How to not make your employees unhappy

Soul-crushing art: not actually a great way to keep people happy.
Soul-crushing art: not actually a great way to keep people happy.

It has become something of a cliché that people don’t leave their job, they leave their boss, and a recent article posted to Reddit corroborated this with a bit of research. I posted a comment stating that my own research supported this, insofar as I had found that management cannot make employees happy, but it can certainly contribute to unhappiness.

I received a lot of questions about the subject, so I thought I would write a brief blog post summarizing my thoughts. What it really comes down to, though, is that a really great boss can help keep someone motivated and happy who is already motivated and happy, but if someone is miserable, demotivated, and doesn’t want to be there, the greatest boss in the world isn’t going to make an unhappy person more happy.

Ideally, we are at work for 40 hours a week, maybe 45 including lunch, and not at work for over 120 hours a week. If you’re unhappy for 120 hours, the 40 aren’t going to make a huge difference.

So what about those of us who are managers? We shouldn’t interpret this news as a reason to give up on trying to treat our employees well. As the research shows, if we have a happy employee that is productive and awesome, a manager can still make them unhappy. And this typically leads to the employee either having a reduction in productivity, or leaving the job.

Here are three things you can do to not contribute to your employee’s unhappiness:

Ask Their Advice

It’s easy to think, as managers, that we know what is best. But often, our employees are closer to the work, our customers, and the pain points of the job. They know what needs fixed, or where we can improve, and they can help us by identifying that.

But for a lot of people, particularly in the context of the power imbalance present in the employer-employee relationship, they will hesitate to offer their insight and advice. Therefore, we should invite it regularly, and then act on it.

It’s not enough to simply get input from your staff. If you never take their suggestions into account and make changes, they will stop offering suggestions.

Because your employees may not have same perspective on the business that you have, some of their suggestions may not be good ones. You don’t have to implement every suggestion that your staff brings to you. But at the least, you should discuss the suggestion, and why you are or are not making the changes that they suggested.

If you decide not to implement the suggestion, you should work with that person to come up with a new idea. The reason they brought you the idea in the first place is because they were either dealing with a problem or had an idea to make an improvement, and we want to encourage that! If you don’t think their suggestion is a good way to fix the problem or improve the business, there may be alternatives that you can think of together.

Do What You Say You Will

If you tell someone that you’re going to do something, you have to do it. Or, if you later realize that it’s a bad idea, impractical, or just that you don’t have time, then you need to go back and talk to that person to explain this.

If you fail to follow through on the things that you say you’re going to do, people will stop trusting you. They’ll perceive you as someone who is incapable of delivering on the work that they say they’re going to do, and this will undermine your professional relationships and your communication with people in your organization.

By telling your staff that you are going to do something, and then following through on that, it helps build people’s trust in you. They know that they can rely on you. And if you have communicated that you feel you can rely on them, both by trusting them to do their job without being micromanaged, and taking their suggestions and implementing them, that will help promote a healthy work environment that isn’t demotivating to people.

Let People Manage Themselves

People typically know what work they need to do, and if they don’t, then they need to be trained. Once they have been trained, we really ought to let them get on with the work and do their own jobs. Our job as managers is to provide direction, resources, and to remove blockers. I think the best form of leadership is servant-leadership, where our focus as managers is to facilitate the work, not to micromanage it.

In agile project management, we have this concept of the self-organizing team, whereby people decide which tasks they are going to complete, and the team works as a whole to make decisions together instead of a single manager dictating who will do what and when. I think this approach leads to greater fulfillment and happiness, which contributes to higher productivity, and also means a task will be completed with a higher level of quality than if the manager was taking a more hands-on approach.


If someone is miserable, we can offer them support to help them get through the period of time and circumstances that is causing their unhappiness. But ultimately, as managers we can’t make someone happy who is unhappy. By working to serve our employees, helping them be fulfilled in the work that they’re doing, building trust, and always focusing on ways to improve our organization and the way that we do work, we can at least not contribute to unhappiness, and help our employees have a holistically happier life.

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