Leadership

10 ways to deal with an unhappy employee

Most of your team members probably like to do a good job at work, and having a sense of accomplishment is one of the keys to being happy. But as a leader, you will sometimes have to deal with unhappy employees, and it's up to you to find ways to uncover the problem and motivate them to turn things around. Here are a few things you can do to help an unhappy employee become a happy one.

"There is joy in work. There is no happiness except in the realization that we have accomplished something."

-- Henry Ford

"Most people are about as happy as they make up their minds to be."

-- Abraham Lincoln

Would you be surprised to know that some of your employees dread getting up for work in the morning? Most of your team members probably like to do a good job at work, and having a sense of accomplishment is one of the keys to being happy. But as a leader, you will sometimes have to deal with unhappy employees. They could be unhappy for various reasons (money, career, personal), and it's up to you to find ways to uncover the problem and motivate them to turn things around.

Below is my list of the things you can do to help an unhappy employee become a happy one. Over the years, you've no doubt seen variations on these strategies and have probably learned (usually the hard way) why some work better than others.

Note: This information is also available as a PDF download.

#1: One-on-ones

How much time do you spend with your employees? Do they get the opportunity to discuss nonwork-related issues with you or is that time spent only on reviewing project status and budget problems? If you are really keen to understand your team members, scheduling regular one-on-ones is a great approach. Spending some quality time with them and giving them a chance to talk out their thoughts allows you to see issues before they get too big -- and in many instances allows you to cut off potential problems before they manifest themselves. Providing employees with a safe outlet to express themselves also lets them share their concerns, which otherwise might eventually worsen their situation.

#2: Coaching

Employees sometimes lose their way at work. Maybe they aren't sure what is expected of them or what the goal of the organization is. Your role is to help them get a better understanding of these things. Take the time to ensure that they know what they should be doing on their project, or maybe when their next deadline is. Providing positive feedback when things go well and constructive criticism when tasks go wrong is all part of the process. No matter what the issue, taking an active role in their growth is important.

#3: Paying attention

When asking questions, try to put yourself in your team members' shoes. There could be something going on in the office you are not aware of. Or maybe something is happening in their personal life that is spilling over into their job. Either way, you need to really listen to understand what the issues are. Employees will see right through you if you're asking them about a situation but you're more interested in answering your BlackBerry than in listening to what they're saying.

#4: New projects

Resolving some issues is as simple as giving employees a more challenging project. A work environment devoid of challenges (and their associated successes upon completion) can easily lead to boredom, which can turn a happy employee into an unhappy one. I remember a friend working on the same project for nearly 12 months. The project was rather complex but in an area that didn't really interest him. His boss noticed this and was able to gradually transition him onto a project that was more aligned with his skill set. His productivity skyrocketed at that point because he was able to get excited about what he was doing.

#5: Training

Sending one or more employees to a class to work on a new skill or learn a new technique -- or even just allowing them to attend a seminar -- is a great way to jump-start people. Having something new to learn and bring back to share with others can motivate not just individual members but the entire team.

#6: Money (not)

Who wouldn't like to see another few thousand dollars a month in their paycheck? While we all wish this would happen, it's not very realistic. Also, very rarely does money solve the problem of an unhappy employee. In some instances, money problems might be a contributing factor in their unhappiness, but overall, that won't be a root cause.

#7: Time off

We've all been there. Working 20 hours a days, five, six, or seven days a week for who knows how many weeks in an effort to get a big project launched can be grueling. Having a few days to recharge after such an effort can help even the most diehard workaholic. Employees all like to have a few days off now and then that aren't part of their standard compensation. Just make sure it doesn't turn into an expectation for them or anybody else on the team or it could turn into a bigger problem for you.

#8: Telecommuting

There is nothing worse than commuting back and forth to work each day. With the length of the typical daily commute now more than 30 minutes, employees are increasingly frustrated with the long lines of traffic and the cost of fuel. Allowing employees to work at home one or two days a week can help with this problem. And you get the added benefit of keeping another car off the road!

#9: Mentors

Having somebody to talk to and relate to can provide many benefits for employees. Finding a mentor isn't the easiest task, since you have to figure out the right match. But if you can find somebody employees trust and respect, someone who will inspire and challenge them, the potential for their growth and happiness can be endless.

