The Immense Power of Employee Resentment
Scott D. Clary | Mental Models, Performance, Business & Entrepreneurship
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The Immense Power of Employee Resentment
No matter how strong and successful your business is, there's always a potential threat. What do you consider to be the biggest threat to your company? Is it a lack of demand? A fierce competitor emerging from the woodwork?
For most of us, we consider the most obvious threats – supply vs demand, competing companies, and market conditions – but we forget the insidious killers lurking out of eyesight.
I'm talking about employee resentment; small gripes that become bigger grudges and eventually snowball into an avalanche of employee dissatisfaction.
Employee resentment is a silent killer that can wreak havoc on your company, sapping morale and productivity if left unchecked. So how do you recognize it? If you can't recognize it, how do you prevent it in the first place?
You Can't Please Everyone
Let's get something straight: you cannot control the way your employees feel. As a business owner, you're not going to get to the end of your career without at least a few disgruntled employees.
There are more than a few reasons for that. Perhaps your personalities clash; you take a highly practical and logical approach while they take a creative and emotional one. Maybe you have different goals; your vision might be too ambitious or not ambitious enough for them.
It could even come down to something as simple as a difference in opinion over the best way to do things. And since you need to draw the line somewhere, there will always be some employees who feel like you've crossed it.
(Of course, there are things you can do to lessen the likelihood of making employees resent you. But we'll get to that soon.)
Defining Employee Resentment
At its most basic, employee resentment is an emotion. Some would say it's the feeling of being wronged or mistreated by someone in a position of power over you.
Keep in mind, though, that resentment isn't limited to power dynamics. It's actually symptomatic of something broader: loss of control.
Resentment can, indeed, stem from employer mistreatment. But you'll still see it if you're the fairest boss in the world – because resentment can come from factors you don't influence, like if an employee hates the career they've chosen and feels stuck in a job they loathe.
Note that resentment is very prone to the snowball effect. A small level of resentment doesn't stay small for long; it builds and festers and can even manifest itself as passive-aggressive behavior. If left unchecked, it will spread through your entire team like a virus.
What Does Resentment Look Like?
You might be familiar with the classic signs of resentment: cold-shouldering, sharp or agitated mannerisms, poor-quality work, and even outright hostility. Stress levels in the workplace are growing with every year that passes – so it's not uncommon to see employees exhibiting these 'outburst' behaviors.
These are absolutely valid symptoms to look out for. They're blatant red flags telling you to address whatever's lurking beneath the surface.
But here's the kicker – I'd wager that most of the time, resentful employees stay silent. They won't be blatantly hostile or disrespectful; they'll do their jobs, and if their mask is convincing enough, you'll be none the wiser.
It's these subtler signs that you need to be highly vigilant about. Let's zoom in on a few of the most common.
A Detail-Oriented Employee Gets Sloppy
Have you got a highly detail-driven employee among your ranks? You know the one – extremely reliable, meticulous with instructions, never a comma out of place or a deadline missed.
A huge tell that your most vigilant employee has become resentful or dissatisfied is if their usual vigor begins to falter. For instance:
There's a weekly deadline this person always adheres to, but they've begun pushing it by an hour or two, leaving work until the last possible second
The employee is missing small details in task instructions or making mistakes that are uncharacteristic of them
They've become more lax in their follow-through and communication with clients or colleagues
These are clear signs that this person has lost motivation, which is a symptom of low morale. And since resentment can be the root cause of low morale, it's worth looking into.
A Previously Passionate Employee Loses Their Fire
Company culture is often bolstered by a couple of firecracker employees. These are the people who actively start new social initiatives, come to you with innovative ideas, and greet everyone with an energetic smile.
Logically, you'd think these employees would make their resentment obvious – considering how forthcoming they are in the first place. But it's often not so clear-cut. You might still get a bright smile despite their growing resentment.
Instead, focus on their passion and enthusiasm for the job. Are they still as eager to take on new tasks? Do they come up with creative solutions as quickly as before, or has their drive dwindled?
An Employee Is ‘Happy’, Yet Absent
Resentment doesn't always show on an employee's face. Sometimes, you need to read between the lines.
An employee might be outwardly 'happy'; they'll smile at you in the lunch room, make light-hearted conversation, and generally act pleasant.
But if you pay attention to their attendance, you might notice that they're taking lots of sick days or missing the meetings they usually enjoy so much. Then you'll notice the subtler signs:
A lack of messages, status updates, and reactions in Slack or Teams
Very brief replies to your messages with none of the usual back-and-forth banter
A lack of eye contact in meetings or a noticeable drop in their level of participation
Carefully observe their participation in non-mandatory work activities. If they're someone who usually loves to take on extra tasks or jump in a team games night, but those activities have since dried up, it could easily be a sign of resentment.
Why Resentful Employees Don't Speak Up
If you're a boss for long enough, you start to realize that employees are highly unlikely to speak up when they're unhappy. Some people blame this on personality traits; the employees who don't speak up are just 'shy' or 'introverted'.
But that doesn't explain the highly talkative and outgoing folks who stay silent when they're dissatisfied. So what does?
First, we could talk about survival instincts. There's a clear power dynamic at play between employer and employee; you have the power to remove their job security and, therefore, their livelihood.
Plus, there's the fear of being ostracized or labeled a troublemaker if they speak up. Nobody wants to be the one who rocks the boat – it can feel safer in many cases to simply stay quiet and get through their workday as best as possible.
And, of course, there's your company culture. If you've failed to create a safe space for employees to air their grievances without fear of retaliation, then you can't expect them to come forward. It's much harder to patch up a crappy culture than it is to build a good one from the start.
