The Chronically Unhappy Employee

by  Leigh Steere  |  Workplace Issues
The Chronically Unhappy Employee

If you’re in human resources or people management, you’ve likely met a chronically discontented worker – the employee who keeps asking for role tweaks, reassignment to a different team, project, or boss, relocation to a sunnier climate, and a desk in a quieter location.

The employee’s internal dialogue?

“If only I could work with different people/in a different group/in a different office/in a different role, I would be happy.”

The problem? Dissatisfaction re-emerges shortly after making each change.

If you see a pattern of discontent in a staff member, the kindest thing you can do is pull the employee aside for a frank, tough-love conversation that covers some or most of the following points:

  • “I notice that you keep asking for changes in your environment. Even though we have accommodated some of these requests, you are still unhappy.”
  • “It may be tempting to blame other people or external circumstances for your discontent, but if you keep changing your environment and the disappointment persists, it’s time to look in the mirror with the help of a coach or counselor.”
  • “To succeed at this company, you need to demonstrate a pattern of positive attitude and cheerful willingness to contribute on whatever team, on whatever project, and with whatever boss your skills are needed at a particular time.”
  • “There are going to be moments in any workplace where the project isn’t your favorite or a teammate has a style you don’t care for. We need flexible people who can look at the bright side, even in imperfect circumstances.”

Chronic discontent can have its roots in any or all of the following five areas, and these are not typical areas of expertise for a manager or human resources representative:

  • Upbringing – Which includes defenses, coping strategies, boundaries or lack thereof, indulgences that create unrealistic expectations, family pressure to pursue a particular career path, etc.
  • Hereditary – Or environmentally-induced mental health issues such as depression, bipolar disorder, anxiety, etc.
  • Communication Skills Deficits – Particularly deficits in active listening skills and the ability to read body language, interpret social cues, and step into others’ shoes.
  • Intelligence – Gifted individuals with an IQ of 130 or higher – or twice-exceptional individuals who have high IQ coupled with a diagnosed or undiagnosed learning disability – often have a hard time figuring out where/how to fit socially and professionally.
  • An Unconscious Goal – One that cannot be achieved through current means. For example, one employee longed for fellowship/community and was trying to get that through professional achievements, like winning awards, giving speeches at conferences, etc. Achievement may bring momentary kudos, which can feel like fellowship, but the kudos do not represent true connection with others. The means don’t get to the end. Ever.

In my experience, chronic discontent often involves a dance of two or more of the five areas above. The more areas that are involved, the tougher it is to sort through what’s going on and arrive at a long-lasting resolution.

As a manager, you are not responsible for psychoanalyzing employees and determining root causes. The most important thing you can do is hold up a mirror and suggest that the employee get help to solve the mystery of what’s driving the dissatisfaction.

There is a high probability that the chronic discontent extends beyond work hours and affects the individual’s personal life, too. The mirror you hold up can help the employee find a path to a more positive future.

Have you encountered other causes of chronic discontent that don’t seem to fit into the five categories above?

About The Author

Articles By leigh-steere
Leigh Steere is a researcher, product developer, and adviser in the field of people management. She writes on fostering creativity, employee engagement, and high performance in the workplace. Visit http://www.managingpeoplebetter.com/mpb/index.html for a free assessment of your management style and tips for managing more effectively.  »  View Profile

What People Are Saying

Bruce Dreyfus  |  02 Jun 2015  |  Reply

Right on!

Brookhaven1  |  03 Jun 2015  |  Reply

Addressing “Tough Love Conversation – second bullet” Suggesting a coach or counselor to an employee implies that the employer feels the problem is with the employee. While this may be true it may be perceived as highly insensitive and offensive and could lead to other personnel issues.

It may be preferable to point out to the employee that, having attempted different arrangements’ within the organization without being able to satisfy the unhappy employee – perhaps the employee may want to evaluate if this is the right job for them, while the company values the persons services, and would hate to see them leave – the company does not wish to force people to work under unpleasant circumstances.

It is more of a win for everyone if people are happy or at least satisfied in their positions!

John Smith  |  04 Jun 2015  |  Reply

Hi, Leigh – thanks for an interesting post.

I particularly appreciate you noting that much of the motivation behind this type of behavior are “not typical areas of expertise for a manager or humn resources representative”. My experience has been that lack of competence has not stopped some folks from trying to deal with the background, rather than directly or simply with the behavior … and this often ends badly for all involved.

I would not that the ideal coaching situation is when the person recognizes the need and desires to change. The type of coaching you are suggesting can be done in work environment, but it is not optimal. As the previous commenter notes, this is coaching for organizational goals, rather than for the person’s goals.

The best path, in my opinion, is always to stick to observable behavior and deal with that appropriately.

By the way, your list of possible drivers is excellent:)


Carr  |  05 Jun 2015  |  Reply

Nice piece :) … to add a category (or a different article altogether!): Justifiable discontent.

This isn’t a complaint session :) I do mean this in context with the article.

Small company (ie 30-50). Staff experience chronic discontent, but it is identifiable to HR and Top Management. For years, leadership has lived on unconscious goals not shared with the employees. Further, have demonstrated inability to foster relationships within the company. etc …

What I’m suggesting is, discontent is a two way street. So, when HR and Leadership is/are the source, the pee-ons become the excuse for poor performance.

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