#10: Moving on

In some cases, there is nothing that you, as a manager, can do to alleviate an employee's unhappiness. The work environment may not be to the employee's liking, he or she may not be getting along with co-workers, or maybe there are issues at home that have rolled over into the employee's work. No matter what you try, things are not getting better. In these situations, the best thing you can do is to help the employee find a different situation -- either elsewhere within your organization or in extreme cases, outside it.

Keep it positive

Being a true leader means getting the most out of your team no matter what the situation. One of the best ways to do this is by keeping in touch with your team while providing constant feedback. Positive feedback when things go well is as important -- if not more important -- than negative feedback when issues arise. Most of us know when we make a mistake. We usually just need somebody to pick us up, dust us off, and point us back in the right direction.

36 comments
diman75
diman75

Good point Bikey100. For instance, I'm completely satisfied with the work environment, in fact it couldn't be any better, since my tasks are perfectly balanced, I do 50% hands on support and 50% remote desktops, AD administration and so on, but my pay doesn't reflect my company's appreciation for the work done and my daily input into our team's projects. I like my job but the pay sucks so I'm moving on.

Ben
Ben

Hi Bill, Thanks for the article. In my coaching and consulting, I've seen the same problems you've mentioned, and the same solutions. Yes, money is a huge reason for unhappiness, but it's not the only one. I'd also add that it's important not to keep all employees happy. Only keep the good ones happy - the solid, productive, performers and people who behave professionally. Focus on them, not on the whining complainers, hyper-critical bosses, lazy slackers, negative discouragers, backstabbing rumormongers and gossips, know-it-all squelchers, micro-managing nit-pickers and turf-protecting power brokers - to name only a few. I did notice in the comments that one angry person revolved the whole discussion around whether Bill had the right attitude about money. There's much more than money involved. Notice how many people said that money wasn't their biggest issue. You'll never satisfy the bottom feeders or nit-picking perfectionists, and you mustn't try. I just posted a detailed column on this subject on my blog at http://www.BulliesBeGone.com. Best wishes, Ben

Tony Hopkinson
Tony Hopkinson

Why would someone need motivating to be happier? Isn't being unhappy as much motivation as anyone could need. #1: One-on-ones If you have to set aside a special time to talk to your people, you are a failure as a leader. #2: Coaching Assumption that the employee's unhappiness is their fault. #3: Paying attention Not that simple. Any employee with a positive IQ watches deeds not words. Listen yes , then act. #4: New projects Being in the wrong job would make you unhappy, more horses for courses this. #5: Training Not if they don't use it, it isn't. #6: Money (not) Money makes a job more palatable. There's no point in having a really enjoyable job, if your kids are starving, and trust me it won't make anybody happier with a crap job. It will make it harder for them to swap it for something better, that's it. The big thing about money, is it's how you quantify how much you value an employee. Not a lot = not a lot... #7: Time off Never seen free time off happen, ever. Must be a US thing. Mind you we get a lot more paid holidays than you guys, and regs for working that many hours are pretty strict. #8: Telecommuting I do a five hour there and back commute, things went a bit wrong today, and it was a six and half hour one. One day a week isn't that much of help, one week in five is better, but you have to gear up for this. #9: Mentors A bit of advice from the old timer can come in handy, don't be too surprised if it's 'go for 10' though. #10: Moving on Huh ? Trust me I don't need my manager's help to do this. They made me unhappy, or chose to leave me unhappy, this is not an action it's a consequence.

phebert
phebert

Money is definitely an issue particularly if one employee just found out the person sitting next to them makes more money and has nearly identical credentials. But I agree that if people are challenged and feel like a valued member of the team, job satisfaction will be fairly stable.

shodges119
shodges119

You can't tell me that a Help Desk Tech or Entry level employee in this market can't have money as a root cause of their unhappiness. You can't tell anyone not making enough money to pay his bills/mortgage that they won't have that as a reason to be unhappy with his job? I will tell you right now that it can be the underlining issue to almost all of your other reasons. People will complain about management, hours and everything else if they feel that for what they do they are not compensated as well as they could or should be. What I feel is more accurate is that most managers and perhaps you would rather disregard that issue than address the problem. Maybe this is why you skipped over it and in some sense blew it off. Companies try to get the best employee for the lowest cost and if he accepts the position his financial well being is no longer your concern because he accepted the offer. This may not be your outlook but your article hints otherwise. Money can't be the underlining issue, what a joke?

