Dissatisfied Employees Will Do This, You Can Predict It

Life is not perfect. From time to time, every leader is going to have some dissatisfied employees. So leaders, you need to be fully aware of the predictable behaviors that will occur when one of your employees is dissatisfied. You won’t be able to predict with certainty the order in which these behaviors will surface. But you can predict one or more of these specific behaviors from dissatisfied employees. Here’s what to look for.

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3 Predictable Behaviors of Dissatisfied Employees

Dissatisfied Employees May Quit

1. Withdrawal

When employee needs are not met or satisfied, some of them will withdraw.

Withdrawal comes in two general forms: the most obvious form and the most common form. The most obvious form — physical withdrawal — simply means that your employees quit and leave. They decide to voluntarily remove themselves from a situation that doesn’t meet the needs they so desperately desire. They determine for themselves that it’s best to search elsewhere to have their needs met. In other words, they’ve given up that you, their leader, is willing or able to help them.

Some Employees Quit and Leave

The specific needs may vary as widely as your followers’ personalities. However, many followers experience needs for trust, respect, attention, direction, opportunity, patience. Or they may look for feedback, support, understanding, consistency, recognition, praise, compassion, empathy, caring, and… Well, you see what I mean.

If employee retention or turnover rates in your organization or department aren’t what you’d like them to be, it’s well worth your time to investigate. Ask what employee needs are not being met that are ultimately driving people away. Exit interviews are one method that organizations have historically used to get honest feedback from departing employees. However, as honest as they may be in an exit interview, it’s too little, too late for those employees. These dissatisfied employees have already been lost; they’ve decided to move on.

Proactive leaders recognize the need to talk with everyone of their existing followers frequently — while they’re still physically present. If such communication between leader and follower is lacking, the stage is set. Employees may move toward the other — and more common — type of withdrawal.

Other Employees Quit and Stay…

Dissatisfied employees that quit… and stay — that’s the more common type of withdrawal. And this kind of emotional withdrawal can be far more devastating to an organization than physical withdrawal over the long haul.

Followers are still physically present, however they are not mentally engaged. They go through the motions of their job every day but with no discernible commitment or passion for the organization, its goals or objectives. Productivity, morale, and teamwork suffer as employees wallow in their own unsatisfied needs.

This is precisely why leaders must engage in intentional, ongoing interaction with all employees in an attempt to recognize their needs proactively. It’s a task they should neither overlook nor delegate — and one they must view as time invested, not time wasted.

Dissatisfied Employees May Become Aggressive

2. Aggression

Some employees withdraw when faced with the reality of unsatisfied needs. But others become ever more aggressive in their attitude and behavior. If a leader knows her employees well, it’s not hard to recognize aggressive behavior in them.

Employees may balk when given certain work assignments. They may be quick to take exception to something someone said or did to them on the job, causing a seemingly unnecessary confrontation. Or the opposite may be true. Normally talkative, outspoken individuals may fall silent during discussions when their input would be expected.

How many times have you witnessed an employee behaving out of the ordinary, making  you wonder, “What’s gotten into him?” or “I’ve never seen her act that way before.”

If you witness a normally mild-mannered, subdued employee reacting in an unusually aggressive manner, don’t be surprised. You may find that they’re not only venting their frustration but also fighting to have some specific need met. The best leaders realize that investing some focused, one-on-one time with that individual — to find out what is driving such drastic behavior — is ultimately time well spent. Working together, you and your employee may be able to determine positive steps that specifically address and resolve the problem.

Do Not Neglect Unusually Aggressive Behavior

I do need to highlight one of the more uncomfortable aspects of our leadership responsibilities at this point. I’m referring to the leader’s need to be aware of the possibility of workplace violence. I readily admit that I’m not an expert on the topic. However, there is one thing I know and that every leader ought to recognize. If you witness the first signs of uncharacteristically aggressive behavior in the workplace, your observation demands your immediate attention before a situation gets out of hand.

The worst possible decision you can make in the face of such aggressive behavior is to ignore it hoping it will simply go away. If your employees have become unusually aggressive for any reason, you can’t predict what they will do next because they don’t know themselves. As their leader, you should do no less than attempt to offer your employee help, guidance and support during a difficult and troubling period for you both. It’s your professional and moral responsibility.

Dissatisfied Employees May Rationalize

3. Rationalize

The third predictable human response to the reality of unsatisfied needs is the act of rationalization. Employees may attempt to rationalize away situations once they sense no other way to satisfy their needs.

The best definition of rationalization I’ve ever heard is this: “To rationalize is to tell ‘rational lies.'”

Think about it:

Rational: logical, reasonable, sensible, acceptable.

Lies: fabrications, deceptions, falsehoods, untruths.

When someone engages in rationalization, they’ve intentionally creating and telling themselves logical, acceptable untruths. Then they choose to believe those self-created untruths and act on them as if they were the truth. In other words, these employees opt to create a fictionalized reality rather than search for real solutions to the challenges they face.

Withdrawal + Aggression + Rationalization = WAR

As humans, we all use defense mechanisms to help us cope with unsatisfied needs. I’m not a psychologist, but even I know that when an employee’s needs are not being satisfied, a psychological war is raging inside of them. And in the midst of any type of conflict, we all want to be able to clearly identify our enemies and our allies.

As a proactive leader, the quicker you identify these predictable behaviors of dissatisfied employees, the faster you’ll be able to respond and identify yourself as an ally in your employee’s personal WAR against unsatisfied needs. (Here are some ideas for determining exactly what those needs are.) And now that you know, you can move toward managing any negative effects to the satisfaction of your employee and for the success of your organization.

Increase Employee Satisfaction Rates Through Greater Employee Engagement. I Can Show Your Managers How It’s Done. Let’s Talk.


Phillip Van Hooser
Author: Phillip Van Hooser
Phillip Van Hooser, CSP, CPAE is committed to helping organizations transform their business outcomes by building engaged employee relationships. He is an award-winning keynote speaker and author on leadership, service and communication. His popular book, “Willie's Way: 6 Secrets for Wooing, Wowing and Winning Customers and Their Loyalty” recently hit #1 in Customer Relations on the Kindle store. Connect with Phil on LinkedIn and Facebook.