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Is it just whining or a real issue? How to recognize and help employees who need it

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It’s just not fair! Everyone hates me! This job sucks! You’ve probably heard these from employees and colleagues. So how do you know if they’re just whining or if it’s a legitimate issue?

Can you recognize and help employees who really need it?

Somewhere between whining and complaints that warrant an investigation and legal or compliant action are employee concerns and issues that need extra attention. They’re legitimate problems with work and/or co-workers.

Recognize and help employees

They might bring them straight to HR. Or they might talk to their managers, who need assistance helping their direct reports. Or employees might not even bring up the issue directly: They might mumble under their breaths, withdraw or become flustered.

In all events, you — and front-line managers — want to be able to help those who need it.

“We all are human and we all lose it now and then,” says Marc Robertson, a leadership coach and author of Working With Millennials. “Your task as a leader is to get that person ‘un-upset’ and back on track so they feel supported and become productive once again.”

Here are ways to recognize and help employees who really need it. You might want to pass these along to front-line managers along with their formal training on reporting issues to HR.

Recognize it

Not all discouraged employees will realize they have issues and bring them to a boss or HR. They might think the issue will pass, or they can deal with whatever it is … until they can’t.

So keep an eye out for good employees who are overwhelmed, don’t interact much or start complaining more than normal.

Talk about it

Whether they bring issues to you or you want to talk about what you’ve noticed, do it in a one-on-one.

Ask:

  • “I’ve noticed you seem a bit distant lately. Is something going on?” or
  • “I’ve noticed the quality of your work is suffering, and I’m concerned. Do you have any idea why this is happening?”

Let them talk openly so you get a full narrative on the situation.

Agree

You don’t want to minimize their feelings. Agree with how they feel (even if you don’t see the issue as they do).

Avoid saying things such as, “It’s not that bad,” or “You’re reading too much into it.” Say, “I can see why you’re frustrated” or “You have reasons to feel that way.”

Nail it

Make sure you understand the dominant issue before you consider solutions. Big issues that often arise: overwhelmed by workload, lack of confidence, personal issues spilling into work and co-worker disputes.

Say, “From what I’ve heard, you’re …” or “The way I understand it, is …”

Encourage them

Tell unhappy or discouraged employees about an area where they excel or exceed expectations.

In many cases, unhappy employees don’t see anything positive about their situations. Hearing that you’re happy with them can start to rebuild confidence.

Watch other employees, too

Many of employees’ legitimate problems stem from issues with co-workers. Watch how they interact.

Some problems are subtle — for instance, one person takes advantage of another’s goodwill by constantly requesting favors. If it’s worse, and you witness bullying, you must step in and handle it following internal harassment protocols.

Build solutions

You’ll need to work together to come up with game-changing solutions. If you take full responsibility for the solution, you might make unhappy employees feel like victims. Instead, get their opinions first on some solutions.

Say, “How would you like to see this situation fixed?”

Confirm what’s possible, then offer a solution or two on what can be done — for instance, changing the workload if they’re overwhelmed, removing obstacles if they feel held back by red tape or other people, or setting different, reachable goals if their confidence has been broken.

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