Bored People Quit: How to Engage Your People

August 19, 2011

On his popular blog “Rands in Repose,” (see below) Michael has been writing since the mid-1990s with great humor and insight about management—a subject that in less capable hands can quickly veer of course into worthless platitudes.

Michael’s definition of a great manager is deceptively simple—and profound: “See the people who work with you.”

“Every single person with whom you work has a vastly diferent set of needs. It is your full-time job to listen to these people and mentally document how they are built. This is your most important job.”

Here are a few highlights:

1. People go off the rails in quiet ways. The root cause of most employment disasters is often something small. You need to really see your people so you can recognize the signs.

2. Meet 1:1 at the same time every week. The 1:1 shouldn’t be a status update. It’s an opportunity to have a real conversation with your direct reports about what’s really going on.

3. Let them vent. Everyone needs a safe place to express their frustrations. Don’t interrupt or try to provide solutions. Just listen.

4. Ask if they are bored. Most employees are happier and more engaged at work when they are challenged. Make sure their work hasn’t become rote or repetitive.

5. Set well defined contracts for crap work. Work can’t be interesting all the time. But it shouldn’t be that way forever. Make sure team members know how long they will have to spend on less engaging tasks—and balance them out with more exciting work.

Much has been written about employee motivation and retention. It’s written by folks who actively use words like motivationand retention and generally don’t have a clue about the daily necessity of keeping your team professionally content because they’ve either never done the work or have forgotten how it’s done. These are the people who show up when your single best engineer casually and unexpectedly announces, “I’m quitting. I’m joining my good friend to found a start-up. This is my two weeks’ notice.”

You call on the motivation and retention police because you believe they can perform the legendary “diving save”. Whether it’s HR or a well-intentioned manager with a distinguished title, these people scurry impressively. Meetings that go long into the evening are instantly scheduled with the disenfranchised employee.

It’s an impressive show of force, and it sometimes works, but even if they stay, the damage has been done. They’ve quit, and when someone quits they are effectively saying, “I no longer believe in this company”. What’s worse is that what they were originally thinking was, “I’m bored”.
Boredom is easier to fix than an absence of belief.

Detecting Boredom

There are many reasons other than boredom that someone will quit. Your company might suck or be headed towards suck. This person might randomly get an offer that fulfills their life’s dream. There is a bevy of unpredictable reasons that someone will leave, but boredom is an aspect of their daily professional life you can not only easily assess, but also fix. More importantly, boredom is not initially catastrophic. Boredom shows up quietly and appears to pose no immediate threat. This makes it both easy to address and easy to ignore.

My three techniques for detecting boredom:

1. Any noticeable change in daily routine. A decrease in productivity is a great early sign that something’s up, but what you are looking for is any change in their routine. Increased snark? Unexpected vacations? Later arrivals? Earlier departures? Anything that strikes you as out of the ordinary for someone whose day you are familiar with is worth considering. The root cause of this change may have nothing to do with boredom, and the best way is figure that out is…

2. You ask, “Are you bored?” Even if you don’t have a gut feeling, it’s a good question to randomly ask your team. When I ask, I look you straight in the eyes and if you can’t stare me in the face and answer, I’m going to keep digging until you look me in the eye. Remember, the goal here is to discover boredom before they know it, and the act of a simple question might be just the mental impetus they need to see the early signs in themselves.

3. They tell you. And you listen. You’d think that someone walking into your office and stating that they’re bored would set off all sorts of alarms in your head, but that’s because you’re halfway through this article wondering when I’m going to cut to the chase and explain how to fix bored people. The reality is that someone is going to tell you they’re bored quietly and when you least expect it. They’ll tell you halfway through your 1:1 and they won’t use the word bored. They’ll say something innocuous like, “…and I really don’t know what to do next,” and you’re going to blow right by the most important thing they’ve said in a while because you’re worried about your next meeting.

As I’ve reflected on the regrettable departures of folks I’ve managed, hindsight allows me to point to the moment the person changed. Whether it was a detected subtle change or an outright declaration of their boredom, there was a clear sign that the work sitting in front of them was no longer interesting. And I ignored my observation. I assumed it was insignificant.He’s having a bad day. I assumed things would just get better. In reality, the boredom was a seed. What was “I’m bored” grew roots and became “I’m bored and why isn’t anyone doing anything about it?” and sprouted “I’m bored, I told my boss, and he… did nothing,” and finally bloomed into “I don’t want to work at a place where they don’t care if I’m bored.”

I think of boredom as a clock. Every second that someone on my team is bored, a second passes on this clock. After some aggregated amount of seconds that varies for every person, they look at the time, throw up their arms, and quit.

For further information, see
Michael “Rands” Lopp,

Posted in Blog by Douglas Fahlbusch