The Sensational Shift with Susan Bernstein, MBA, PhD
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Find the hidden gems in your frustrated employees

When you hear someone say, “I’m frustrated,” what do you want to do?

Most of us secretly wish we could run away from people who are grumbling and complaining. Their energy brings us down. So it’s understandable that you’d want to escape. Or maybe you’d like to tell that frustrated person, “Get over yourself. Fix it!”

But when an employee or a colleague admits their frustration to you, they’re actually doing something very vulnerable. If you listen underneath their moaning and negative energy, they may actually be asking for your help. 

You may be thinking:  “Help? Why would I help anyone who’s complaining?” 
But turn the tables. Have you ever felt frustrated? Of course you have. Frustration rises in situations like:

In those instances, there’s a gap between what you desire and what’s actually happening. So you keep replaying the situation over and over again in your mind. Sure, you’re trying to find a way to improve things. But you remain stumped. And stuck.

When someone is frustrated — including you — what if you gave that person the chance to transform their emotional tension into something new and positive?

How to Turn Frustration into Clarity

So, let’s imagine you have an employee, Jan, who’s plopped herself down at your desk like the proverbial sack of potatoes. She whines like Eeyore, the donkey in Winnie the Pooh, while her shoulders slump and her face goes all soft. Jan sighs and looks at her feet as she tells you, “I’m so frustrated with the new client, Rob. That guy is always yelling at me.”

Step 1:  Find out what the person’s really feeling

Frustration indicates a gap between someone’s desired state and their actual state. Frustration isn’t actually an emotion. Instead, it’s usually a sign that someone doesn’t feel safe enough to express their true emotion.

You want to make it safe to share the emotion, so you can help diagnose the next steps. You create an emotionally safe environment with more than simply your words. Your actions and decisions convey safety. With Jan, meeting in private (away from the open cubicles where others can hear) makes it safer for her.

You might want to meet over lunch, or hold a walk-and-talk to make Jan feel valued. Listen more than you talk. Give Jan the opportunity for multiple conversations. Trust that she can shift out of negativity and frustration. Approach her with an open mindset, rather than a fixed one. These actions create the climate for Jan to open up.

When you discuss the frustration, first be sure you understand the objective facts that are causing frustration. In Jan’s case, you’d want to know things like how long and how frequently she’s been working with the new client, Rob, and what kind of situations make him yell at her.

Then, ask, “So, are you actually feeling more sad or angry about the situation?”

You want to ask about her emotion, because then you’ll know more about her motivation, and how to help.

Do they feel sad?
Sadness is a signal of loss. If Jan tells you she’s sad, in her mind, what has she lost in this situation? Ask her, gently. Perhaps she feels she’s lost the respect of the client. Or she’s lost the fun connection she used to have to Beth, the woman who managed the client account before a new guy, Rob, stepped in.

When someone admits they’re feeling sadness, ask thoughtful questions to find out:

Do they feel angry?
Anger is a signal of a violation. If Jan tells you she’s angry, thoughtfully ask her “What principle or value that is important to you has been breached?” Perhaps she believes yelling demeans her. Maybe she is scared that the new client, Rob, is angry at her about an unexpressed problem, and she’s worried about her job security.

When someone tells you they’re angry, you can dive deeper with questions like:

Step 2:  Once you know what emotion is really fueling them, help plan a shift

Now that you know which emotion is really underneath the frustration, you can strategize what happens next.

Shifting out of sadness

If you’re dealing with someone who feels sad, help that person to identify what really matters. If it makes sense, give them the latitude to express their grief about the loss.

If Jan is missing the fun of working with the ever-playful Beth, you can empathize. You might ask Jan to share share some fond memories she has of their professional connection. Jan might not cry about this loss, but if you offer her the chance to talk about her feelings, that can help her to move on.

Shifting out of anger
On the other hand, if you’re dealing with someone who feels angry, you can enlist their ideas on how to reach a higher level of performance. Instead of feeling at the mercy of the situation, you want this frustrated person to help generate options for resolution.

In Jan’s case, if the new client, Rob, has been yelling about how long it takes to get service, you can ask her what ideas she has to fix the problem. Jan might recommend the development of a chart to explain the turnaround time for projects. She might also suggest encourage her to redesign the service delivery model that’s long been in need of revision. You can then help her to evaluate the options, pick one, and follow through on it. You can help someone to shift their anger by supporting them to:- clarify what’s important- generate options to address the “frustrating” issue- evaluate and select options, and- taking action.

Step 3:  If the person isn’t shifting, let them know the consequences

If you’re taking with someone who is constantly complaining, without shifting into resolution, it may be time to say something to encourage action.

Try something like this: 
Hey, I’d like to see you turn your complaints into workable ideas. Are you aware of the energy you’re broadcasting here at work? (Allow time for a response) It’s coming off really negatively to me and your co-workers. Did you know that?(Allow time for a response) 

“Unfortunately, that negativity — whether you intended it or not — is highly contagious. I am committed to helping everyone on this team to feel positive and uplifted, so they can do their best work. So please be mindful of the energy you bring to work. If you’re having a tough time, please come to me and I’ll do my best to help you. From now on, please do not complain without offering some solutions or asking for the help you need to shift things, OK?”

Use this three-step framework to generate a shift from frustration to cooperation. If that’s not happening, it’s almost certainly time to help that frustrated person move on.

Now, it’s your turn: 

2 Responses to “Find the hidden gems in your frustrated employees”

  1. Bhavani Rao says:

    Strangely enough I been counseling along these lines. In my case, I was being told I perceived as being negative and this was rubbing off on others. After the counseling, I decided to shut up since there really wasn’t much anyone could do and I eventually left the company.

  2. Hi Bhavani – thanks for taking the time to comment. And I’m sorry you had to shut up and leave. I sincerely hope you’ve landed somewhere that’s a better fit for you. ~ Susan

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