Dealing with frustrated employees

Having to deal with frustrated employees is an unfortunate part of leadership. Not because frustrated employees are bothersome individuals. No, it’s more that frustrated employees are unhappy employees. Frustration rarely goes away by itself, and has a tendency to build. Unhappy team members rarely do their best work and frustration may be a sign that your team has a problem.

Can you identify frustrated employees?

The first step in dealing with frustrated employees is realising that they exist. It’s not hard to see signs of frustration when you know what to look for.

  • Frustrated employees have emotional outbursts. It may take a while to bubble to the surface. Most people try to remain calm for long periods before they become frustrated enough to let it show. The emotions build gradually, with every frustrating event increasing the volatility of the volcano. Eventually, it erupts in obvious, often undignified emotion.
  • Frustrated employees stop trying. Remember Amy, who used to try to improve things in your team? She used to come up with great ideas and was extremely proactive. That all stopped a while ago and you didn’t notice it at the time. Now she simply gets on with her work and goes home. Sometimes you can tell she doesn’t agree with you, but she doesn’t bother speaking up any more.
  • Frustrated employees become less productive. Frustrated team members spend more time in damage control mode than happy employees. Damage control is about making themselves feel better, and one way that this takes places is by venting with other team members. If you notice your team members having an increasing number of private closed-door conversations, it could be a sign that you have some frustrated employees on your hands. When your team is spending time venting, remember…they aren’t working!
  • Frustrated employees become cynical. “We’ve tried this before and it didn’t work.” “These meetings are so pointless.” “That’s just the way things are around here.” Sound familiar? Unfortunately, cynical employees are common in the workplace. But it’s best to try not to have them in your team!

Identifying the source of frustration

You’ve identified signs of frustration in your team, so the next step is to bring it out into the open. It is sensible to seek to understand more by speaking directly to the frustrated team member in private, rather than giving them a public forum to air their grievances.

Ask your frustrated team member if they have any issues and cite specific examples of the frustrated behaviour you have noticed. If you aren’t specific, there is a good chance you will get a response like “Everything is fine”.

However, once a frustrated employee realises you have noticed and can point out recent specific examples, I’ve found they open up quickly. It’s like catching a thief hiding in the bushes. When you shine a light on them they can either give up (and open up) or continue to hide in vain. Be prepared for a potential explosion as you give your team member a golden opportunity to vent!

Some common sources of employee frustration

It’s far better to have a frank discussion with a team member than to guess at the source of frustration. However, here are some common sources I’ve noticed in others and experienced personally myself throughout my career.

Communication problems. People aren’t communicating effectively in your team or organisation, resulting in misunderstandings and wasted effort.

Lack of rewards and recognition. Team members that feel as if they aren’t being rewarded or acknowledged for good work begin to think that it’s a thankless task.

Limited career progression. Sometimes employees are frustrated by the limited opportunity for advancement in their team.

Process problems. Inefficient, slow or ineffective processes can be a cause of significant frustration. “This is a waste of my time, there is an easier way!”

Not being heard. When a team member makes the effort to speak up with improvement opportunities or suggestions without any of them being adopted or heard, frustration is sure to follow. “Why bother?”

Is your frustration problem able to be fixed?

Now you’re aware of the source of frustration in your team. What can you do about it? Unfortunately, you won’t be able to resolve every incidence of frustration in your team.

Every person in your team is different. Processes will suit some people and not others. Some employees are ambitious, while others are happy with things just as they are. Some will try hard to improve every day, while others will just quietly do their work and go home.

It’s always worth having a private conversation to address the frustration in your team. However, don’t pretend that there is always a neat solution to the problem. Use the following questions to determine whether you can realistically solve your frustrated employee issue.

  • Is the source of frustration temporary? When going through organisational restructures or other major changes in the workplace, it’s common for there to be some chaos. If frustration is due to temporary events like this, then hopefully it will pass.
  • Is the source of frustration within the person’s control? Many employees become frustrated due to factors outside their control. It may be how the organisation functions or how other people interact. Perhaps there are some cultural aspects that are difficult to handle. In these cases, it is unlikely that the frustration will reduce in the short term.
  • Is the source of frustration personal or systemic? It’s worth understanding whether the frustration is specific to a single person, or has the potential to affect the entire team. If it is a systemic problem, failing to resolve it could see your team walking out the door.
  • Is it a problem you, as a leader, can solve? If frustration is due to conditions specific to the team, you may be able to change things. The real question is, are you willing to make changes to accommodate frustrated employees? If so, will this have any broader impact on the team? You can’t change things in a team without considering the ramifications.

Be honest with frustrated employees

Be honest when discussing issues with frustrated employees. Frustration often builds and can result in dysfunctional behaviour. As such, you should try to address problems as soon as possible.

However, some frustrations cannot be dealt with by changing external factors. Sometimes, the employee needs to adjust their attitude to handle the situation. Alternatively, other organisations, roles or teams may be a better fit for them. There is no point pretending that frustration will solve itself, as this rarely happens.

This is why a candid, honest conversation may be necessary to address the problem. Many leaders keep team members waiting, pretending that they will solve issues to reduce frustration in the team. The unfortunate reality is that frustrating workplace conditions aren’t always in our control.

The worst thing you can do to an employee is to give them a false promise of change. This keeps them in your team for longer, but may result in frustration levels rising further. Eventually, you will lose credibility as they realise you don’t mean what you say.


Frustration is a team killer. Keep an eye out for frustration before it builds and destroys morale and enthusiasm. Act quickly to address it, before it spreads to other parts of your team and organisation.


Originally published at www.thoughtfulleader.com on May 25, 2017.

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