8 Ways You’re Making Your Employees Miserable

Stop the Workplace Drama!

“I resolve workplace drama” is my standard response when people ask me what I do for a living. They’re usually intrigued by my description, and I inevitably find them talking my ear off about workplace conflict — whether it’s drama with their boss, between coworkers, or company-wide chaos.

Over the years I’ve observed countless ways that employees cause or worsen workplace drama (see my companion article, “8 Ways You’re Making Yourself Miserable at Work”). Unfortunately, I see companies and their leaders as the leading causes of just as many conflicts. Here are eight of the most common mistakes I’ve continually witnessed managers and company leaders make which inevitably lead to drama and misery at work, along with some tips on avoiding these common pitfalls.

1. Your Culture is Safe, Boring and (Gasp!) Compliant

“I love that my company has a culture of compliance,” said no employee, ever. If your greatest achievement is successfully executing a layoff without being sued, keeping your employee handbook up to date, or checking the compliance training box, don’t be too quick to congratulate yourself for being a workplace culture warrior.

Warning signs: Your HR team does everything by the book, dotting every ‘i’ and crossing every ‘t’, but employee engagement is lackluster, to say the least. Complaints and conflicts are on the rise, and you can’t really pinpoint the culprit.

Stop the bleeding: Compliance isn’t the issue, company culture likely is. Focus on establishing a bold, cutting-edge, and mission-driven company culture — one that plays to win instead of always playing it safe (yawn). This is the type of work environment that will quickly garner buy-in from employees and eventually boost employee engagement and retention.[A1]

2. You Disregard the Impact of PERCEIVED (Un)fairness

Even if you use objective and fair criteria to evaluate your employees, your decisions will be immediately scrutinized if you disregard the impact of the perception of fairness — or unfairness. Just remember the oft-quoted phrase, “it’s not what you do, but how you do it.” Every leader must make tough business decisions, and employees generally understand that reality — until managers bungle the message, often in an attempt to avoid a legal claim.

Warning signs: You fail to provide a reason for an unpopular but justified business decision, or you provide an obviously false reason. This creates an impression that you’re hiding something and will typically lead to conflict.

Stop the bleeding: Treat your employees like grown-ups and share with them the reason behind your decision about their employment. Most importantly, do so with compassion. It’s not illegal to recognize that this is a decision that makes you unhappy, and employees will feel like they’re being treated fairly if you’re honest and you demonstrate that decisions were made methodically and based on even-handed criteria.

3. You Wear Your “Jerk” Badge Proudly

Don’t be the pompous, know-it-all, unprofessional boss. Whatever persona you choose to adopt at work will come with consequences (good or bad). If you believe that scaring your employees (or treating them disrespectfully, playing favorites, or creating chaos) is an effective way to manage, then you must live with the natural repercussions that flow from that management style (even if “that’s just who you are”).

Warning signs: You frequently face claims of bullying or unfair treatment from employees, and are often accused of behaving unprofessionally, inappropriately, and/or immaturely at work. You get frequent calls from HR and have had to sit down with the company lawyer more than once.

Stop the bleeding: It’s pretty simple: change your behavior, or face the consequences. And eventually, those consequences could equal termination.

4. You Don’t Identify Root Causes of Dissatisfaction or Strife

Balance and judgment are two top pillars of good management. Managers lacking these traits usually fail to step back and understand the root cause of issues — they don’t anticipate situations that are obvious drivers of workplace drama. Without understanding the root causes of such problems, companies fall prey to overly simplistic fixes. Not surprisingly, this type of reaction leads to further hard feelings and workplace discord.

Warning signs: When an employee complains about a workplace decision or inappropriate behavior, your company managers are quick to come up with a hasty solution without conducting an in-depth investigation. As a result, you often get recurring complaints on similar issues.

Stop the bleeding: Don’t rush a solution without understanding the full picture. Show each employee the respect they deserve by doing your due diligence and responding accordingly. Address the underlying issues at hand — like a manager using harsh and belittling language when delivering a poor performance evaluation. Trust me, putting in the time now will help curtail future complaints.

5. You Fail To Anticipate and Plan for Inevitable Drama

Too often, corporate leaders fail to anticipate situations that are obvious drivers of workplace drama. The most common example I’ve seen involves significant corporate change — reorganizations, changes in leadership, etc.

Warning signs: You design plans that don’t take into account employee input and you execute those plans without drafting an effective execution strategy. Employees are given no warning or input into changes that will affect them tangibly, and as a result employee morale sinks.

Stop the bleeding: Yes, organizational change typically starts from the top. But if it will affect the broader employee base or those not in leadership positions, build in steps to keep employees informed of the changes impacting them and provide concrete ways to involve employees in the transition process.

6. You Don’t Set Expectations Early and Often

This one seems obvious, but it’s still something I see every day: bosses expect both themselves and their employees to be mind readers who know exactly what the other is thinking — without actually talking. As the boss, having unclear expectations can make it hard for your subordinates to succeed.

Warning signs: Time and again, you think you’ve made your expectations perfectly clear, but your employees express confusion or frustration, or they simply fail to deliver on those expectations. You frequently run into problems with miscommunication or employees making assumptions about work standards, and a train wreck often ensues.

Stop the bleeding: Clearly communicate your expectations from the beginning. If your pet peeve is tardiness, explain that to your employees — and if you want to be a hall-of-fame manager, explain why it’s such an annoyance to you. If your employees understand that punctuality is a must-have for you, the choice is theirs — and they’ve been clearly forewarned of the consequences.

7. You’re Not Tuned In To What Motivates Your Employees

If your goal is to reduce the level and intensity of workplace drama, you must not only provide your own expectations, but also become an expert at reading your employees’ motivational cues. Learning what makes your employees tick and responding to their motivational triggers accordingly will go a long way in keeping them happy.

Warning signs: Your gestures of good will aren’t being met with the level of gratitude you anticipate. Maybe you give a hard-working employee a raise and she still seems unhappy on the job, or you send out a group email thanking the team, and one employee is peeved because he didn’t get recognized individually.

Stop the bleeding: Stop and study your employees: What motivates them? Is it a high salary or an important title (prestige)? Praise for a job well done (acknowledgment)? Feeling like an invaluable member of your team? Having independence and flexibility? Help stop the drama by getting to know your employees on the motivational level, so that you’ll know that saying “thank you” every once in a while is just as important as giving that employee a raise.

8. You’re A Boss, Not A Leader

Pick the cliché — you talk the talk but don’t walk the walk, you aspire but don’t inspire, you fail to translate a goal into reality. An effective leader knows, goes, and shows her employees the way to success. She walks a straight line with dignity and vision, and she doesn’t play favorites. If you aren’t modeling the behavior you desire from your employees, how do you expect them to follow suit?

Warning signs: Your employees don’t seem to take you seriously, or they even appear to disrespect your leadership. They’re slow to get on board with your vision (do they even know your vision?), and they tend to do the bare minimum when it comes to work responsibilities.

Stop the bleeding: Don’t just go through the motions, show up at work: be authentic, share your vision, and engage your employees as equals. Ask for their input, put in long hours alongside them, and earn their respect.

The themes are pretty clear — being a wise and evenhanded manager who treats people fairly and respectfully reduces the likelihood of workplace drama. Go ahead, give it a try.