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Leadership Series, Part One: Three Signs of a Miserable Job

Take the time to acknowledge staff on a deep level.

Think of a famous actor or athlete—living a life of luxury with every privilege anyone would ever dream of. Perfect job, right? Then why are so many of them plagued by drug and alcohol abuse?

Now think of someone you know who seems perfectly happy in their no-glamor, low-paying job. You can’t help wondering: Why are some employees happy and others miserable? Answering that question is on the mind of every leader, manager and business owner who is trying to reduce staff turnover and improve productivity.

This is the first of a four-part series on becoming a leadership mastermind. In each part, we will review a business-leadership book and apply its guidance to the fitness profession. Our first title is The Three Signs of a Miserable Job: A Fable for Managers (And Their Employees) by Patrick Lencioni (Jossey-Bass 2007). The author identifies three principal reasons why employees are unhappy, and he offers guidance on helping them become happy and productive.

Fitness professionals tend to be upbeat by nature, so fitness managers have it better than leaders in other industries. Yet we still have disgruntled employees who become frustrated and negative as their enthusiasm, passion and energy run dry. Learning to be better managers can help us create a more positive working environment, which is good for everybody in our business.

Lencioni tells the story of Brian Bailey, the CEO of a fitness equipment company. Bailey has retired to Lake Tahoe, California, and finds himself wondering why one pizzeria in town is thriving while another one nearby is struggling. Both sell the same product, so how come the staff at one pizza joint appear to enjoy their work so much while those at the other look miserable?

As Bailey’s fable searches for answers, the book explores and identifies three factors that make workers miserable.

First Sign of a Miserable Job—Irrelevance

Employees who cannot see how their work improves someone’s life very likely cannot enjoy their jobs. They need to feel that their work is relevant to the lives of the people they encounter in their workday—their coworkers, customers and managers.

This might seem like a minor issue in the fitness industry, because so much of what we do objectively improves people’s lives. But we can always do better. Here are a few tips to fight irrelevance in your gym or studio:

  • Post “Client of the Month” success stories at your facility and on your website and social media pages. Be sure to identify the specific team members who were pivotal to your clients’ accomplishments.
  • Forward clients’ complimentary emails, letters or cards to everybody on your team.
  • Conduct quarterly client surveys, and pass along any accolades the clients give to specific employees.
  • Thank your administrative staff. They don’t get as much positive reinforcement from clients as your fitness staff does. For example:
    • Tell your front-desk staff that they set the mood for the facility, making clients’ lives easier simply by answering their questions correctly and getting them what they need quickly and efficiently.
    • Remind your daycare staff how they provide a safe environment so moms and dads can feel comfortable during their workouts.
    • Reassure assistants that their work eases the stress and strain on their bosses, which helps those leaders focus on helping the business succeed.

No matter what the position, your team members need to understand individually how they are changing people’s lives for the better.

Second Sign of a Miserable Job—Anonymity

Employees have a hard time loving their job if they think their managers do not know them as people or care about their interests, dreams and goals. Employees need to feel that they are valued by their direct supervisors and others in leadership positions.

This is such a simple and low-cost management technique, but many managers fail to recognize its importance or practice it regularly. I saw this firsthand as a fitness industry consultant. Whenever a facility hired me to revamp its personal training department, I would interview the owner/manager(s), and then I would interview the staff.

The staff at facilities with the greatest issues would say things like this:

  • “I’ve worked here for 10 years and she’s never even given me a birthday card.”
  • “I’ve been teaching classes here for 8 years and my boss doesn’t even know whether I have kids—let alone, their names!”
  • “He never takes the time to get to know us. It’s all numbers and quotas!”

Owners/managers often felt that their employees were a bunch of deadbeats, but nine times out of 10, the issues sprang from managers’ lack of care and attention for their team.

Fitness managers can do simple things to ensure that team members don’t suffer from anonymity:

  • Schedule team meetings. If your staff is large, meet one-on-one with your top managers and make sure they meet face-to-face with the people they supervise. In one-on-one meetings, ask your team members how they are liking their jobs, how things are going in their lives and so on.
  • Host team get-togethers. Regularly host team outings like hiking, go-cart racing, indoor rock-climbing, bowling and snowshoeing, or parties where everyone can just hang out and get to know one another. Strive for an environment where trainers who are thinking about leaving their jobs see that they will also be leaving great friendships.
  • Recognize successes immediately. Most people enjoy being patted on the back by their direct supervisor for a job well done. Better yet, publicly praising employees in meetings or recognizing them via email goes a long way. If you see something amazing, comment on it immediately and make sure other people know about it.
  • Give small gifts. Give a small gift, a gift card or a lunch to somebody when that person has exceeded your expectations. A $10 Starbucks or iTunes card from a manager can be extremely motivating.
  • Wildly celebrate special moments. Make birthdays and other milestones special—and don’t worry about going overboard. If a team member graduates, completes a challenging certification, gets married, has a baby or celebrates a momentous birthday like a 21st, 40th or 50th, be sure to acknowledge it enthusiastically.

Third Sign of a Miserable Job—Immeasurability

Employees’ satisfaction suffers if they cannot see for themselves that they’re succeeding at their jobs. They need simple, effective ways to measure their progress and contributions, and they should not have to rely on the subjective views of their managers.

This is one of the most lacking areas in the fitness industry—and one that most facilities and managers can improve on. Employees in a fitness club need to be able to quantify whether they are making a difference. For example:

  • Group fitness. High attendance numbers and/or increases in head count directly reveal a group fitness instructor’s success. An instructor who started with five people on average and now has 10 regular attendees has quantitative proof of effectiveness.
  • Personal training. Trainers who hit revenue and productivity goals (percentage of schedule filled with paying clients) can see they’re good trainers, because they are at goal capacity or surpassing it.
  • Front desk. This one is tougher. Perhaps you can have your front-desk staff track the number of times they can get a customer to smile or to engage in conversation. Or perhaps they can keep a count of how many members’ names they remembered each day without having to look at the computer.
  • The whole team. You can have fun with social media or surveys. For example, organize a challenge in which the person who gets the most mentions from clients in a Facebook post wins a prize.

The key is to ensure that your team members buy into the measuring process and that they believe it directly measures their success and will be easy to track.


Overall, I felt The Three Signs of a Miserable Job: A Fable for Managers (and Their Employees) was an easy read and could be completed in 1–2 days of bedtime reading. It provides a very simple, straightforward approach to effective leadership.

The bottom line: Fitness managers have the greatest impact on job satisfaction and team morale. Following these three leadership techniques should help managers improve their facility’s working environment—with team members who love their jobs and the company they work for.

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Sherri McMillan, MS

Sherri McMillan, MSc, has been inspiring the world to adopt a fitness lifestyle for 30 years, and has received numerous industry awards, including the 2010 canfitpro International Fitness Presenter of the Year, 2006 IDEA Fitness Director of the Year, 1998 IDEA Personal Trainer of the Year and 1998 canfitpro Fitness Presenter of the Year. She is an international fitness presenter, personal trainer, fitness columnist for various magazines and newspapers, author of five books and manuals, including Go For Fit: The Winning Way to Fat Loss, Fit Over Forty, and The Successful Trainers Guide to Marketing, and a featured presenter in various fitness DVDs.

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