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The state of disgruntled employees: Three ways to halt the flight or fight response

By Workplace
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About a third of the workforce is routinely unhappy with their work. Of these, a handful choose to fight (in the form of a blow-up or argument at work), while a larger number choose flight (in the form of an exit to another job, even if it pays less), says Alexander Hiam, author of Business Innovation For Dummies (Wiley, May 2010) as well as the authoritative [span style="font-style: italic;"]American Management Association textbook Motivational Management.

[/span] Hiam, a UMass Business School lecturer and leadership consultant to Fortune 500 companies and government agencies, says the biggest proportion of unhappy employees choose a third and less healthy biological response to stress, freezing, or feeling helpless and stuck and unable to do anything about a bad job situation.

“These people come to work dutifully each day, but they have built a shell around their emotions and are keeping their heads down and trying to avoid further pain,” says Hiam. “The problem is that they think there’s nothing they can do to improve their own situation. This makes them unable to see anything else with optimism, either. So they are chronically uncreative and resist changes, including any efforts to innovate.”

Unhappy, negative employees are just as common in the management ranks as at lower levels, too.

“In the leadership training I do in both private sector and government workplaces across the U.S., I see a lot of managers whose attitudes are negative as well. They may not be in the spotlight, like a front-line employee (customer service, flight attendant, etc), but they are just as likely to be unhappy with their situation and unable to see any positive way out. This negative mindset is unfortunately stimulated by economic recession, which tends to spread a pessimistic pall over the entire workforce.”

“If left to their own devices, the millions of unhappy employees will continue to resist change and find it impossible to focus on fresh ideas and approaches to their work,” he says. “They are a huge hidden barrier to innovating our way out of the current economic stagnation. The nation is like a stag in the headlights, and somebody who isn’t frozen needs to give it a kick in the right direction.”

But the emergency exit is not the right direction; it fails to resolve any of the underlying problems in a positive way.

“This is an essential moment for leadership to step forward and take charge by creating a sense of positive forward momentum instead of waiting to see who goes postal or pulls the nearest emergency exit lever.”

To motivate frozen, unhappy employees and create positive momentum again, Hiam suggests this three-step process:

  1. Collect a list of problems and complaints from all your employees, and share your findings rapidly so everyone can see what the dominant issues are.
  2. Form innovation squads to pull enthusiastic employees into the process of generating good new ideas and approaches based on the findings, making the criteria clear in advance for practical, doable proposals so that the teams don’t feel let down later if their million dollar project doesn’t get funding.
  3. Implement the top idea at once, the second-best idea shortly thereafter, and so on, until at least five good ideas are in place and functioning well, then repeat the process.

“The trick to making this process produce positive momentum is to do it rapidly,” says Hiam. “Set a faster pace than employees are used to, and you’ll help get things moving again in all aspects of work. Innovating benefits employees and their employers not just by producing improvements, but also by building momentum and setting an exciting pace that draws people out of their slumps.”

For every employee who visibly chooses a fight or flight response – or combines them in a showy exit down the emergency chute – Hiam says there are hundreds of thousands with similarly negative attitudes who do not take any action at all.

“Personally, I’d rather see employees taking action of some kind, than simply doing nothing at all. Inaction is a deadly state, and it spreads a feeling of hopelessness that is the biggest barrier to innovation and success right now.”


Alexander Hiam is a leading innovation expert and the author of more than 20 books on innovation, marketing and creativity, including Business Innovation for Dummies (Wiley, June 2010), a how-to guide that offers practical techniques for stimulating imagination and developing ideas into successful innovations. A lecturer at the business school at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, he has consulted with many Fortune 500 firms and large U.S. government agencies (including the U.S. Coast Guard’s Leadership and Management School, the U.S. Senate, and the City of New York).  Online at www.alexhiam.com and www.supportforinnovation.com.

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