How to handle a disgruntled employee (and why you should welcome the chance)

In too many places, I have seen the same pattern bear out. 

An employee lodges a complaint with leadership. Leadership thanks the employee for bringing the issue to their attention, which is the polite response. Underneath the polite response, the reaction is anything but polite. The reaction? Resentment. 

The reason is simple: nobody likes criticism. Think of the last time someone was critical of you. Even if they were right, it still hurt. Even healthy criticism can leave a bruise on our ego, make us question our competence, and/or present a (new) problem we would rather not focus upon, much less know. Resentment is our knee-jerk response to such feedback. 

Instead of acknowledging and addressing this reaction at the moment it happens, many managers allow their resentment to grow like yeast, even while denying its existence. This resentment unconsciously poisons the relationship, seen through rising criticism, questioning decisions and standards that were once acceptable, and putting the employee’s performance under a microscope. The intensity of negative attention eventually becomes unbearable, and another valuable employee is lost.  

Why are they valuable? Because an employee with the courage to speak up is the kind of employee you want.

Paying the Consequences  

Ever brought up a less-than-popular issue to your employer?

Before you opened your mouth, you anguished over whether you should or not. Will they listen? Will they hear? Will they do anything about it? Will they resent me? Will they shoot me? 

These and many other doubts were circulating in your head before you said something. These doubts are why many choose not to speak up, even when the feedback is specifically solicited (such as with the farce of most exit interviews – everyone leaves for better opportunities, it seems). Everyone knows the negative consequences (or learns them quickly), either through personal experience, or from witnessing someone who has. 

Many also learn that the initial praise for stepping forward is always accompanied by waiting for the other shoe to drop (“are they really thankful, or are they just saying that?”). For many, it’s simply not worth the stress, especially when you’re dependent on that paycheck for survival, and not just because you love the job (or not). 

If they’re concern was enough to overcome these fears, it should be your concern as well.

The greatest fear besides loss of pay? Invalidation, perhaps with a side of associated shaming. Even the potential of shame is enough to stop many in their tracks – shame may be the single greatest negative emotion everyone avoids. These and other internal demons are what you and every employee faces when they step forward, even in healthy organizational cultures (where the threats are minimized, but never entirely forgotten). 

And yet, in spite of this and other potential things not mentioned here, you stepped forward. How did that turn out for you? Were your worst fears realized? Even if your fears never materialized, you likely know someone whose results were not so good. 

Now switch places with your employee. If they’re concern was enough to overcome these fears, it should be your concern as well. Where there is smoke, there is fire, and their concern, while maybe not the fire they believe it to be, may be the smoke signal you need to see. 

If you ignore the messenger (or, worse, treat them badly afterwards), they’ll heed your unspoken response, and you’ll never get a smoke signal from that employee again. They’ll share their experience with others, resulting in less smoke signals from others. Do it enough times, and the staff will never speak up again, even if the fire alarm is going off. Left unchecked, organizational morale tumbles into cynicism, an advanced stage of organizational cancer that is the root cause of much turnover. 

And when their exit interview comes, they too will tell you about the better opportunity they found elsewhere.

The blessing of the disgruntled

A disgruntled employee is often a blessing in disguise. 

Sure, it could indicate someone who is only interested in causing conflict due to a variety of internal factors. Yet, this is often not the case. A disgruntled employee who dares to speak up can also be an indication of an engaged employee. It may be an indication of someone who is thoughtful, pays close attention to the work environment, and cares enough to share what they see, hear, and experience. Many organizations desire innovative employees, only to quash the seeds of innovation! 

You won’t see any of this if you are busy stewing in resentment over the feedback given to you.

Above all else, their behavior demonstrates courage. Courage is an often unrecognized but desirable character trait, especially in today’s work environment, where new fears appear all the time.

You won’t see any of this if you are busy stewing in resentment over the feedback given to you. If you can’t take a step back and differentiate the presented issue from yourself, you’re in trouble. You may want to examine your ego before you do anything else.

For those whose ego is not the problem, what can you do instead? Here’s the good news: you already know what to do. The answer lies in how you handle disgruntled customers. 

Whenever you have a disgruntled customer, the process is the same. First, stop what you’re doing and listen attentively. Next, empathize with the customer’s concerns (more than mere words), followed by summarizing the complaint back to the customer to ensure you understand the problem. Lastly, describe the actionable steps you’re going to take to resolve their problem, obtaining their feedback as you do. Above all else, follow-thru, updating the customer as needed.

Do you know that, if you are in a position of authority or leadership, your customers are your employees? 

Change the word “customer” to “employee” in the above approach, and repeat. If invalidation and disempowerment is carcinogenic to your customer base, how much more carcinogenic will it be to your direct customers, i.e., your employees? Everyone wants to be respected, a fact for both customers and employees alike. Your employees will serve your customers in the same way you serve them. Truly hearing others while empathizing with them is, by itself, often enough to diffuse many conflicts and solve many problems.

(Related: A Foolproof approach to handling people)

Be warned: do this consistently, and you may discover more problems than you knew. Keep doing this consistently, and you might find the root causes of staff dissatisfaction and cynicism. Continue in your consistency, and you might solve some of these problems.

The respect you gain will be yours to spend.

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