The Root Of It All

I hear a lot of reasons why people are frustrated with their jobs and their manager:

Out of nowhere, she started asking me to send a weekly spreadsheet documenting all the tasks I’ve done and how much time each took.

He doesn’t speak to me unless he needs something.

He steps in and answers everyone's questions and won’t let me run the project update meetings. I’m not being recognized as an expert in what I do.

In my extremely (un)scientific research on what makes employees unhappy, what’s stood out is that all of the reasons I hear have something in common: people just want to feel needed and appreciated.

It’s the root of it all.

Not feeling appreciated creates tension. At first, the employee manages it, either by seeking feedback from someone else or shrugging it off as a phase and assuming it will change.

But this behavior isn’t sustainable and over time the tension grows.

The frustrating thing is most people feel too awkward saying “I just want to know that I’m doing a good job and you appreciate my work” so they don’t say anything at all. Instead, they let it fester. And that festering becomes a hidden message for the manager to decipher, which is scary because without exceptional emotional intelligence, most managers don’t pick up on anything being wrong until there is a resignation letter in front of them.

Of course we want the employee to advocate for themselves but a manager can’t control if that happens. So, how can we gauge if employees are feeling needed and appreciated?


Use open-ended questions that leave room for talk about feelings (the dreaded “f” word):

·        How can I be the most helpful to you this week?

·        What’s motivated you this past week?

·        What is your biggest accomplishment this month?

·        What could I be doing differently to make sure you feel supported?

·        What can I do to help you enjoy your work more? 

To dig deeper, use follow up questions like “Could you tell me a little more about that?” or “What has that experience been like for you?” that uncover their true feelings. Watch for blinking words - what are they saying that indicates they don’t feel appreciated? It could be an illusion to not having enough resources or support for a project, or feeling unprepared to deal with an angry customer. During the conversation, also ask yourself: How would I feel if this were me?

Because that will be the most important question of all.

The Struggle is Real

Four years ago I became a mom. I had changed only a handful of diapers in my life and was never a babysitter growing up, but I thought for sure that motherhood was going to be easy, that I would quickly learn how to feed, bathe and change my daughter and then everything would be smooth sailing.


The first four months of my daughter's life found us parenting a baby with colic and acid reflux. This meant she cried every time she ate, every time she was uncomfortable, every time she felt like it (so, 5+ hours a day for roughly 120 days). And suddenly I was forced to learn an entirely new set of skills that I had rarely ever practiced before, both personally or professionally (truthfully I thought I was already good at them):

Flexibility. Patience. Not always being right.

The crying was brutal. Just when I thought I'd mastered the "thing" to make her stop , it would stop working. The different reflux treatments we tried each took time to gauge its effectiveness - there wasn't one single thing that immediately made a difference - because babies aren't robots and there isn't a one size fits all solution (try telling that to a sleep deprived mom who is barely eating or showering).

My over-achieving, A player, smarty pants personality could barely handle it. I was wrong often. Forced to be flexible, bending to her needs every hour, giving up plans with friends to stay home. Patiently waiting out the crying. Patiently waiting for the new medicine to show results.

And isn't this just like being a manager for the first time? We promote employees to lead others because they seemingly have it all together. They know the subject matter and get great results, so because of that, they'll be great at managing, right? Read a few books, ask for advice from a few trusted sources ... the rest will be easy.

That's certainly what I thought about motherhood.

Managing people requires flexibility. Patience. Not always being right. And new managers have a hard time with that. Weren't they promoted for always being right? Taking charge and fixing things? Suddenly they're being asked to step back and get results through others. That's tough on the ego if you've been the one doing all the things and getting all the results for your entire career.

Without a good leader to emulate and a mentor to coach and develop, most new managers find themselves in the same situation as motherhood found me: forced to learn new skills in the moment and pushing back on the self-awareness that inside was telling me to "slow down, be flexible, have patience, try again."

We promote employees who are good at their jobs, rarely wondering if they're good with people. Yet we're surprised when they are miserable and the team starts complaining about being micro-managed or not managed enough.

No one is surprised when a first time mom admits she is struggling, so why are we surprised when a first time manager admits it? The assumption is that the employee, having had the magic wand of promotion waved over them, will suddenly know how to manage people. Schedule a 1:1 (aka learn how to feed and change the baby) and everything else falls into place.

I realized I needed a huge support system (still do) when I became a mom four years ago, but it took me months of misery to put my ego aside and reach out for help. It's a guarantee that the same thing is happening to new managers. The only difference is they're probably showering every day.

Why Does it Matter?

If you had to list your top values and how describe how each one is being met at work, could you do it?

Most people can't.

