How to Prevent Employees From Becoming Disgruntled

Disgruntled workers are the first to say “no” to a project, the first to leave at the end of the shift, and the first to create conflict with other employees.

Unlike star employees, they actively fight against the best interests of an organization, fostering an environment of negativity. Gallup accurately describes these employees as “cave dwellers” who are “Consistently Against Virtually Everything.”

Do you anyone who fits this description?

These disgruntled workers are the ultimate challenge for management. But the best time to intervene is before they turn against your business.

Understanding the Path From Disengaged to Disgruntled Employees

Sixty-six percent of employees are disengaged at work, exhibiting feelings of apathy toward their jobs and their employers. Perpetually-low employee engagement rates signal widespread dissatisfaction among workers that easily grows into a bigger, messier problem: disgruntled workers.

In the U.S. alone, companies lose $250 to $300 billion dollars from a disengaged workforce.  Small grievances create a ripe environment for disgruntled employees, who drain even more time and resources from their companies.

Despite the assumption that the poor behavior of disengaged and disgruntled employees reflects their character, it’s not always the case. Joseph Folkman, a leadership consultant, writes in the Harvard Business Review that companies play a significant role in creating 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.

When managers and business leaders create an optimal work experience, they offset and prevent disgruntled behavior to the benefit of both employees and the company. Here are four ways that managers can shift the momentum to bring out the best in struggling workers:

Foster Transparent Communication

Research shows that managers who embrace open communication can increase job satisfaction and commitment to a company. As CEO Kevin Lin suggested, “In a transparent company, people know what is happening and why. They feel more involved.”

But it’s up to management to set a positive precedent. For example, if managers know that a big change is coming — such as a new POS system or a different work schedule — they benefit from speaking candidly with their employees one-on-one. These simple actions create a trusting relationship that undermines disgruntled feelings.

Business leaders can also use these three tactics to help tease out possible employee issues and disengagement before they gain momentum:

  • Daily communication between employees and managers
  • One-on-one weekly meetings
  • A sense of investment in the success of an employee (inside and outside work)


When individuals feel that their managers hear their concerns and make an actionable change, they’re less likely to shift into disgruntled behavior.

Value Their Well-Being

A study by Healthways found that workers with low well-being are seven times more likely than their healthy peers to perform poorly at work. Bad bosses can actually induce this stress and cause harmful health issues.

The Washington Post tied poor management to increased risk of heart attacks, high blood pressure, sleep problems, anxiety, and alcoholism. When employees feel tired, overworked, or sick, they’re a lot more likely to become disengaged — and eventually disgruntled — at work.

To prevent abrasive, or negative behavior, managers and business owners need to support the overall well-being of employees and not just their job performance. Train your managers to ensure workers receive ample time off, the flexibility to balance work and personal life, and the tools they need to live healthy lives.

Build a Fair, Positive Work Environment

Managers who practice favoritism — even in the subtlest ways — make a pivotal mistake. It’s easy to take your best employee out to lunch, but it’s harder to maintain that connection with low performers.

Edward Fleischman, an HR expert, believes that favoritism “can lower the morale of all other employees, as other good employees will likely be aware that their peer is enjoying extra perks while their own hard work goes unnoticed and unrewarded.” Instead, emphasize fairness and treat employees with an equal amount of appreciation and respect.

Academics have also found that praise plays a major role in stimulating productivity and enjoyment at work. Unlike bonus plans or increased compensation, it doesn’t cost anything. Plus, it’s a lot less likely an employee will become disengaged or disgruntled when they feel appreciated and praised for important contributions.

To start, recognize the tasks your employees do well with simple gestures such as thank you notes and recognition in meetings. According to the author of The Carrot Principle Chester Elton, the closer you give praise to the moment an employee excelled, the more effective it is at producing the same outcome.  

Develop Supportive Relationships

According to TINYpulse, the happiest employees cite their co-workers as the primary reason they appreciate their jobs. The same way that disgruntled employees cluster in groups to validate their experiences, happy employees do to. The strength and unity of an active community leaves no room for disgruntled behavior.

To foster interpersonal connections on the job, create opportunities for individuals to support each other at work. The application Yammer, for example, has a component that enables employees to publicly congratulate each other on a job well-done. Peer-to-peer recognition programs, as well as celebrations of work anniversaries and personal milestones go a long way toward preventing discontented attitudes.

Offer Professional Development and Advancement Opportunities

Although some companies embrace professional development, they don’t include less-motivated employees — and that’s a mistake. As Folkman summarized in the Harvard Business Review,  “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.”

In one survey conducted by the Society for Human Resource Management, 63% of workers listed “opportunities to use skills and abilities at work” as a top five contributors to job satisfaction. Instead of dictating the development and advancement activities available for employees, talk individually with staff members to learn about their goals.

With clear insights into an employee’s strengths and professional aspirations, you can help them to contribute and grow within your business. The best leaders know that hands-on training, professional development, and promotion opportunities are ingredients that bring out the best in every employee — not just high performers.

Just as with any employee management goal, weeding out disgruntled employees starts at the beginning. Establish a rigorous recruitment process and develop a company culture that brings out the best in new employees. By valuing workers, emphasizing the importance of trusting relationships, and creating new opportunities for growth, businesses can nurture their employees toward optimal performance rather than disgruntled behavior.

How to Prevent Employees From Becoming Disgruntled