Too-Tired Techie
Too-Tired Techie

Our happiness in life is our own responsibility. Money itself doesn't buy happiness - just take a look at most rich folks; what appears to be 'happiness' may just be the crazed energy from being on a power-trip. If I'm responsible and absolutely honest with myself, not a slacker, try to keep the human element alive in the IT environment, find creative and funny ways as a help-desk person to explain to a user what is going on with their system/software/hardware, etc, and balance the inherent geekiness of this field with other outside creative and right-brain things (I write on the side), then I am many steps down the road to making myself a valuable, one-of-kind asset within my organization. But the choice to do all of these things is mine and one I have to consciously pursue. The interesting thing about this is, choosing to pursue things in your life and mental habits that make you a better person generally will make you a more valuable employee and departmental asset. Do what you love and love what you do and people will know it and the money will follow.

shodges119
shodges119

I made a statement about one entry I disagreed with. And stated the rest was quite insightful. As for your reference to me being an angry person, sorry pal again like many people here your talking out the wrong orifice. I am quite happy and a top performer. I just happen to be management and deal with many people's issues. Money is quickly becming more of an issue these days. So before you make any judgements about my state of mind, read more thoroughly instead of advertising your Blog. Someone in this thread said suspect people's intentions. I suspect yours is to draw attention to your blog, sell your books and not read what was stated. The article was very good until I read the money post. Not that it was inaccuate. The (not) tag caused a little ire with me. Also I checked your blog. Its a money making website for you to come in and brief your garbage to businesses or to buy your book. I also love how you refer to people with problems as bottom feeders. General lack of class is what I call your entire post.

GoodOh
GoodOh

I think this is the great unmentionable in a lot of these discussions. The Pareto Principle tells you that you will spend 80% of your energy on 20% of your employees. Make sure you are not squandering too much of that on people whose motivation, satisfaction, etc can never be 'fixed' (or, at least, not with the tools you have).

shodges119
shodges119

More importantly is that you didn't discredit finances as being a cause of unhappiness at work. I wanted it stated that the article above shouldn't so quick to tag it with a (not) tag. And right up to that point it was a quite insightful article.

Tony Hopkinson
Tony Hopkinson

You don't get paid for your credentials, you get paid to the value you are adding to the business. In theory more credentials means you have more potential to add more value and get paid more money. Parity is a two edged sword, it can be used by management to hold down your salary. I don't go near it myself.

kheffner
kheffner

Makes MORE money and less credentials....Makes for VERY unhappy campers.

shodges119
shodges119

Be happy at work and money is not the root of the problem. It is not his fault the economy crashed around him. What may have been an acceptable pay before may not be now. And not that every manager should run out and grant the raises. You can't! But you HAVE to acknowledge the root cause of his unhappiness.

Sammybabysammy
Sammybabysammy

Okay, so I'm a year late responding to this thread but i had to comment. I think the writer intended message is that Money is never the root of the problem, any problem. You have to dig deeper within yourself to discover why one is unhappy (at work,home wherever). I'm curious, how does shodges119 feel about what he wrote a year ago? Do you still feel the same? do you still feel like money is is the underlining issue to everything? are you still unhappy about the article?

Bikey100
Bikey100

Don't make the mistake of mixing dissatisfaction with your pay with being unhappy on the job. Most people aren't satisfied with the wages they are making. That doesn't mean they are unhappy at that job overall, however. Another "currency" you receive is the fact that you enjoy accomplishing something, or perhaps you enjoy working with your co-workers, or even just working in a pleasant environment. As Lincoln said, you make the decision to be happy, and if all you care about on a job is your wage, than you will never be satisfied, because it will never be enough.

shodges119
shodges119

"employees are increasingly frustrated with the long lines of traffic and the cost of fuel." You reference todays market and costs in other posts. So it seems you acknowledge pay as a issue but not a cause. I am really confused about that. If pay is not the issue when they are asked to pay 3.70 per gallon, and possibly dealing with todays housing market. MONEY is the root cause, despiration financially will ruin all aspects of your financial life to include your work life where you earn it.