Think about a time something at work didn't feel right -

  • A colleague threw you under the bus in order to take the credit on saving a big account from cancelling
  • Your boss didn't recognize you for the revenue-generating project you spent months leading
  • No one on your team collaborates, instead preferring to work independently and in a silo
  • Overtime is often expected, and it comes at the expense of missing important family events

Why are some situations bigger triggers than others?

This is where values come in.

Our values are our personal bottom line.

They are our parameters for decision making and the principles by which we operate (I wish I could take credit for this line, but it's from The Leadership Challenge, which every manager should read).

When we don't know our values, we say things like "I'm unhappy at work but I can't pinpoint why" or "I don't know what would make me happy." We wallow in self-pity because we aren't empowered to change the situation. We job hop because we can't define exactly what we want, but maybe the next job has it. Guess what? It never does.

When we consciously know our values and someone acts with low integrity, or we don't feel needed and appreciated, or don't feel like part of the team, we can pinpoint exactly what's wrong.

Knowing personal values can help articulate why we stay (or leave) a job. It improves communication with our manager about how we want to grow (or explain why we don't want that promotion, because not everyone values growth). It identifies what we will (and won't) put up with at work.

There are a lot of great online resources to help determine personal values. A favorite of mine is from MindTools and can be found here. After going through this exercise, code each value with either a red, yellow, or green highlighter:

  • Red - this value is not being met and probably will never be
  • Yellow - this value is not being met but there's hope
  • Green - this value is being met

Then, let it marinate.

Why do you stay at your job? Why are you happy? Or are you unhappy? Why did <insert latest annoying behavior from a colleague here> get under your skin so much last week?

Let your values be your guide.

The Working Dead

Is this as good as it gets?

So many companies have teams that consistently show poor engagement because managers don't know how to meet the needs of their employees. Recent Gallup research shows that actively disengaged employees (24%) outnumber engaged employees (13%) by nearly 2-to-1 (The Damage Inflicted by Poor Managers).

Let's call these actively disengaged employees the working dead.


I talk with so many people who are unhappy at work because of their manager (according to the research above, it's about 1 in every 4 people). They are left in the dark about what's going on, delegated to without support (I like to call this the "drop and run" because managers think they're delegating when in fact they're just passing a task on to their employee without following up to see if they actually have the knowledge or motivation to complete the task), living in fear because they've been given surprise feedback, or dealing with the backlash of trying to balance family and work.

And yet, they stay. Why?

Because motivation is not an infinite resource. At a certain point, most employees stop fighting their circumstances and accept that even though they're unhappy, at least they know what they're dealing with and a new job could be even worse. Why bother trying to leave?

Think about the impact of the working dead at the office:

  • Gossip- They talk about everyone and everything, putting off work they should be doing because they don't really care anyway.
  • Pessimism- They're negative all the time. They pull their teammates down, criticize good ideas in team meetings and complain about workload.
  • Stifled innovation- They aren't sharing good ideas because they're a) not engaged enough to come up with the idea in the first place, or b) keep the idea to themselves because they don't care about the company any more. Worse, when others share, they poke holes and insert their negativity into the conversation.

It's a crisis when the norm is that people think all managers are the same (bad) and that moving to a new company won't change anything. And it's a crisis for companies because disengaged employees are staying put, impacting results, and bringing others down with them.

If 1 in 4 employees could be considered the walking dead, then every team has at least one, and I don't know what's worse - the fact that they stay, or that the manager doesn't know to do anything about it.

Hidden Messages

“We knew she wasn’t happy.”

When I talk to managers who are losing an employee, they are rarely blindsided and usually say this something like that. But when I ask how they knew the employee was unhappy, few give details. They’ll respond with “she seemed checked out” or “she hasn't been as motivated lately."

But what does that actually look like?

There are hidden messages in the interactions we have with employees every day and if managers aren’t tuned in they miss those messages. My article, For Goodness’ Sake, Talk to Your People, has ideas for improving communication between managers and their employees. But here’s the thing – during those conversations, you actually have to listen and pay attention. That takes a level of emotional intelligence that many leaders forsake because they are results-focused instead of people-focused.

