6 tips for dealing with unhappy employees

Empower your employees to ditch gloomy moods and pessimism.
By Hannah Pitstick

An employee who's unhappy at work is unproductive at best and a purveyor of gloom at worst.

Whether the root of their frustration is burnout, lack of direction, office tension, or work/life imbalance, leaders should find the source of the problem and empower the employee to address it before their gloom spreads to the rest of the office.

"The average person spends two and a half hours per day in drama — that's two and a half hours a day working hard, but working with a grudge on their mind," said Alex Dorr, speaker and vice president of people evolution with Reality-Based Leadership, a research and leadership training company based in Omaha, Neb. He cited research conducted in 2015 alongside Kantar Futures Company in which they surveyed 800 leaders from more than 100 organizations that represent medical, technology, manufacturing, and financial organizations about the time that they spend on all types of drama in the workplace.

The precise steps for helping an employee out of a gloomy patch will depend on the issue, but experts agree the following tips are good places to start:  

Figure out the root of the issue. The first step is to get the employee to talk to you about problems at work that may be affecting their performance.

If they say everything is fine, but that's not what you're observing, you may need to encourage them to open up. Jennifer Wilson, co-founder of ConvergenceCoaching LLC, a national leadership and management consulting company based in various locations around the country, recommends saying something along the lines of, "I've noticed that you're not participating in meetings like you used to, how come?" or "You've missed a number of recent work deadlines. What do you think might be causing this?"

If they won't open up to you, consider having another supervisor try speaking with them. As Wilson pointed out, it could be their problem is with you, in which case they may be reluctant to tell you what's going on.

Invite them for conversation and listen. The simple act of actively listening to a disgruntled employee is sometimes enough to alleviate their concerns.

"It's going to help immensely if you just listen and allow them to say whatever it is they need to say without jumping in to defend, deny, explain, or minimize what they're telling you," said Sarah Elliott, CPA, co-founder and associate certified coach with Intend2Lead, a national leadership development company for CPAs.

Because these situations can be emotionally charged, Elliott recommends telling employees in advance that you may need some time to absorb and reflect on what they share during the conversation and set up a follow-up meeting to give your response.  

"I really don't recommend giving answers or explanations at this first meeting," she said. "Just listen and learn and make sure they know that's what's going to happen."

Write down the facts. When an employee comes into your office and pours out a laundry list of grievances, Dorr recommended grabbing a piece of paper and writing down only the facts. When someone's upset about something, they're likely to include a lot of superfluous, subjective information along with the essential realities. By writing down just the facts and repeating them back to the person, he explained, you can help them realize the situation is likely not as dramatic as it seems.

Let's say a frustrated employee comes into your office to complain that they opened up an email and there was information missing about a client, and then they start venting about how no one respects them or takes the time to make sure they have all the information they need, along with several more minutes of complaints. All you write down on the paper is that information was missing. Then you can ask the employee what they could do next when information is missing, and they might say, "Oh, I guess I could reach out to my administrative assistant."

"As a leader, what you did is took that story in their mind as they vented it to you, cleaned it up with a good mental process, showed them what's actually true, and then sent them back out there with clear actions they can take to add value," Dorr said.

Empower them to solve the problem. Once you've whittled down the employee's grievances to the facts, ask them for ideas on how they might be able to help solve the problem.

"This all plays on a universal principle that most people have forgotten, and it's that stress is never from your reality, it's from the story you make up about reality," Dorr said.

Leaders can help in these scenarios by remaining neutral and asking what could aid the employee next time, a process Dorr refers to as "stop judging, start helping."

Dorr encourages leaders to help employees shift from what he calls "low-self" to "high-self." He defines high-self as looking at all the places where you can add value, and low-self as looking at the world through the distorted lens of your ego, where you're the victim who is powerless to change your situation.

"Our favorite question to ask in the moment when someone is frustrated is, 'What would great look like?'" Dorr said.

When Dorr was helping with a company event and some attendees were given the wrong date, he found himself spiraling into low-self and venting about the disaster. Then a colleague turned to him and asked, "What would great look like?" Envisioning the answer to that question enabled him to shift his mindset and come up with solutions to the problem.

Fix what you can. Depending on what's causing the problem, there's a chance you can help address it. If the employee is overwhelmed, perhaps you can even out the workload by divvying the excess work among other employees in the office. If they're bored, maybe you can add a little variety into their work with a new project. If they're suffering from burnout, maybe they have some vacation time they can use.  

Elliott recommends being as transparent as possible about what you as a manager can and can't do for them.

"You may not have a clear response to certain items yet and that's OK," Elliott said. "Be honest and let them know when they can expect a response. I think it's important for them to know that it's on your list and you're not blowing it off."

She adds that if you're feeling averse to changes proposed by an employee, whether it's a change in workload or something else, really think about why that is.

"Be honest with yourself about your willingness to change," she said. "Maybe it would be helpful to talk to other people that you trust inside or outside your organization to get their perspective and help expand your own perspective, to give what they're saying a fair shake."

Implement ongoing dialogue. One employee's gloom can spread quickly to the rest of the office if left unattended.

Elliott recommends having conversations with disgruntled employees as soon as possible, so you can let them know you're actively working on solutions. Better yet, start proactively asking questions on a routine basis, as opposed to waiting for things to bubble up. Make a habit of asking employees what they think is working and not working within the company so you can get on top of issues before they become a problem.  

"Make it an ongoing part of the culture," Elliott said. "I don't think employees expect everything to be perfect all the time, but I think what they want is to know you're committed to making change and keeping those lines of communication transparent and open."

At the end of the day, you may not be able to make the changes employees ask for, but understanding and acknowledging their concerns can speak volumes for employees. 

And if an employee is still unhappy after their complaints have been heard and solutions implemented, Wilson pointed out that it may be time to transition them out of the company.

"Sometimes, a person is simply negative or unhappy and the changes that have to be made are to their mindset and behavior," she said. "When they can't make those, they may not be able to continue on with the firm."

Hannah Pitstick is a freelance writer based in Philadelphia. To comment on this article or to suggest an idea for another article, contact Chris Baysden, a JofA associate director, at

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