How To Manage A Disgruntled Employee Like An FBI Agent

Reading Time: 11 minutes

If left unchecked, disgruntled employees can destroy your organization from within. Get ahead of them with a few simple tactics.

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“A disgruntled employee can attempt to hold your organization hostage with their bad attitude, poor performance and overall terrible employee record, especially if they’re unionized.”

In my 6 years as a union steward, I learned quite a bit about dealing with disgruntled employees. After all, I was elected to solve their problems and wear the many hats needed to resolve conflict in many contexts.

Whether it was helping them navigate convoluted contract language, negotiate “discipline” for an overall subpar employee record or environmental issues such as an under heated work area, I had to come up with solutions.

In dealing with every type of issue that came about, I had to employ emotional intelligence to navigate the raw emotional world of disgruntled employees.

Over the years I learned how to manage these difficult employee relations issues by using top tier emotionally intelligent leadership and conflict resolution tactics.

Although much of my knowledge of leadership theory came from books, by far the most impact came from experience in the field.

In this piece, I’m going to share some of the tactics I’ve picked up during my time as a union steward to deal with disgruntled employees, along side some intriguing psychological tactics a former FBI agent and lead international kidnapping negotiator used in his line of work.

What Is A Disgruntled Employee?

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A disgruntled employee is a person who is less than satisfied with their job and it shows. They bring the work atmosphere down by complaining and in the process, make everyone else miserable.

A team member might be unhappy for a variety of reasons but some common reasons are dissatisfaction with pay, lack of upward mobility, disputes with coworkers or they may even be dissatisfied with your leadership for one reason or another.

A disgruntled employee might be miserable because of things completely out of your control like something family related which is why you should always have empathy as a leader.

No matter what the reason is, at some point in time you’ll come across disgruntled employees.

Why You Need To Address Disgruntled Employees As Soon As Possible

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“When dealing with people, remember you are not dealing with creatures of logic, but creatures of emotion.”— Dale Carnegie

I’ve seen the effects of having disgruntled employees left unchecked.

If you leave a disgruntled employee to fester, their negative energy will spread through the ranks. Before you know it, instead of having one disgruntled team member, you now have s few. This can wreak havoc on your organization and destroy it from the inside out.

This is especially true if you’re in the customer service business. If you have a disgruntled employee serving customers with a bad attitude, all it takes is one interaction with one customer who runs a popular blog or other media outlet and your business is marred.

It’s crucial that you address disgruntled employees with a sense of urgency as soon as you’re aware of it.

This is why I stress the importance of emotional intelligence as a leader. It allows for you to prevent disgruntled employees from manifesting in the first place.

Identification Of Disgruntled Employees

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Fortunately, it’s easy to identify a disgruntled employee. They usually want you to know that they have an issue and act out in a multitude of ways with out actually verbalizing it to you.

Here are a few things to look out for:

  • Absenteeism: A blatant red flag that the employee is not enjoying their time at work is a sudden increase in the usage of sick days and other forms of paid time off. Of course, this can be because of other things such as family or personal issues.
  • Decline In Performance: Another telltale sign of dissatisfaction is a decline in work performance. To say the least, disgruntled employees are not motivated to perform at their best.
  • Decline In Team Performance: This is a sign that the misery from a disgruntled employee has metastasized. This could also be a sign that they have stopped contributing their share of teamwork. They’re not willing to work collaboratively with others and in not doing so, the performance of the team suffers.
  • Bad Attitude: This is the most obvious sign. The way the member speaks and handles conversations, meetings, performance evaluations and simple job activities speak volumes. If there’s a sudden flux in attitude that’s out of the ordinary, if they suddenly don’t seem like their “normal self,” this is a sign that something is wrong. The article below outlines how to deal with an employee with a bad attitude.

Being able to readily identify a disgruntled employee can save you time, energy and money. Look for these signs and address them as soon as possible.

How To Avoid Having A Disgruntled Employee

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Identifying a disgruntled employee is a great skill to have but keeping them from manifesting in the first place is even better.

In order to keep disgruntled employees from manifesting, you want to do two things:

  • Work on your emotional intelligence and soft skills
  • Facilitate a positive work environment

Emotional Intelligence

Time and time again I stress the importance of emotional intelligence and soft skills. By keeping these skills up to date, you’re able to read the room easily and navigate accordingly, By being able to take the temperature of your work force you can easily address any impending employee relations issue before they cause any significant damage.

At the very basic you should be able to leverage emotional intelligence through effective communication.

Communication can come in the form of candor if you’ve developed substantial rapport between you and the team member. This is instrumental in helping you get a handle on a situation before it blazes out of control.

