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Making it Safe for Employees to Say They’re Unhappy

The Great Resignation. Quiet Quitting. Industry Hopping. Experts use a lot of buzzwords and catchphrases to explain the market’s current workforce volatility. But the real question is, why are workers so unhappy? 

The trend of employees voluntarily leaving stable jobs started during the height of the pandemic, but lasted well beyond shut downs and mask mandates. While quit rates have stabilized somewhat in 2023, workers continue to explore their options, and side jobs are causing them to be distracted and disconnected when they do show up.

 Reasons for leaving a job are as numerous as the workers themselves, but it is a fairly safe bet that employees don’t leave jobs when they are happy and fulfilled. They leave jobs when they are dissatisfied, burned out, bored, and frustrated. And the odds are that many walk away without ever expressing any of those feelings to their leaders. 

Emotional expression is hard in the workplace, especially if those emotions are negative.  No one wants to be labeled a Debbie Downer or a Bad Apple, and workers don’t want to be ostracized out of a fear that their negative attitude might be contagious.

Interestingly, a recent MIT study found that a poor company culture contributed more to the Great Resignation than other factors. But how can leaders intentionally work to build a stable, engaging team culture with happy employees? It starts with a psychologically safe workplace environment where employees feel at ease sharing their feelings. 

Encourage Employees to Ask for Help

Burdened with a heavier workload, even employees who want to do a good job often don’t have the skills, experience, or knowledge to handle their tasks. To make matters worse, their managers are burned out, too, so workers don’t want to ask for help. As their stress increases, employees begin to head for the door.

The best thing leaders can do for themselves and their team is model healthy behaviors, and that starts by asking for help when they need it. That’s not always easy to do. When feeling overwhelmed, many leaders adopt the do it myself mindset – their nature is to go it alone rather than provide direction to a team member or bring someone else up to speed.

Asking for help, however, can do far more than just lighten a leader’s workload. It sets a precedent for collaboration and lets the team know that asking for help when needed is an acceptable part of the culture.

Listen with Intent

Leaders have a lot on their plates, so despite their best intentions, they often lean into issuing orders rather than asking questions or actively listening. If employees are unhappy, this mode of managing can aggravate the problem. 

When a supervisor is dismissive or never available, employees can begin to feel unseen and undervalued.  In that environment, an employee is less likely to express being frustrated or unfulfilled.

When leaders demonstrate respect and curiosity by listening intently and asking questions, it initiates a healthy dialogue with team members. At first, the conversation may focus mainly on work assignments and market trends, but when employees begin to believe their voice is valued and heard, they will become more comfortable sharing deeper feelings of stress or dissatisfaction.

Allow Employees to Be Vulnerable

A recent Wall Street Journal article highlighted the remarks of an industry giant who recoiled at the use of the phrase psychological safety by executives of the company he’d just acquired – his preferred buzzword is hardcore, and he believes discomfort is a good thing because it is a weapon against the scourge of complacency. 

While this view is provocative, it’s hardly unique. When workplaces promote strength as a virtue while discounting the value of sensitivity, they leave little room for vulnerability.

Managers who keep a tight hold on their own emotions, never revealing any meaningful feelings, discourage employees from opening up about their concerns, too. However, when leaders allow themselves to display emotion appropriately, they create a climate that allows employees to feel safe being honest with upper management and share their frustrations, disappointments, and stressors.  

Culture Can Stave the Turnover Tide

In the current revolving door employment market, turnover has become commonplace. But good leaders never want to see talented and promising employees walk out the door – and that is especially true if they could have done something to keep them happy and in their jobs.

By asking for help, listening with intent, and allowing employees to be vulnerable, leaders can foster a psychologically safe environment where employees feel comfortable saying they are unhappy. That is never an easy message to receive, but it's better to hear the truth when there is still an opportunity to fix the issue than to be left guessing after an employee leaves.

Download The Power of a Psychologically Safe Team checklist to learn more about creating and maintaining psychological safety for teams in a dynamic work environment.

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