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Harnessing Leadership from Disgruntled Employees

See also: Conflict Resolution

We've all sat through staff meetings in which an angry employee uses the available audience as a sounding board for gripes about the workplace.

Sometimes the commentary is direct, or at other times veiled in a passive aggressive demeanor, indirect comments or disengaged body language.

It goes without saying that disgruntled employees are unpleasant in the workplace. No one likes to see them coming, as the energy in the room turns murky and the stench of dissatisfaction and negativity can permeate the work environment.

Just as we can learn a lot about ourselves by looking at the things that cause unpleasant emotions to arise, we can learn a lot about the weak spots in a workplace by engaging a disgruntled employee. Sometimes the questions we are most afraid to ask produce the most useful information for growth. Using a template to gauge employee satisfaction can also be a useful tool and may help get to the root of the concern, particularly if gauging the morale of a number of employees.

Ask a disgruntled employee to bring their list of complaints and sit with you to discuss solutions, one on one.

During the discussion you can assess the nature of the complaints being brought to you.

  • Are the complaints mostly about personality disputes with others?
  • Do the complaints revolve around work flow?
  • Or the balance of responsibility with co-workers?
  • Or is it more about feeling unappreciated?
  • Is there a sense of unfairness about rules or dissatisfaction about benefits, time off or other logistical details?

If there are many complaints, sort them into categories to better understand the areas of concern. This may seem tedious but it can result in some useful information, not only about the individual's concerns, but it can also spell out a larger theme of dissatisfaction among other employees that can be a signal for necessary change.

In Rani Johnson's article How To Help Your Employees Feel Happier At Work, she offers useful strategies for working to understand employee concerns and provide compassionate support.

In her synopsis she advises being understanding of personal issues. Johnson's point is a valuable one as some of the concerns brought into a conversation with a disgruntled employee may be more personal than work related. In these situations, finding out how to support the employee as they sort through the issue may be the best you can offer, as well as assistance with access to HR-connected therapy services if needed.

Teaming up with a disgruntled employee requires commitment to an end-goal. Once you've worked together to determine the areas of concern, work on some goals with the end result being an improvement in job satisfaction.

This shouldn't be a document that goes into the employee's official file, and definitely shouldn't be an appraisal or reprimand of any kind. The sole purpose of the plan is to improve work satisfaction and, better yet, to improve the areas of need that the employee has identified that can be adjusted to accommodate workers.

Depending on the leadership style of your company, some changes may require many layers of approval by the administration,  but other simpler changes may be easier to adopt.

The disgruntled employee will likely understand the stratification of the company and the types of changes that middle management can assist with. If some of the concerns rise above what can be changed at this level, encourage the employee to present ideas to upper management in a respectful, well-constructed presentation. Supervisors can help facilitate the connection with appropriate leaders, but wouldn't necessarily take part in the presentation of these ideas.

Allowing a procedure for such ideas to be presented bodes well for morale and boosts leadership in people who may feel disenchanted in their workplace.

A brave and ambitious supervisor could also invite a small team of disgruntled employees to form a committee for improving workplace morale. Who better to sit at the table in such a group than the people who are the least satisfied?

The committee could meet with the supervisor once every few months to brainstorm solutions to some of the issues that need attention within the company. It would be wise to establish an agenda and time keeper to stay on track so that it doesn't turn into a gripe fest. It's important for the meetings to be productive and for each person to leave with a specific task and deadline.

As Kerri Potts of ESPN has stated, transparency is crucial for good leadership.

Leaders who are transparent about their intentions instil trust and loyalty and this can open the doors of communication with employees who are dissatisfied in other ways. Developing a culture of healthy communication within the workplace is optimal.

For a culture of communication to be established and maintained, leaders need to ask for feedback frequently. Staff meetings are a perfect opportunity to ask for concerns, feedback and open communication in a consistent fashion. Often, if people are actively invited and encouraged to express their thoughts, they will. An open dialogue in a respectful setting will help ameliorate dissatisfaction for most employees.

Conflict is bound to happen in a community of employees spending many hours per week in the same space.

As uncomfortable as conflict is, it offers good information for growth. Elementary schools all over the U.S. use what is known as a peer mediation and conflict resolution model. Children are learning to help one another listen to each side, negotiate and mediate through conflict.

Workplace conflict resolution teams can help disgruntled employees have a fair avenue for solutions to be negotiated. If our kids can do this, surely we can too. Establishing ground rules, offering training on the techniques and creating a climate of democracy can help employees feel listened to and validated. Of course not all situations are appropriate for peer mediation, but these can be fleshed out within the ground rules of the group.

Further Reading from Skills You Need

The Skills You Need Guide to Leadership

The Skills You Need Guide to Leadership eBooks

Learn more about the skills you need to be an effective leader.

Our eBooks are ideal for new and experienced leaders and are full of easy-to-follow practical information to help you to develop your leadership skills.

As challenging as it may be, helping disgruntled employees express their concerns and actively work towards resolution is likely to elevate the morale and esteem of your entire company.

Word will get out that your company knows how to take care of its employees and your progressive techniques will boost your reputation as a healthy work environment.

About the Author

Paula H. Cookson

Paula H. Cookson, LCSW, is a psychotherapist and freelance writer who lives and works in Maine. Paula uses Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, Motivational Interviewing and Acceptance and Commitment Therapy in her work with clients.

She self-published two adult coloring and wellness books during 2016 and continues to enjoy drawing abstract design as a stress reliever.