Everybody would love to work in a Dream Job. Not everybody is so lucky; and not everybody realizes what the makings of such a job are. What makes a salaried position into a dream job?
I’ve spent some 3 decades in a variety of positions before striking out on my own, and now as a consultant I get to see many workplaces and to talk to many workers. I’ve seen good jobs and bad, wonderful and horrible ones. Here is what I found. Perhaps you can find more (do share, if you do!). This is a subject you want to reflect on, because you ignore it at your own peril.
Hint: it isn’t about the money!
Five makings of a Dream Job
1. Good coworkers
Your immediate coworkers are going to be a major part of your existence. You will spend as much waking time with them as with your spouse or children (more, if you can’t manage work/life balance well). These people can make your life a joy – or a nightmare. In a Dream Job, your coworkers will have a relationship with each other that transcends the job or the workplace; they will get to know your family, and will always be there for you – in good times and bad. They will be the kind of friends that you can phone for an urgent favor in the middle of the night. And, of course, vice versa.
I was lucky to work in a number of such teams. The friendships persist to this day.
2. Good team culture
A well integrated team will have developed over the years its own unique culture, with its private slang, rituals, norms and customs. For example, they may have a set ritual where every Friday one team member (in rotation) brings in a cake they baked or bought and everyone has the pleasure to eat it together. They may have a norm defining how unpleasant chores of the job are allocated to team members in a way they all consider fair. They may take pride in maintaining a workplace that is clean and esthetically pleasing.
These homegrown cultural practices gain a deep meaning for the team’s identity and the pleasure of belonging to it. As I described in “How to Improve Your Company Culture by the Judicious Use of Coffee”, the forensic lab I worked in long ago used the attentive cooking of Turkish coffee on a Bunsen burner as a ritual that fueled both group cohesion and good relations with other groups. That place was so much like a home to us that we’d actually bring in old furniture from our own homes to improve the lab…
3. Good boss
Nothing can poison a workplace like a bad boss. Unfortunately these are much too abundant, and the people who work for them are as frustrated as they are ineffective. This involves two mechanisms:
- An ineffective manager fails to empower people to do their best work, as I discuss here. This doesn’t necessarily imply that the manager in question is evil or unpleasant – sometimes they’re just inept. Either way, the subordinates are frustrated because they can’t get their job done.
- An unpleasant, petty, or unfair manager adds insult to injury and can make people truly miserable.
I was very lucky throughout my career to have direct managers that were both empowering and friendly, and it meant a lot. At times more senior managers came into the picture who were not of this kind, and that also meant a lot: the poison trickles down the hierarchy quite rapidly.
4. Good company culture
A good organizational culture is important, although in its absence a very good middle manager may be able to shield their group to some degree.
The key thing is that the organization be honest, fair, well meaning, socially responsible… things that allow you to carry your employee badge with pride. It helps if there are a few things the company does that stand out – that other companies don’t do – such as having a unique kind of day care solution for employees’ kids, or a matching program to donate funds to charities employees support… things that will elicit a “Wow!” when you tell others about them.
Of special value in this respect are three aspects of the culture:
- Trusting employees’ judgment and empowering them to act on it, as I cover in “Don’t treat them like children!”
- Giving managers the discretion to run their teams and their budgets as they think best. This is important because it permits (good) middle managers to preserve the quality of life in their groups in the face of adverse changes from above.
- Having the built in flexibility to address special or unusual employee needs – so you know that if something happens, the company will be there for you, ready to find a way to help you out even if it means making an exception to its normal policies.
5. Good challenges
A caveat: not everybody loves challenges. There are people that love a straightforward nine-to-five job and are happy to do it well and uneventfully. As one middle-aged operator in a US hi-tech plant told me “I can’t understand how you engineers can live with all these unplanned problems… now in my job, I have peace and quiet, I always know what will happen, I get my tea break in mid-shift every day…”
That said, many knowledge workers do prefer a challenge, and the ideal job for them would have the challenges not in the details but in the overall task facing their organization. Starting a new company, building a new plant, bringing up a new technology… these make your job interesting. Doing so at the bleeding edge – starting the first, the largest, the most advanced plant, for example – makes it exhilarating.
What can you do if your job isn’t like that?
Let’s face it: many of us don’t have the luxury of working in a dream job. There may be unpleasant coworkers around us, our manager may be unfair, the company culture may suck… and even if all is well, it may stop being well at the drop of a hat – a single change in management is as likely to destroy a dream job as is a drop in market demand for your product.
So what can you do?
- You can try and change things for the better, from the inside. This is the hardest kind of being a change agent, since you have to mess with the culture – and under often hostile circumstances. If you succeed, your coworkers will owe you big time!
- As a manager, you can wield your authority and influence to change the culture and the norms both of your company and of the group you manage.
- If the above is not an option, you can get up and leave. Move to a different department, or a different company; find a place where you are empowered to do your best, treated fairly, and love your coworkers. Think hard before you act – sometimes constraints preclude such a move – but do yourself a favor and, if at all possible, don’t stay in a job where you aren’t enjoying your work. It isn’t worth the pain!
- And of course, you can take the leap I’ve taken a few years ago and go it solo – start your own small business. The advantage is that you can influence your environment much better – after all, you can choose your clients, electing to work only with companies whose values and integrity you can admire, and to collaborate with others that you choose yourself. Now that’s a dream job!…