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Published 27 July 2012 06:43, Updated 31 July 2012 08:58
When managers start treating their disgruntled employees like everyone else the employees’ behaviour quickly improves.
You can’t make every worker happy, surely, and should a business even try? Evidence from our recent research suggests, actually, that the answer is yes. Or rather, our evidence shows that managers are giving up far too soon on their disgruntled employees, making them less productive than they could be, exposing their companies to unnecessary risks from thefts and leaks in the process, and inflating turnover costs.
What causes employees to become disgruntled and what can be done to prevent it? To find out we zeroed in on the most unhappy people in our data. These were 6 per cent in our database of 160,576 employees who displayed the lowest levels of job satisfaction and commitment on their 360 evaluations of their bosses. We were looking for those among them whose managers also oversaw the most satisfied employees. In this way we identified that group of leaders who were managing both the very unhappy and the very happy at the same time.
The results of the data were clear: There is most definitely such a thing as “the boss’s favourites.” And while, in any disagreement we inevitably find both parties bear part of the fault — that is, the disgruntled employees do certainly play some role in their own unhappiness — we consistently found in the analysis that their complaints were justified. Their managers were in fact treating the disgruntled employee differently than they treated their very satisfied employees. What’s more, when the managers in question started to treat their disgruntled employees like everyone else, the employees’ behaviour quickly improved.
Our results suggest a clear path forward for bringing disgruntled employees back into the fold. In particular, the unhappy group in our survey strongly agreed on six major areas in which they felt (and we agree) that their leaders needed to improve:
As leaders, our knee-jerk reaction to unfavoured (and disgruntled) employees is often — “It’s their own fault!” Our research shows this is not always (and often not wholly) the case. Before you settle for letting your dissatisfied people go and cost your organisation thousands of dollars in employee turnover, take a moment to consider how these performers need to be treated.
If not for their sake, then for everyone else’s sake. Research by the University of British Columbia recently published in the Journal of Human Resources has shown that those who witness workplace bullying become equally disgruntled as the victims and just as likely to quit. All employees need leaders who know how to inspire and motivate them, give them opportunities for development, and treat them with the respect and dignity they each deserve.
A third of a person’s life is spent in the workplace, sometimes more. When the environment is created by an extraordinary leader who cares about everyone’s development, it leaves employees with little room to complain.
Joseph Folkman is the president of Zenger/Folkman, a leadership development consultancy. He is a co-author of the October 2011 HBR article “Making Yourself Indispensable,” and the forthcoming book How to Be Exceptional: Drive Leadership Success by Magnifying Your Strengths (McGraw-Hill, 2012).
Harvard Business Review