How Resentment Crumbles Your Business
Before we dive into some detection and prevention strategies, let's talk about exactly what can happen when resentment goes unchecked.
The first sign of trouble is usually a drop in staff morale and productivity, which can quickly spiral into customer dissatisfaction. If your employees are resentful of their job or the team dynamics, then that's going to be reflected in their work.
Even worse, it could cause them to spread negative vibes throughout the rest of the office – no matter how hard they try to keep it hidden. It's a domino effect that can quickly engulf your entire workplace.
When poor-quality work collides with dissatisfied employees and widespread tension, you'll find yourself in an uphill battle to fix it. We're talking thousands upon thousands of dollars in lost revenue and a serious dent in your reputation.
Preventing Employee Resentment – Now, Not Later
The best way to protect yourself against the power of employee resentment is to prevent it from happening in the first place. But to do that, you need to know where resentment comes from in the first place – and, therefore, how to nip it in the bud from the get-go. Let's take a closer look at the sources of resentment.
Source 1: Mistreatment
The obvious culprit, mistreatment refers to any ill will or poor management on your behalf. For example:
You fail to pay your employees on time
You reprimand them without taking the time to explain their mistakes
You fail to recognize their achievements or successes
You mock them, belittle them, or otherwise treat them with disrespect
Prevention: If you're self-aware enough to sign up for newsletters that help you improve as an entrepreneur, I'm guessing you aren't ignorant enough to mistreat your workers. But it's always worth the mention! (And I don't need to explain how these behaviors turn into resentment.)
Source 2: Lack of Transparency
There's some debate around how transparent bosses should be with their employees. For a long time, the answer was simple: don't be transparent at all. But this displays a blatant lack of trust and respect for your team. It doesn't get you the buy-in and commitment you need from employees.
There are a few key ways a lack of transparency translates into resentment:
When information is shared with only a few employees, and the others find out they've been left out
When decisions are made without consulting employees or involving them in the process
When changes to processes and policies happen without warning or explanation
When employees don't understand how different departments relate to their own and therefore aren't invested in their role in the company
Prevention: Transparency doesn't mean you have to give away every single detail of how your business works, but it does require trust. You need to demonstrate that you're willing to involve employees in decisions and processes if they want it, and that their role is valued in the larger context of the company.
Source 3: Resenteeism
Have you heard this word circulating around the likes of Forbes and HBR? It's in the same ballpark as terms like 'presenteeism' and 'the great resignation'. Resenteeism is the act of staying in a position you dislike, either out of necessity or because you fear the repercussions of leaving.
Resenteeism is thought to be a direct result of the Great Resignation. Since employees are now hyper-aware of the conditions and roles they could be experiencing in other companies, they quickly grow to resent their current positions. It gets worse and worse the longer they stick around.
Prevention: I can't overstate the importance of checking in with your employees. Whether you use the bi-weekly 1:1 methodology or you stick with a six-monthly review, ask every employee the pointed question – are you really happy here? What needs to change for you to feel more fulfilled in your role?
Source 4: Change
Every employee enters your business with a certain idea of how it will be in the long term. They typically know what they're signing up for and don't readily expect significant change.
But as an entrepreneur, you know that the most successful business leaders are experts at pivoting. You need to make changes to your business in order to keep ahead of the competition – and at times, in order to stay afloat.
The problem is that humans have never been great with change. Change makes us feel unsteady. So when you throw a substantial business shift in the face of your employees, you can expect a degree of resentment.
Prevention: It once again comes back to transparency. Don't make a drastic change unannounced and expect it to go smoothly. As soon as you decide to implement significant changes, sit down with your team and explain why it's necessary. Involve them in the process and draw up a step-by-step implementation plan that everyone is okay with.
Source 5: Burnout
You cannot take responsibility for the way your employees handle their time, energy, and stress. But you can make sure that your working environment and processes aren't encouraging burnout.
Burnout is quickly becoming the norm in our work-oriented culture, and it's not hard to see why: employees are pushed to work longer hours than ever before with little regard for their mental health or well-being.
Long-term burnout leads to resentment; employees will be frustrated that their hard work is going unrecognized, and they'll feel like they're being taken advantage of.
Prevention: Make it a priority – either yours or someone else's – to keep a close eye on the workload of each employee. Check-ins should be a regular means of gauging how people are really feeling and how their workload is affecting them. People-pleasing employees, in particular, are not going to tell you when they feel overwhelmed – so it's crucial to learn and notice the signs.
When Does It Become the Employee's Fault?
I am not trying to tell you that your employees' emotions are your responsibility. If that were true, no one would sign up to be an entrepreneur or business owner. It's too much work to worry about both the health of your business and the unspoken grievances of your team.
And, of course, certain signs of employee resentment actually point to their own immaturity. If they're someone who expresses their resentment in sudden outbursts, gossip, sabotage, or forming cliques, they need to own up to their mismanaged emotions. You can call them out on it whilst also putting preventative measures in place.
At the same time, becoming a boss means accepting the inevitability of resentment. It happens. And as the leader of your ship, you're in the best position to prevent it – which is why today's newsletter topic is so important.
It’s best not to think about resentment in terms of who’s to blame. See the issue for what it is, decide on a course of action, and if needed, address the employee’s behavior after things have been smoothed over.
I'm not breaking any new ground by acknowledging resentment, but in an age of growing dissatisfaction, I thought it was worth addressing. Especially as an entrepreneur, you need to be aware of the sources of resentment and how it can impact your business – because it can tear your hard work apart in an instant.
Remember: prevention is the key to protecting yourself against employee resentment. If you can nip it in the bud early, you'll be able to cultivate a team of happy and productive workers who will take your business to new heights.
As always, thanks for reading. I'd love to hear your thoughts in the comments!
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