So what does “unhappy” look like? Here’s an example of the hidden messages Sarah’s manager could have noticed before she resigned:

  • Sarah used to voluntarily answer emails in the evening after her kids were asleep. Now, she waits until the next business day, and unless the email is high priority, waits until mid-morning to respond. Work life balance aside, the sudden change in behavior, coupled with not responding first thing in the morning, are the red flags.
  • During team meetings, Sarah was always the one to share her opinions or offer up new ideas. Over the past few months, she’s talked less and less. She’s always smiling and nodding, though, so that to the untrained eye she comes across as engaged.
  • She's started only talking about projects or tasks in 1:1 meetings, whereas before she would share stories about her kids or talk about development goals. When asked how she is doing or if she needs anything, Sarah responds “I’m good.” 1:1 meetings always end early now. Be concerned when an employee stops engaging! To simply cover the basics does not mean the meeting went well. And never settle for “I’m good” from an employee that previously used to offer up their own ideas and opinions!
  • Sarah has stopped having “drive-by” conversations with her manager, something she used to do to make sure they were connecting daily. She doesn’t pop over to ask a question, choosing instead to email, even though they sit 100 feet apart.  

For a manager who’s focused on his to do list, instead of his people, these are small signs that go unnoticed. Overall, Sarah is talking less, and when she resigns, that’s what will make her manager say “I could tell she was unhappy.”

But wait!

Sarah could have been saved!

By watching for the hidden messages, Sarah’s manager could have used 1:1 meetings to understand her feelings (I recommend Stay Interviews) and changed his leadership style to meet her needs (Ken Blanchard’s Situational Leadership is the best I’ve come across). Understandably these actions might not have been enough to save her, but by watching and listening at least he tried.

And isn’t that the most important part?

The Fire Pit Effect

Your friends are having an outdoor party in December. It’s cold, so you stand as close to their fire pit as possible, rubbing your hands together for warmth. When the wind switches direction and the smoke gets in your face, you switch sides, still seeking the heat. But eventually, you leave because it’s too cold.

If you aren’t already thinking about what your team’s 2017 goals are and brainstorming objectives with them, you’re getting ready to enter what I call the “fire pit effect.”

Think about it.

Without goals, employees are left out in the cold, trying to figure out how to stay warm (aka: What is the meaning of my work? What does success look like? How are you measuring my performance?). They get as close to the fire as they can (your expectations), try to figure out how to stay warm on their own, change direction when they think it’s time, and then eventually give up. That giving up can look like leaving the company, or worse, decreased engagement and loss of motivation.

It’s the fire pit effect and I see it all the time. It sounds like:

 “This new project is confusing and no one understands their role in it or how it’s supposed to make the company money. We’re all working late trying to get it figured out, but none of us knows what to do.”

“We dropped the ball in communicating this change because no one anticipated it coming. Get the group together for an emergency meeting.”

“We didn’t make revenue for last quarter. Stop everything you’re working on and only focus on making money next quarter.”

When there are not clear goals, the team is overworked because they’re unable to prioritize. The boss is reactive and throws more work on everyone’s plates, always at the last minute. Employees don’t understand how they fit in to the company strategy, and since leaders don’t understand what other departments are working on, work happens in silos.

What does success look like?

No one knows. So employees keep asking and searching and trying to warm their hands by seeking direction from a boss that hasn’t set goals and therefore can’t clearly articulate the path. Then eventually, they stop asking and just do what they think is best, with or without telling anyone. Then, they leave. 

Being Slammed is Not an Excuse

Will you reschedule our 1:1? I'm slammed today. 

Sorry I haven't talked to you all week. I've been slammed. 

I can't talk right now. I'm slammed. Can we chat tomorrow?

In the past few weeks I've heard leaders say all three of these phrases to an employee. It instantly sends the wrong message. The employee hears "I don't have time for you" and "What you're doing isn't as important as what I'm doing." Done once, this might not feel like a big deal. But when said repeatedly, it is.

Being slammed is not an excuse to not talk to your employees.

Millennials are feeling unattached to their coworkers, boss and company mission (source: Gallup). This is one reason why. 

Most bosses don't think of themselves as leaders first. They're working managers. They work heads down, focused on the latest project, and they say "you know you can always come to me if you need anything." The paradox is that when they used being slammed as an excuse, the employee doesn't actually feel like they can stop by and ask for what they need. They wait for their boss to come out of the weeds and approach them.

And it rarely happens. 

For 58% of millennials, quality of management is extremely important (source: Gallup). What are they looking for? Feedback. Development. Balance. 

There's a gap between how most leaders manage and what millennials expect.


No one's coaching millennials on how to deal with that gap, and few leaders are emotionally intelligent enough to realize that they should first lead, then work, that it's more about the person, and how they feel, than it is about the task list. 

Millennials want to understand their work beyond just a job description (source: Gallup), and every time their boss uses the excuse that they're too slammed to talk, a millennial loses faith that they're going to get that. 

Leaders, think twice and put your team first. They matter more than your to do list.



The Engagement Myth

 A lot of leaders lie to themselves. They think they have a high performing team and that their employees are happy. They think they are doing everything right. They think no one is job hunting.

Source: Gallup

Source: Gallup

Wait- what? 87% of employees are actively disengaged?

