not have to be this way.

As I said at the start, this is a book about Liberation.  You have the power to change your experience, and in the process, become an amazing leader.  You also have tremendous power to change your circumstances, but that comes after.  It all starts with changing yourself and how you experience and respond to your circumstances.  If you do that, then corporate America has the potential to become personally fulfilling and world changing.


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