Why your Employees Will Never Tell you They’re Unhappy

You’re an open-minded, easy-to-approach manager. You get along well with your team, and no one seems to have any complaints. You’re pretty sure that your non-scary demeanor would invite confidential sharing of problems, and since you haven’t heard about any, then the team is probably sailing along pretty happily. Right?

I hate to be the one to tell you this, but if you’re not hearing about any problems, then there are definitely problems afoot. And if you are hearing about small challenges, but you’re not specifically asking for the big ones, you might have a slow, silent storm brewing just below the surface. If you want your business to grow and succeed, you’ve got to figure out:

The four main reasons why employees are unhappy at work

1. Employees don’t enjoy speaking up at work

There are two very significant reasons for this. One is fear, and the other is futility. And futility is far worse than fear.

  • Fear: Employees worry about being treated differently if they speak up. If they have any indication that their manager can’t control his reaction to a challenge, the fear that any sort of complaint could be taken personally is very real and could make for a very unpleasant work atmosphere.  
  • Futility: If your employees are not worried about your negative reaction, but are instead sure that you simply won’t do anything about it, they are twice as likely to stay quiet about their concerns. People speak up only because they actually want to make a difference. If they believe that there is nothing to gain, they will remain silent.

The good news is, there are actionable ways that you can inspire employee engagement.

  • Report your experiences to your team: Tell your team about a conversation you had with your own manager or someone who has an effect on your business. Share how you felt validated when you made a suggestion that would save money, create happiness, or simply eliminate a step in a process. Make it a part of a weekly communication where you invite others to share their small or large “wins”. And be open about challenges, too.
  • Invite your team to make suggestions and give advice: Be proactive in reporting a problem-solving challenge to your team, and invite them to give you guidance! Asking and listening are very important aspects of relationship building, and this provides the perfect opportunity. Ask for even small process tweaks and then demonstrate how you have implemented these suggestions. Note: whether these implementations are successful or not, share them in a positive manner and show gratitude for the lessons learned all because an employee spoke up.

2. Employees don’t trust management

People are equipped with defense mechanisms that can cause us to be careful around authority. Here is another area where fear and apprehension come into play.

  • “My complaint is petty”: Your employee is probably not just being sensitive or nit-picky.  But if you’re coaching someone to simply change their own response to a small problem, then you’re never going to hear about the big problems. Your employees could have really big ideas to share, but if they don’t trust you to hear the small challenges, they are not going to trust you with big solutions, either.

This is not to say that you must fix these small challenges for your team. But being open to listening, asking more questions, and leading an employee to the solution is all part of your role as a manager.

Rather than communicating the idea that team members have small issues, you should be getting across the message that we all face hurdles like this.

  • “Managers make mistakes too”: You’re infallible, just like everyone else. But if you’re not sharing your vulnerability with your employees sometimes, then no one gets to share the benefit of the hard lessons that you have learned along the way. When you’ve made an error, be transparent and candid about it. And then, show a marked change in behavior or a positive change in processes that are directly related to the lesson learned. Your employees can trust you once they are really learning from you.

Utilize specific strategies to empower your employees to think about solutions.

  • Ask for one thing: Make an immediate change in open communication by asking a very specific question about a project or timeframe. During your next meeting, ask the group to suggest one thing that could have made that project better. Ask your employees to share one challenge they have faced in the last week.
  • Alternate the messenger role: Make speaking up an intentional habit. Before every meeting, assign the role of messenger so that a different employee can come prepared to speak up when it’s time to share issues. What’s happening with this project? What are some of the challenges and proposed solutions? It will be a different person’s duty at each meeting to either gather input prior to the meeting or simply share the issues from that person’s perspective. Do not allow the team to get out of this habit. Follow up specifically with team members who don’t share when it’s their turn.

3. Employees don’t know how to complain about a coworker

Delivering a pitch is probably your job. It’s possible that your employee’s role doesn’t require him to be good at succinctly delivering an idea. And you might be making it even harder on all of them. Why is this happening?

  • You’re defensive: Perhaps the employee didn’t present the complaint in a very clear or productive way. It’s your job to set an example for responding to criticism. Ask more questions. Get to the bottom of the challenge. And if it’s a challenge specifically about you, respond with positive reinforcement. Be intentional about your receptiveness. “That means a lot to hear” goes a long way.
  • You’re conflict-averse: If your aim is to keep a happy team humming away, you might be denying that you’re responsible to stop the process once in awhile and get everyone back on the right course. After all, there’s so much to do, right? And maybe this one employee is disruptive and demanding of others, but she’s also getting a lot of important tasks done and you just can’t afford to stop and correct her.

If you refuse to address complaints from your employees about each other, you’re demonstrating a weak personality and you’re going to chase off the good employees. Every day, they’re wondering why you won’t address the problems with this employee, and it’s changing the way they see their own role.

4. Employees really dread your meetings

Do your meetings suck? Do you ever feel like you’re speaking to a horde of zombies? Or worse, does everyone have so much to say that you have to schedule a follow-up meeting to go over the takeaways from the first meeting? Here are four things you can implement right now to make meetings more productive and, in turn, create a team that feels like their time is valued.

  • Make meetings more intentional: When a meeting has already gone far past the point of usefulness, your best employees are going to want to just get back to work, rather than take more precious time bringing up an important challenge, idea, or criticism. When everyone is rushed and overburdened, the complaints that are important to your employees will keep getting pushed down.

When you give employees the ability to take ownership of the meeting agenda, it’s easier for them to directly see how each agenda item supports the company mission. With this opportunity, they are more free to defend the productivity of the meeting and challenge projects or activities which do not support the mission.

  • Give employees license to lead: If each meeting is lead by you, your agenda, and your procedural outline, you’ve taken away the ability for your employees to come up with innovative ideas. Create an ownership mentality in your team. Your company is in danger if your employees don’t believe that their perspective or experience is important.
  • Hold 1 on 1 meetings: Having a 1:1 with your employees gives them the chance to lead the conversation. There should be no agenda to this conversation. This is not a time for project updates. When you’re quiet and listening, the employee can build the trust it takes to speak up and share with you whatever is making him unhappy. And be generous with this time. Do not be late to an employee’s 1:1. Do not cancel their 1:1. Do not demonstrate that you are so busy that this discussion should only hit the high-level topics. And have these meetings as often as possible: weekly or bi-weekly meetings are really important.
  • Don’t be afraid to ask them: So, now what do you think? Do you know how unhappy or happy your team is? What’s the first step you’re going to take to find out?


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Written by:
Previously the Managing Editor at Tech.Co, Ann Diab has a background of launching and nurturing of startups and tech companies. Empowering and educating entrepreneurs and startups to better productivity and culture is her passion. Growth Manager at WorkingOn to enable folks all over the world to enjoy work and improve communication. Follow me on Twitter.
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