Facilitate A Positive Work Environment

Create a work environment that people feel comfortable in. Have frequent meetings that reward people for their performance, encourage team work, recognize strengths, etc.

You can also facilitate a positive work environment by keeping the aspects below out of the workplace at all costs:

  • Sexual harassment
  • Lack of recognition
  • Bullying
  • Favoritism
  • Office politics
  • Disorganization
  • Blame
  • Low morale

As stated before, it’s always best to get ahead of the situation in order to keep disgruntled employees from manifesting in the first place.

How To Manage A Disgruntled Employee Like An FBI Agent

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“The better able team members are to engage, speak, listen, hear, interpret, and respond constructively, the more likely their teams are to leverage conflict rather than be leveled by it.” — Runde and Flanagan

I read an interesting article about “disagreeing like an FBI agent” and I found it to be quite profound. So profound that it inspired me to write about disagreement and negotiation from the perspective of leadership.

Essentially, the author outlined how to disagree in an appropriate way according to neuroscience. That is, to disagree in such a way that it brings both parties to a middle ground.

He also referenced a book called “Never Split The Difference” By Chris Voss, a former FBI top hostage negotiator which outlines similar negotiation tactics I use to use when dealing with disgruntled employees.

A disgruntled employee can attempt to hold your organization hostage with their bad attitude, poor performance and overall terrible employee record, especially if they’re unionized.

Much of the book reminded me of tactics I’ve used to get my team members back on the right path. These were tactics that worked but I didn’t quite know why. They’re derivatives of years of experience and not theory. And they operate on some of our most primitive instincts.

Below we’re going to outline how to manage disgruntled employees with some of these tactics mixed in with soft skills.


It’s always best to pull the employee aside in an empty conference room or office where it’s private. It shields the employee from potential embarrassment as well as maintaining an air of professionalism. It also keeps the disgruntled employee from actively spreading their bad attitude to onlookers who may instigate the situation.

Document Everything

Organizations can get sued for the most seemingly arbitrary reasons.

Protect yourself and your organization by documenting everything such as warnings, discipline, suspensions and termination. Document performance evaluations and everything else that the employee has needed to work on in the past.

Introduce Warmth

“Whenever you’re in conflict with someone, there is one factor that can make the difference between damaging your relationship and deepening it. That factor is attitude.” — William James

The first thing you need to do at the beginning of the dialogue is to introduce warmth. You want the employee to feel comfortable from the outset. Make them feel like you’re their friend and you’re there to help.

In “Never Split The Difference” one of the first things that struck me was the portion about “seeding warmth” in the initial stages of interaction in a mock hostage negotiation.

“‘I’m sorry, Robert, how do I know he’s even alive?’ I said, using an apology and his first name, seeding more warmth into the interaction in order to complicate his gambit to bulldoze me.” — Never Split the Difference,Chris Voss & Tahl Raz

At times you’re going to have a disgruntled employee try to “bulldoze” you. The quickest way to turn that energy on it’s head is to “seed warmth.”

In the aggressive atmosphere of the shop floor, I quickly pushed many a disgruntled member back in their heels by being warm and addressing them by their name in order to soften them up a bit.

Now you might be thinking: “How can being friendly push someone back on their heels?”

Well, a disgruntled employee is expecting you to feed into their negative energy by matching their angst. They’re completely thrown off when you don’t and even more surprised when you’re actually friendly.

This sets the stage for slowly guiding them back on track.

Start by using the team members name and start the dialogue as politely as you can even if they persist in a bad attitude.

Remain calm and professional. Avoid yelling and getting into shouting matches. Don’t stoop to their level by swearing and matching their negative energy.

Understand that they’re probably upset about something that has nothing to do with you on a personal level. This is also where empathy comes in. Try to understand their side of the story.

Reflective Listening

While they’re speaking, you’re going to get an irresistible urge to cut them off and tell them what’s on your mind.

Remember, you’re listening to understand not to respond. When there’s a disagreement, don’t push. Listen to what they’re saying, let them finish and use reflective listening.

This means you completely hear the other side out then reflect their ideas back to them with paraphrasing.

At this point, this could be all the disgruntled employee wants. Maybe they wanted to vent to you a little bit. Maybe they just wanted to be heard.

If not, you can use reflective listening to pivot into the next crucial step which has always been my favorite.

The Open-Ended Query

What I love about the above scenario from “Never Split The Difference” is not only seeding warmth as a de-escalation tactic but the open-ended question.

It was one of my favorite go-to moves to disarm and guide a disgruntled employee back on track.

