Why we make ourselves miserable at work (and how to stop it)

Dan Diamond, EAB Daily Briefing

I knew a great doctor who was a terrible CEO.

He had all the special attributes of the best clinicians. Warm bedside manner. Keen, questioning mind. Terrific outcomes, and deeply loyal patients.

But he wasn't a businessman. And—by his own admission—he wasn't particularly good at being an administrator.

After a few years of struggling to run an organization, he was subtly pushed out and returned to seeing patients himself, rather than telling other doctors how to do it.

Sitting in his office one day, I asked him why he became an administrator. He thought for a minute.

"When I first decided to be a doctor, life became a series of achievements," the doctor told me. "The best college, then the best med school. Then a top residency."

"I'd spent years seeing patients, and felt overdue for the next challenge," he added, with a pained, twisted smile. "And that job seemed like the natural next step."

I thought about that doctor this month, after reading a new column from Arthur Brooks: "Rising to your level of misery at work."

The president of the conservative American Enterprise Institute, Brooks has carved out an unusual side-gig as a high-profile columnist for the New York Times,  writing about happiness and social science.

And in his latest column, Brooks describes a problem that's all-too-common: Happy, successful workers being pushed into management roles that leave them dissatisfied.

I bet you've seen it in your organization. I know I have, through interviews and across the industry.

Superstar teachers become overwhelmed department heads. Good professors become bad administrators. Even talented reporters become frustrated editors.

"Ambitious, hard-working, well-trained professionals are lifted by superiors to levels of increasing prestige and responsibility," Brooks writes. "This is fun and exciting—until it isn’t."

Becoming a happy manager

What does it mean to be engaged in your work?

We discussed this on a recent episode of the Weekly Briefing, where my colleagues Rivka Friedman and Rob Lazerow—incredible researchers who have been repeatedly promoted and now run their own teams—talked about the challenge of managing high performers,

"This is a job," Rivka says she reminds her team, "but what in it makes [your] job joyful?"

Rob added some advice he heard from Advisory Board Company founder David Bradley, and now passes on to his own staff: "Not only to find those things, but structure their roles around them as much as they can."

Brooks has his own prescription: Think beyond yourself, and on how your job affects others.

As Brooks writes,

I believe that service reduces stress and raises satisfaction because it displaces the object of attention from oneself. When I am working for myself, any disappointing outcome is a stressful, unpleasant reflection on me. When I am serving, on the other hand, the work is always intrinsically valuable because of its intention. Adopting a service mindset guarantees some measure of success.

Given that the Daily Briefing's readers are disproportionately educators, who already have a service-oriented mindset, I might go one step further.

Something we've found in our interviews is that many of the happiest leaders spend a disproportionate amount of time in the wards, shadowing frontline staff and meeting with families. And something I've anecdotally learned over the years is that the most engaged employees are the ones who find ways to see the real-world impact of their work.

It's easy to become a manager who walls himself off—especially if your office allows for it.

Thoughts on the story? Tweet us at @eab_daily and let us know.

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