GoodOh
GoodOh

If you're not angry you'll have to forgive me and others for reading you as such based on the form and content of your posts (all we have to form a judgement upon). We are within a capitalist system. If people can sell their skills etc. for a better return (in a rounded sense) then they are, effectively, obligated to take steps to obtain that higher reward. Otherwise the 'invisible hand' is frustrated and the system doesn't work to spec. If your people can get a better deal elsewhere they should go get it. If they can't they should shut-up. All else is sound and fury signifying nothing. I can see people being unhappy about their financial position but the article suggested that it is unlikely any supervisor can fix that in the normal state of affairs and I propose that is an obvious and universal truth. Since the article was about what a supervisor can do then discounting money as an option is entirely reasonable in my opinion. The article didn't reject it, just discounted it. Are you sure you aren't angry? You know yourself best, of course, but you are, to my eye, showing signs of stress and tension which is bad for you and pointless in this forum. Peace out!

Tony Hopkinson
Tony Hopkinson

They start from a mindset, employee at fault. Coaching an employee to be happy being the outstanding example in this thread. As far as money goes. there's a big difference between one of us saying Money won't make me happier, and management saying we are not going to give you more money because it won't make you happier. Suspect motives at best.

robo_dev
robo_dev

when he's floating upside down in slime, you cannot expect him to 'be a good team player'. But overpay him a bit (nice warm clean water) and it's amazine what an enthusiastic team player you got.

ssharkins
ssharkins

Almost nobody starts off making a good living. We all start at the bottom and work our way up. If your current company isn't paying you a competitive wage, they're certainly not going to pay you better because you're unhappy about it. Sometimes, there's no other choice but to move on. Between 1982 and 1992 I worked several jobs -- none lasted longer than 18 months.

shodges119
shodges119

From Original Article "In some instances, money problems might be a contributing factor in their unhappiness, but overall, that won?t be a root cause." From your reply "Since the article was about what a supervisor can do then discounting money as an option is entirely reasonable in my opinion. The article didn't reject it, just discounted it." How does that address what a supervisor can do? It states it won't be a root cause for unhappiness. But like you said its your opinion. I also said the rest of the article was quite insightful. I won't even respond to the Blog comment response. I have to much respect for the bottom feeders and people who work for me to even justify him trying to make a living insulting the people who actually do the work. I guess we should all be advertising our companies and personal businesses here so the spam causes Techrepublic to shut the forums down. Because in the end there is no difference in what hes doing and me throwing a dating service ad on my post and saying if you wanna be happy check out my blog. Both relate to the subject because its about happy people and not technical solutions. But again I am the angry guy here. *Laughs*

NotSoChiGuy
NotSoChiGuy

"One of the nicest feelings in the world is to leave an employer who's taken the p1ss, even if they don't care that you have. Watching them run around in a panic is a definite bonus ball though." A couple of months back, I left an employer that was going in a decidedly poor direction...external consultants were treated better than long-term employees, people were getting canned, terribly inefficient managers/directors were GIVEN RAISES (seriously, how does anyone on a 'Performance Enhancement Plan' get a raise...and people wonder why the US economy is in the toilet); just about anything they could do to upset the apple cart of employee morale, they did. I still get calls asking me if I'd consider a return (um...that would be negative) or if I could recommend someone that could help (sorry, if I'd recommend them, I like them...and I wouldn't do that to a friend or cordial acquaintance).

Tony Hopkinson
Tony Hopkinson

If you are happy in your job, more money isn't going make you unhappy. Being denied more money when you feel you 'deserve' it is always going to make you less happy. Addressing why we think we deserve it has some value, but only a complete moron would expect either side of the negotation to just take the other's word for it. Could you sit in front of your boss with a straight face and say, you should pay me more becasue it will be good for the business, you might be right, but your motives are open to question. All you can do is add value and recieve recompense. At some point you will be incapable of adding more value, or what you are adding isn't valued enough. Then you get promoted, or you leave. The amount of recompense simply marks when you hit that decision point. If you are being chronically underpaid, why bother turning up in the first place. whether you are happy or not is immaterial. Stick out until you get something better, stick it out to get something better, if neither of those things are true, say f**k it and walk. One of the nicest feelings in the world is to leave an employer who's taken the p1ss, even if they don't care that you have. Watching them run around in a panic is a definite bonus ball though.

tuomo
tuomo

Yes, you are supposed to be paid of your skills but if you are unhappy, no money in world will help. I did the same, cut my salary almost to half and took a much better, much more interesting job, and it wasn't just for me, the family started suffering of my job and if that starts, you burn out fast. Time off is great, but as someone said, those times in US are gone. Now, I have to say in some companies they are not so picky, if you do those long nights and tell them, see you next week, often it is granted. But days as paid sabbaticals and four week vacations - when did I see those last? Telecommuting sounds great but, again, in most jobs it can't be certain days. Some weeks are just too busy, some other it is better to work home, assuming you have a good work environment home. And I agree with other replies, couching is the last resort. Probably too late, pep talk and carrots often make things worse.