“…we call this tactic calibrated questions: queries that the other side can respond to but that have no fixed answers. It buys you time. It gives your counterpart the illusion of control — they are the one with the answers and power after all — and it does all that without giving them any idea of how constrained they are by it.” — Never Split the Difference, Chris Voss & Tahl Raz

Use open-ended questions to flip the situation back on them. Ideally, this will slow them down and get them to think by putting them in your shoes.

The key to deploying the open-ended question is two fold:

  • You must inject genuine warmth into the question by using their name and a friendly, not sarcastic, tone of voice.
  • The question must be specific enough that it gets them to think hard about the solution.

For example: “I apologize, [employees name] how do you expect me to ________ on such short notice?

You can follow up with a series of various “how” questions to wear them down. It’s a “tactical” way of saying “no” without actually using the word while simultaneously seeming open-minded to a potentially problematic employee.

Remember, in this article, when I said that you’re going to have employees that think they can do your job better than you?

Well this is how I use to deal with some of the disgruntled team members who thought leadership was easy, simple and could do the job better than me. It’s also how I avoided empowering employees who thought they could bully me.

The usual outcome of these open-ended questions was that it inspired them to look at things from my perspective. It got them to see how complex things are and how unreasonable they’re being.

And if they couldn’t see how unreasonable they’re being at least they were too tired to debate anymore.


“A good manager doesn’t try to eliminate conflict; he tries to keep it from wasting the energies of his people. If you’re the boss and your people fight you openly when they think that you are wrong — that’s healthy.” — Robert Townsend

On the other hand, if the team member actually has some good ideas about a specific problem, let them know you’ve been listening and also let them know you’ll do your best to implement their ideas. But this will only work if you’ve built actual trust.

If you actually like their ideas, follow up with them about it and give them credit. Let them know that it was the product of the earlier engagement being courteous and respectful.

This is a glimpse of what two-way candor looks like. When a team member can give you adequate feedback, in a professional manner, you can implement their ideas later on. This is truly how you build trust and motivation.

Maybe They Decide To Resign

In my time as a union steward there were a few employees, who exhibited: absenteeism, poor performance and a bad attitude and no matter what, there was nothing I could do to make their time at work better.

Sometimes a specific work place is just not a great fit for some people. Sometimes it’s just time for them to move on. So it might be appropriate if they would rather resign.

It would be best for all parties involved at this point.

When it all boils down to it, what we’re trying to accomplish with the above tactics can be summed up with the following quote:

“What were needed were simple psychological tactics and strategies that worked in the field to calm people down, establish rapport, gain trust, elicit the verbalization of needs, and persuade the other guy of our empathy.” — Never Split the Difference, Chris Voss & Tahl Raz

By appealing to the disgruntled employees emotions in a constructive way, you’ll be able to talk them down, gain empathy and walk them straight out of the room having them think they “won” or having them just feel better about the situation in general.

This is the power of placing emphasis on emotional intelligence as oppose to fear based tactics.

Emotionally intelligent conflict resolution is opposed to the oftentimes verbose, terror based, “fall in line or else” style of leadership, the kind of leadership that breeds resentment over time rather than understanding.

A Final Note

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“Conflict is inevitable but combat is optional.” — Max Lucado

Leadership from a logistics standpoint is tough as is. When you mix in human emotion with regard to disgruntled employees it’s even more difficult.

Arming yourself with these simple tactics can save you a world of headache and protect your organization. But it’s essential to be versed in the fundamentals of emotional intelligence in order to effectively deploy these tactics with ease and without unnecessary combativeness.

With time it’ll become second nature to deal with disgruntled employees in an efficient fashion. But it never gets easy.

About Anthony Boyd

I go by the alias Anthony Boyd & this blog is my series of theses on philosophy, spirituality, physical expression of strength & human behavior through self-reflective spoken & written word. I’ve been a Union Delegate for 6 years. During this time I have developed countless leadership skills that I’ll be sharing with you all on this blog. Leadership is something I’ve develop through hours of research, strength training & personal application of growth strategies. I started this blog with the intention of disseminating the leadership & developments skills I’ve attained over the past 6 years as a leader because there is a huge need for male leadership. It has developed into a conduit for sharing these ideas in hopes that others can gain insight from them as well. Two things have always been constant in my three decades of life on Earth, my ability to express myself through the word & my unquenchable curiosity of everything around me. Combine that with my obsession with strength training, personal development & we have this blog. It is my hope that I can provide endless value, insight and perspective gained through experience as a leader to the readership I have developed here.

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