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How to Eliminate Shitwork

I have all these wonderful challenges flowing in from folks who downloaded 22 Surefire Ways to Boost Employee Engagement. We’ve already looked at some (here, here, here, and here) and, as time goes by, I will post more of them here.

In the meantime, I am thinking: how can I best help these people? What can I say that they don’t already know? I wonder what would happen if I were in their shoes. Would I see the same problem? Or would I see something different?

Framing the problem is 80% of the solution. If we keep asking ourselves the same question, we give ourselves the same answer. But when we ask ourselves a new question, we beg for a new answer. If we ask different questions, we might get to the root of the problem, even if by mere accident.

What about questions that NOBODY is asking? As I looked over my Biggest Challenge at Work files, I could think of a few right away. I decided to start a new series of posts to talk about things that are sort of hidden in plain view. Especially those that I wish I had learned sooner rather than later. You’ll see them on this blog, under How come nobody’s asking. And, since we are still talking about employee engagement, I’ll begin with the all-important subject of shitwork.

Many people ask things like,

“How do I position myself for career advancement?”


“How do I get more opportunities to do the work I love?”

If you are a manager, not only do you ask these questions of yourself, you also need to ask them on behalf of every one of your employees. Unless, of course, you are the type of manager that doesn’t care about making the job rewarding and fulfilling for your people. In which case I’d like to refer you to my new book, Who the Hell Wants to Work for You?.

The questions of career development and job satisfaction are extremely important to everyone in the company. To employees doing the work. To managers responsible for the outcomes. And to HR sourcing warm bodies to take care of business. And, as we peer into the fearsome darkness out of which these questions arise, we begin to understand why our work-lives shape themselves the way they do.

Of course, there is no room for advancement if we keep doing things we already know how to do. And, obviously, we’ll never do anything we love if we spend all of our time doing work we despise, and if, with each passing day, we fall further and further behind on our shit-to-do list—until we’re in a shitpile up to our eyebrows, and all we ever see is shit, shit, and more shit.

It’s a bleak picture, but a sadly accurate one, given all the complaints I get about sinking employee engagement and sagging employee morale. What do you think these employees see when they come to work? (And, likely, when they go home too?) Well, what you see is what you get. If we are to engage people at work, we must help them see something different.

But first, where does all the shitwork come from? And why is shitwork always plentiful, no matter how much of it we outsource to India and China?

Paid work comes from management. Management decides what needs to be accomplished by what means of production—and who is capable of doing what. And therein lies the true source of all pleasure and pain in the workplace. So here it is again:

Management is the true source of all pleasure and pain in the workplace.

We’ve already talked in the previous post about matching people to the jobs and using their talents correctly. Here’s more:

Let your people grow on the job

Look at the wanted ads. Most job descriptions require years of experience at something that takes an intelligent and motivated person 6 months to master. As managers, we like to give people work for which they are overqualified, just so we can over-cover our asses. We tell them that there will be opportunities to advance, but we don’t really mean it. There will be plenty of opportunities to do the same work forever, but we don’t really mention it. Why state the obvious?

Is hiring less experienced people worth the risk? Does it pay off in higher employee morale? Southwest Airlines is not a new story, but passengers still post videos of flight attendants slipping jokes into the in-flight emergency drill. Talk about shitwork transformed! Nor does Southwest care about previous work experience. They will hire and train teachers, police officers, salespeople, or anyone who loves taking care of customers and is thrilled to start a second career as a flight attendant.

If you want more detailed advice or if you are curious how other employers solve the problem of career development, take a look at Who the Hell Wants to Work for You?, Chapter 9—Support career development.

Trust them to do it their way

Growing your people is as much about training and mentoring them as it is about leaving them alone. Computer programs need detailed specs, but people need creative challenges. You already know this, but it’s worth repeating:

Micromanagement is the quickest and surest way to take the joy out of any job.

Break every task into idiot-proof, predictable steps—and you’ve created work that nobody likes to do.

Much has been said about micromanagement. Still, the hardest part is figuring out that we might be guilty of it. Because when we do it, it’s not micromanagement, it’s the only way to avert a crisis and get the job done. I’ve found great advice on catching oneself in the act of micromanaging others. It’s a habit most micromanagers turn a blind eye to, but there’s help for those ready quit. Go to Chapter 11 in my book, Let go of your inner micromanager, to see more.

Use Technology

Speaking of computers, if it hadn’t been for them, we would still be typing and retyping documents, making copies, and doing data entry. All of which abundantly qualifies as shitwork.

Today, millions of people, like myself and my employees, are writing new software. Most of it—to spare the humans some mundane and mind-numbing task. Check it out! Always look for ways to get a computer to do the shitwork no one else likes to do.

Make It a Game

Why is it that throwing a ball into a basket is a spectator sport, but making cold calls is a punishing chore?

A lot of it has to do with keeping score.

For some reason, our brains love to keep score, and it really doesn’t matter what we do. It could be stomach crunches. It could be working for tips. People even get off on counting calories and losing weight.

Say you have a task that no one likes to do. But you can’t outsource it and you can’t automate it. Can you find a way to assign a number to it? Like number of cold calls made. Number of complaints closed. Number of…?

Next—and this is what makes it into a game—we want to have this number always in front of the person carrying out the task. And, if other people are working on the same task, we want everyone to see everyone else’s numbers too.

Every company is already tracking some metric or another. Some even write these metrics into individual performance plans with individual and team goals calculated ahead of time. Great! Now you have a loathsome goal on top of a loathsome task. The trouble starts when only the manager can track everyone’s progress, and some are not even set up to continuously track anything at all. Imagine a game where only a coach can see the score, and only during half-time. Or where the opponent’s score is hidden from view.

Another mistake is to track complex results like revenues and profits, without keeping tabs on simple tasks under each individual’s immediate control. Think of what the “Like” button does for Facebook. People don’t know if they are going to meet new friends or make money, but they keep posting to their timelines and updating their business pages because they know they can get likes. And, with each new like, our brain gets just enough happy hormones to keep moving onto the next task.

Be Grateful

A scoreboard and a “like” can turn a shitty task into a glorious one. Conversely, any work is shitwork if nobody sees it or appreciates it. This is not a new subject, but one that is worth harping on, because here, again, we come face to face with our human failings.

It’s so much easier to be mad at people for not pulling their weight than to be grateful for what they accomplish. Gratitude needs to become a habit in the workplace. And it needs to extend in all directions: management to people, people to management, employees to customers, customers to employees, and employees to one another.

Great companies have figured out some of the most unusual ways to cultivate gratitude. If you want to be great, you’ll have to come up with your own. In the meantime, if you want inspiration, see Chapter 23 in Who the Hell Wants to Work for You?Say Thank You.

A word to the wise: my book—and most of the things I post here—are written for managers and business owners. But you don’t have to be a manager or an owner to think like one. When faced with shitwork, remember to ask the big questions. Why does this shit need to be done? Who is the best person to do this shit? How can I make this shit fun? (Yes, fun.) And how can I make this shit better for everyone?


If you dislike shitwork, then we have something in common. And since I wrote my book for people just like myself, you might like it too.

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Tim Eisenhauer
About Tim Eisenhauer
Tim is the author of Who the Hell Wants to Work for You? Break Down the Invisible Barriers to Employee Engagement. He's also a co-founder and president of Axero, a technology company that makes intranet software for businesses. He's spilt insightful ink on the pages of Fortune, Forbes, TIME, Fast Company, Inc Magazine, Entrepreneur.com, and other top publications.

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