pivert
pivert

I agree with the article. Money isn't a motivator, it is a short-time reward (I'm not looking at the case where one is struggling to make ends meet!). I've made the move to a better paid job (a bank) where it didn't matter what you did, as long as you checked in and out on time and you didn't have to much overtime per month. It was a golden cage. And I was miserable. I was glad another job came along. Less paid but with some other extras so the pay was more or less the same. It's a circle: if you're happy, you do a better job and if there's room they'll give you a raise. But besides money there is: work-from-home, training, vouchers, car, phone/internet bill, health insurance,... So if they WANT to give you more, they can find a way to do so! Most newbies I interview just want a big (I mean BIG) pay and a nice 9-to-5 job. And that says a lot about the candidate :-)

shodges119
shodges119

They were quite obvious. Wrong but obvious.

spork
spork

It's not never the answer, as the author implies.

kallen1924
kallen1924

to employees as well as to management, but management refuses to accept this reality even when it is made plain to them by employees. It seems that they cannot live with the self-image recognizing this reality would create.

SObaldrick
SObaldrick

You may make your employee happy for a short while and find an improvement in productivity. But the employee will become complacent, accepting that what they make is what they deserve and whatever underlying root cause of unhappiness will come back. Les.

GoodOh
GoodOh

The idea that 'overpaying' is a motivator is a common one and pretty much discredited in every serious investigation of motivation. ---------- http://www.accel-team.com/human_relations/hrels_05_herzberg.html Herzbergs' first component in his approach to motivation theory involves what are known as the hygiene factors and includes the work and organizational environment. These hygiene factors include: * The organization * Its policies and its administration * The kind of supervision (leadership and management, including perceptions) which people receive while on the job * Working conditions (including ergonomics) * Interpersonal relations * Salary * Status * Job security These factors do not lead to higher levels of motivation but without them there is dissatisfaction. The second component in Herzbergs' motivation theory involves what people actually do on the job and should be engineered into the jobs employees do in order to develop intrinsic motivation with the workforce. The motivators are * Achievement * Recognition * Growth / advancement * Interest in the job These factors result from internal instincts in employees, yielding motivation rather than movement. ---------- So not enuf pay can demotivating (certainly seems to be a factot for shodges). More pay can stop unhappiness. More pay will NOT create happiness (after a short term initial blip it becomes the norm and cease to motivate). If you think about it calmly you'll see that must be true. The only way pay can be a motivator is if it directly connected to results (like a commission per sale). Salary can't work the way you describe (except in the very short term).

Tony Hopkinson
Tony Hopkinson

The chances of money being the only issue are very very small. If you are combatting all the other possible issues, all money does is compensate you for being unhappy. Course if you want to go dowwn this route while the real issues are resolved, be my guest. :D

JustinF
JustinF

Of course if someone is struggling to make ends meet they will be stressed but that isn't the point as far as I can see. If your unhappy worker is already receiving an adequate salary more money isn't going to make them happier.

shodges119
shodges119

You understand exactly my point. That section of the article is what I consider "unrealistic".

Firedrake
Firedrake

You generally can't fix problems by throwing more money at them. If an employee is unhappy in his job, chances are good a payraise won't make him feel better about the job, just the pay (i.e., "less miserable"). If I accept the salary that's offered, it's incumbent upon me to adjust my lifestyle accordingly, including in times of recession (when everyone else has to, as well). That being said, money will get you through times of no happiness better than happiness will get you through times of no money.

ssharkins
ssharkins

I guess I just didn't get that out of the article, but that's Okay. I can't speak for the author, but I think, from personal experience, that there's really not much you can expect from the company. They're going to pay you what they think you (or the job) is worth. Employees unwilling to settle have to look somewhere else -- so for that reason, I don't see money being an issue that you can resolve. I hope that makes sense. FWIW, I've only known 2 people who went to management and said, "more money or else..." and stayed to collect more money.

shodges119
shodges119

Their unwillingness to fix it does not minimize its importance as an issue at the root of the problem. That is my point. What is more important is the way it is played off with the (not) tag. Then it goes on and dedicates no time to the issue and just bascially says this is a myth and fixing the pay problem shouldn't be considered as it is usually "unrealistic."