“It was inevitable: the burnt scent of over-warmed coffee always reminded him of the fate of unrequited devotion.” Paraphrase of the first line of Love in the Time of Cholera by Gabriel Garcia Marquez.
The Disengagement TrapFlorentino is in his mid-forties, and has worked for a fortune 500 company for the last ten years. For the first six, he worked hard, stayed late into the evenings, and brought files home on the weekends. However after several small events that caused him to question his role in the organization, he was passed over for a promotion. While neither corrosive nor hostile, he always knew that his work environment was far from supportive. No one acknowledged his work, or talked with him about his progress. However missing out on the promotion was the final act that broke the stamina of someone who had been a committed and loyal employee. While he continued to do the minimum necessary for his job, by all measures, Florentino was disengaged and unhappy.
Florentino is not alone. According to polls by the Gallup organization, 55% of the U.S. workforce is disengaged in their jobs, and 16% are actively disengaged, for a total of 71%. In addition to this picture of mass individual drudgery, Gallup estimates that having 16% of the workforce actively disengaged costs American businesses roughly $350 billion each year. A country with a GDP this size would rank as the 28th largest economy in the world, ahead of the nations of South Africa, Finland, and the UAE.
As the economy softened, and opportunities to find jobs became more limited, Florentino felt more trapped. He began to worry that his disillusionment would be noticed in a time of downsizing. While he did not like his job, he needed it. Florentino began to feel desperate.Gratitude as a Way Out of the Trap
While Florentino ultimately had to decide whether he wanted to stay with his company, it was clear that the first thing he had to do was stop sabotaging himself with his negative thoughts about his job. Florentino began to keep a work-centered gratitude log.
Most readers of this site are probably familiar with gratitude logs, also called the three blessings or three good things exercise. At a set time each day, you write down several things that went well, or for which you are otherwise grateful. It is preferred that each day you write something new. Also, some people write what contributed to the good event, why it occurred, or what made the item particularly special. Studies show that keeping a gratitude log has long-lasting positive effects on people’s life satisfaction and well-being.
Entries in his Gratitude Log
Florentino kept his log at work, and focused exclusively on things related to his job. The first items were easy and obvious: “I am grateful that I have a job that allows me to support my family,” and “I don’t have to ask anyone’s permission to take sick leave.”
But after a few days, it got a little harder. He started becoming aware of things that had previously slipped beneath notice. “People will change direction on projects based on my input,” and “Dave stopped me in the parking lot and told me that one of the clients spoke really highly of me”.
Within a week-and-a-half, he was seeking out new projects and looking for ways that he could contribute. While he still did not love his job, he began to recognize how he could affect others in positive ways every single day, and the work began to give him greater levels of satisfaction.
As Nathaniel Lambert and colleagues at Florida State University found in their recently published study, by reframing the events of our lives in positive ways and including a glimmer of gratitude, we also increase our sense of coherence with the world. When things makes sense, we feel more grounded and more at peace.
Four Months Later
Florentino no longer writes in the log every day. Now he adds an entry about once a week. However this March, four months after he started his gratitude log, Florentino received a promotion. The new job was a better fit than the one he lost, and gives him the chance to do exactly those things that first drew him to the job.
When asked about his new job and his feelings for his company, “And how long do you think you can keep up this coming and going?” Florentino had his answer ready. “Forever,” he said.
Author’s Note: The title, first line and last paragraph of this article paraphrase the title, beginning and ending of Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s novel, Love in the Time of Cholera. Further, the name of the individual referenced in the case study has been changed to that of the Garcia Marquez character who, in the novel, lived the “fate of unrequited love.”
Garcia Marquez, G. (1985). Love in the Time of Cholera. New York: Vintage.
Coffman, C. (2002). The high cost of disengaged employees: There are “cave dwellers” in your ranks, and they’re hurting your company. Gallup Management Journal..
Emmons, R. (2007) Thanks!: How the new science of gratitude can make you happier. Boston: Houghton Mifflan Company.
Lambert, N., Graham, S., Fincham, F. & Stillman, T. (2009). A changed perspective: How gratitude can affect sense of coherence through positive reframing. Journal of Positive Psychology, 4(6), 461-470.
Seligman, M. E. P., Steen, T. A., Park, N., & Peterson, C. (2005). Positive psychology progress: Empirical validation of interventions. American Psychologist, 60, 410-421.
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