I once ran an online contest asking a very simple question -- what is your biggest complaint about work? The responses flooded into the Web site and were not at all what I'd expected.
I was totally prepared for a ton of responses about low pay, disrespect, poor working conditions, etc. But actually, more than half of the responses all touched on the same topic -- people who steal food from the company refrigerator. I couldn't make this up. At first I thought that they'd all come from the same company. But as I read through them I realized they all had different details.
Choosing a winner from all of these tragic cases of lunches lost was a challenge -- until I came across the most painful and pathetic story of them all. One poor person described how her lunch thief not only ate fellow employees' lunches but also managed to rub their faces in what remained.
She described in painful detail about how her thief opened a box of chicken wings, ate half of them and then carefully put the bones back in the box and resealed the container. Ouch ... and gross
Besides being thankful that you don't have to work with this person, why should you care about this isolated case of cruelty? Because when it comes to our jobs, the big stuff -- not getting a big promotion, having a really tough competitor, not feeling like your work is appreciated -- often fades in comparison to the little annoying stuff like people stealing your lunch. I call it the "pebble in the shoe versus getting hit by a boulder" rule. Over time, the pebble drives you the crazies.
Don't believe me? There was another study that asked what about the biggest complaint at work … The No. 1 response? It's too cold. Wanna guess the second most common complaint? Yep, it's too hot.
Granted, this study was done by the International Facility Management Association, but it does point out the power of the little annoyances at work.
What is the moral of this story? Management tends to focus on the big stuff in those rare times when it focuses on employee morale. Issues like bullies, food thieves and temperature are not the kind of stuff that most managers think of when they focus on employee satisfaction. Yet these are the very issues that are wearing down your people.
I'm not discounting the big stuff. I'm just trying to shine the spotlight on the little annoyances that can have a big impact at work.
Lest you think I'm making a mountain out of a molehill here. I recently saw a remarkable survey from the Conference Board. It asked employees in 1995 if they were satisfied at work. Sixty percent said they were. The survey was repeated in 2005. The number of satisfied workers has dropped to 50 percent. Might be time to tinker with that thermostat a bit more …
"The employer generally gets the employees he deserves." -- Sir Walter Gilbey
From "Funky Business: Talent Makes Capital Dance" by Jonas Ridderstrale and Kjell Nordstrom (FT.com, 2000):