There’s usually one in every office – the person who’s just doing the bare minimum in order to get by. They’re not doing anything wrong; they’re just not getting it right either. In some cases you throw training, resources and opportunities at them until you’re blue in the face, for others you give them the basic tasks, leaving the ones that need innovation for your motivated workers.
Regardless of your personal approach, research from Zenger/Folkman finds that in general, managers give up too soon on disgruntled employees.
“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,” company president Joseph Folkman said.
The study looked at the 6% of employees who shows the lowest level of job satisfaction and commitment, then narrowed their search to workers whose managers were also overseeing some of the most satisfied workers.
“The results of the data were clear: there is most definitely such a thing as ‘the boss's favorites’,” Folkman said. “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.”
The managers were treating disgruntled employees differently, and when they started to treat them like everyone else, the employee’s behaviour quickly improved.
Folkman has six steps for helping these unhappy workers find satisfaction at work:
Asked to name the most important skill for their boss to demonstrate, the top response was ’inspire and motivate others‘. Too often, managers take a negative tone with disgruntled employees. But our data suggests managers should take the opposite view: work harder to inspire this group. Keep the conversation positive. Expect the best, not the worst.
It's probably not surprising that both parties — unhappy employee and boss alike — distrust each other. The key to restoring trust is to operate with the belief that the other party can change. As both parties work on their relationship, they must strive for consistency. That is, the manager must strive to treat all employees equitably, and both parties must strive to reliably do what they say they will do.
If a person works hard and gets a pay check, they have a job. But if a person works hard, gets a pay check, and learns a new skill, they have a career. Career development should not be focused only on the high-potentials. As counterintuitive as it may seem, don't leave the underachievers out when distributing stretch assignments.
Communication is fundamentally a management function, so this responsibility rests squarely with the managers. Great communicators do three things well. First, they share information and keep everyone well informed. Second, they ask good questions, inviting the opinions and views from others —all others. Third, they listen. And not just to the people they like.
Too often the bottom 6% felt their bosses were not giving honest feedback, glossing over problems with comments like "You're coming along fine," when clearly they were not. What's more, many reported promises being made ("if you finish this project on time then...") that were then not kept. Honesty is the bedrock of good relationships.
Anything managers can to do improve their relationship with the disgruntled employees will have a significant positive influence. Here's where favoritism takes on its most concrete form: managers go to lunch more with people they like, our data show; they talk with them more socially (about children, sports, etc); they know them more personally. A small effort by managers to spread their attention around more broadly can go a long way.