Have you heard Richard Branson's latest business mantra?
The airline/clean-energy/galactic-tourism mogul insists that "‘happy employees = happy customers". And while this is exactly the kind of cloying HR advice we tend to see as a luxury exclusive to celebrity CEOs like Branson, research tells us this is one piece of advice that is surprisingly practical. How your employees feel can absolutely impact the success of your business.
According to a study by The University of Warwick, happier workers were 20% more productive. And on the flipside, Gallup reported that unhappy, disengaged employees cost the US economy over $450 billion per year. But we’re all human, and everyone has good and bad days. The real issue is, when left unchecked, employee unhappiness can spread throughout the team and wreak havoc on organizational productivity.
Never assume, always assess
Before we get to the questions, it's important to remember how easy it is to jump to conclusions about what's driving someone's behavior.
But what makes one employee unhappy, might not even affect another. Moreover, happiness isn’t a switch that gets turned on and off.
You need to take time to get to the root of what’s really going on. Does an employee feel unrecognized for their efforts? Is there a conflict with another member of the team? The problem may be completely unrelated to work, such as a family bereavement or relationship issue.
You can't know until you start the conversation.
Yes, it might be awkward. But there are few ways to approach employees without making them feel like you’re putting them on the spot. The first step is asking the right questions.
7 questions to ask the unhappy employee
1. How have you been feeling lately?
Sometimes addressing a problem head-on is the best way to start a transparent and open dialogue.
Plus, you never know. What indicates "unhappiness" to you may be nothing more than a couple of stressful yet fleeting moments for your employee. State what you've observed in a non-judgmental manner and ask the employee if your observation is correct.
For example: "I noticed you were a little curt in this morning's standup. How have you been feeling lately?"
2. What do you enjoy most and least about your work?
Knowing what makes your employee happy is just as important as knowing what makes them unhappy.
By asking the individual about both the good and bad, you're prompting them to not only vent about their issues (something they're probably doing a lot of anyway), but also to pause and think about how those issues stack up against the benefits — those aspects that they truly love but have been too stressed to acknowledge lately.
3. Do you feel recognized and respected for your work?
Research shows that receiving regular praise can lead to higher employee retention. But according to Gallup’s analysis, only a third of workers said they received recognition for doing good work in the past seven days.
It's also important to remember that what counts as "recognition" to one person, may not be viewed as respectful recognition by another. For example, introverts might dread public announcements while extroverts might see anything less as not being recognized at all.
Find out where and when the unhappy individual last felt that their work was recognized and tailor your performance management and rewards approach accordingly.
4. Are you doing the things you really want to do?
A BIG complaint from employees is that managers just aren’t interested in them.
If you want to build trust and maintain a good working relationship, you need to really engage with your employees. Find out what their personal and professional interests are. Are they happy with their career choices? Are there issues in their personal life that are holding them back? Do they have a passion and are they able to pursue it at work?
Once you build that rapport, you’ll be able to communicate with a greater sense of clarity and purpose because you'll know what awesome work means to them. Plus, you can address issues faster and more effectively when you're able to frame them within the context of what matters to the employee.
5. Do you enjoy working in your current team?
Cultural toxicity can be an employee happiness and productivity killer. And the higher up the ladder you get, the less likely you are to recognize it.
This question can help you explore the team dynamics on a deeper level. Does the employee get along with their teammates? Do they have friends? If not, why not?
Pioneering researchers like Christina Maslach have pointed out that, "Social relationships in organizations can be the most positive feature, while also being the greatest source of stress. When researchers go into organizations, they often think that workload will be the main problem. In fact, people often say they can do the job and handle the workload, but they cannot cope with the competitiveness, politicking, put-downs, back-stabbing, gossip, unfairness and lack of recognition."
It may feel like a Pandora's box, but until you find out what's really going on at the team-level, you'll be paralyzed in affecting any real change.
6. How can I make things easier for you at work?
Don't underestimate the role you play in your employees' lives.
Even for employees dealing with personal issues like parenting challenges, divorce, or even harmful lifestyle choices like addiction, can benefit from time-off, flexible working options or access to the right tools or counseling.
But if you genuinely want to help, you need to be willing to ask what you can do to support them. Be ready to offer specific suggestions in case they're too overwhelmed to know what it is that they need.
7. What does your ideal work scenario look like?
Is your working culture too prescriptive or totally lacking structure? Does your employee need to have more input into how they work and when? Maybe remote working sounded like a good idea but is actually making them feel detached and isolated.
Again, don’t make assumptions.
To find the right solutions, you need to work together with your employee. And if it feels like too much work, remember that by taking the time to show your empathy and support, you’re investing in a happy, productive future for everyone.