Yep. And in another recent Gallup poll, 60% of millennials are open to different job opportunities right now and only 50% plan to be with their company one year from now. 

Leaders, if you assume everything is ok with your team, you're going to be disappointed. Check your behaviors, because is something from the list below is missing, you're fostering disengagement. 

  • Setting clear goals
  • Communicating a vision
  • Offering support and encouragement
  • Providing stimulating work
  • Focusing on team interests and needs
  • Setting a good example
  • Interacting with employees daily
  • Providing opportunities for recognition

There are some factors of disengagement you can't control. But these you can. So if you aren't doing them, start (and boy is this book a good resource). And if you are doing them, reevaluate their frequency and effectiveness. It's worth it.

5 Tips to Improve the Way You Delegate

Delegating should be the ultimate goal of every leader. When delegating appropriately, it means the employee has enough knowledge and engagement to complete the task without help. And that frees the leader up to do other things. Priceless. 

I see a lot of leaders who don't delegate properly, and in the end decide to "just do it myself" because delegating is too much of a hassle. Stop! If you are frustrated and want to just do the task yourself, you're not delegating correctly. Try these tips to improve how you delegate: 

1. Make sure the employee has enough knowledge to actually achieve the goal. Recently a coworker shared a situation where her boss had given her a project to manage with an outside consultant without giving her the context or expectations. She didn't know what to do and felt overwhelmed because she wasn't sure what was supposed to be done. Her boss didn't check in or answer emails, which was even more frustrating. What do you think happened? 

2. Make sure the employee is motivated enough to follow through. Here's what happened - she stopped caring. She was so frustrated that she stopped making an agenda for project meetings and stopped answering email after hours from the consultant. After a month her boss stepped in and reprimanded her for not doing a better job and took over the project himself. After this happened, How do you think the boss felt about the employee, and how do you think she felt about her boss? 

3. Check in. Good delegating isn't just a hand off. Leaders still need to check in with the employee to make sure they aren't struggling and to clear roadblocks. I see too many leaders who don't think they need to check in with an employee once they've handed off a task because they view delegation as being completely hands off (which is what happened to my colleague).

4. Ask the right questions. With delegation comes autonomy, which means that when checking in, the leader should be the one who talks the least. Asking good, open-ended questions will help make the meeting productive: 

  • What would you like to talk about? Tell me what you're most excited about this week.
  • What feedback have you been getting? Who else should know about this?
  • Where do you want more influence?
  • What do you need from me to make this easier? 
  • How do you want to keep me informed?

5. Give positive feedback. Employees who have high knowledge and high engagement don't need their hand held. They do everything right, are self-motivated, and work best when you don't step in. But that doesn't mean they don't need positive feedback. Be sure to say "I so appreciate ..." or "You have made a major contribution by ..." regularly so they know they're doing a good job. Everyone loves to hear that their leader appreciates what they've done.

Jerk Behaviors - We're all Guilty


A few years ago I became certified in "Love Em' or Lose Em'" by Career Systems International (Read more about the program: I loved teaching the full day course to leaders because it covered important topics that most leaders don't think about: personal core values, retention styles, and my favorite of all - jerk behaviors. 

We all have jerk behaviors. They show up when we're stressed or frustrated and they show up when we don't like the person we're working with (or for). 

The hardest jerk behaviors to identify are the intangible ones, not the swearing, interrupting, screaming, condescending, or table pounding behaviors that immediately show someone is a jerk. These behaviors take a while to uncover and are blinking lights once they're finally identified. (As in, "I always knew she acted like a martyr but this email solidifies it for me.")

Jerk behavior is contagious.

Ever notice how swearing in a certain project meeting becomes the norm? Or how suddenly it's status quo to gossip about other departments during a team outing? The intangible behaviors are contagious too, and they're more lethal because people don't admit to being manipulative or showing favoritism. 

Take a look at this list of intangible behaviors and identify the ones that you exhibit by using the following scale: 1 - I do this, but rarely; 2 - Truthfully I do this pretty often; 3 - Wow, I'm a repeat offender. How easy is it to change each of the behaviors? Some can be changed with awareness or a personal action plan, but others are deeply ingrained (maybe it's how we were raised). 

  • Not listening
  • Condescending or criticizing
  • Expecting perfection without guidance
  • Expecting preferential treatment
  • Impatient
  • Manipulating/Controlling
  • Stealing credit
  • Acting like the martyr
  • Getting revenge or payback
  • Withholding information to keep power or prestige
  • Playing favorites
  • Never accepting blame
  • Throwing others under the bus
  • Not standing behind a decision
  • Enjoying making people sweat

View the full list of jerk behaviors here