Book review: What's Wrong with Work? by Blaire Palmer

Want to transform the daily grind into something more rewarding? This book offers some help, says Henry Stewart.

by Henry Stewart
Last Updated: 04 Jan 2011
As the title suggests, this book starts from the negative, painting a picture of dysfunctional organisations that generally get in the way of people doing a good job. The aim is to find 'what kind of company succeeds in creating a culture where work is a joy'. But I found it emotionally draining to read about some of the things people have to put up with.

Now joy at work is a concept I can relate to. The company I run is called Happy Ltd and aims to create great workplaces. I actually rather enjoy my job and like to think my colleagues do too. Crucially, they know that if they want to get something done they can just go out and do it. In the world Palmer describes they would have to battle with 'the 5 frustrations of work: waste-of-time meetings, mis-leadership, blurred vision, silo mentalities and unfairness'.

This book is not aimed at those at the top, but at managers who need to bring about change from the middle of the organisation. Palmer knows this group well. After 10 years as a journalist at the BBC she became an executive coach and set up the company Taming Tigers to explore how mindset and attitude is the key to a successful career. This is her third book.

On the first frustration, she reckons we spend 37% of our time in meetings and up to half of this time is wasted. That amounts to a day a week when you might as well have stayed in bed. The fact that the key decisions get made outside meetings anyway only highlights how hopeless this focus is. Instead she specifies four types of meeting that can be useful and has some good ideas for making the meetings that you do have more effective.

Palmer believes that leadership is responsible for 50% to 70% of the feel of an organisation (though the source quoted is over 40 years old). Her advice is to focus on enhancing the working lives of your direct reports and use intrinsic motivators such as responsibility, advancement and growth. But don't follow the approach of other people: the key to being a great leader-manager is 'to be yourself, but a little bit better'.

The third frustration is blurred vision. Apparently 72% of employees want their leader to be forward-looking, but only 27% expect their peers to be. As soon as we step into management we are expected to change our outlook, yet only 3% of an executive's day is typically spent on vision. Do you know what your company's mission is? If you are to get the most from your people, your role as a middle manager is to ensure 'people arrive at work every day clear about what is really important about what they do'.

On silo mentality, Palmer gives the example of a bank where bonuses were awarded not on absolute performance but on how each branch performed compared to others. The result was that it was not in the interests of staff to help people in other branches, and it's not surprising that each branch was a separate silo. I can relate to this. At Happy we have no individual bonuses and none based on competition with another part of the business. This is the result of a staff vote 15 years ago that decided 11-1 to focus on group reward. I was the one voting against but I was wrong. If you want people to work together towards a shared vision, make sure your rewards support that.

Palmer's experience is that the world of work is not fair: 'The people who got ahead were rarely the ones with the most talent.' Indeed she quotes figures that only 2% of the population feel leaders of large firms are trustworthy (though she doesn't give a source). The challenge presented is how to practise fairness yourself within a probably unfair organisation. Simple tests for yourself include asking what your mother would think of what you are doing and asking what you would feel if your behaviour was published in the newspaper.

As I began reading, I thought the book risked stating the obvious. But it makes a lot of good points and there is nothing wrong with applying some common sense to the world of work. And if any of these issues ring true, this book is a great place to start.

The key message is that it doesn't matter where you are within your organisation, you don't have to accept the way things are. As Palmer puts it, quoting a colleague: 'Don't be a victim. Don't be "done to". Shape your own future.'

What's Wrong with Work?: The 5 frustrations of work and how to fix them for good
Blaire Palmer
Wiley £12.99

- Henry Stewart is chief executive of London-based training company Happy Ltd

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