Overqualified and bitter

By Dirk Verburg

As a result of the current economic crisis, a number of people need to take a step back in their career and accept smaller roles than they were used to or hoping for. These people face a choice between accepting this new reality with a positive mindset, or rejecting it and become bitter.

Strange as it may sound, accepting this new reality can bring joy and fullfilment. It can put a stop to the personal ‘Peters Principle’ a number of people cope with (in case they were promoted beyond their level of competence), take them out of a rat race, give them a chance to reload their batteries and build up new energy to invest in valuable things outside the work place (like their family or hobbies). These people can be a joy to have around: they are at ease, relaxed and thankful in the workplace. 

Unfortunately there are also people who become bitter and develop a series of resentments. Almost all the time these resentments are directed at their previous company (in case they had to switch) and their line manager. Sometimes they even resent their parents (‘I never wanted to study X’) or even significant others (‘If it were not for my partner I would have switched to another employer years ago’). They prefer to ignore their own contribution (if there was one) to their new situation and prefer to view themselves as innocent victims of their environment.

This issue cannot be ignored

So what does it matter if certain people are bitter at the workplace – why should this effect their work and the work of their fellow employees? Why can we not simply ignore them?

We can not ignore them, since these resentments usually will usually have an influence on their new company, colleagues and line managers as well. Although one would expect that they would be thankful to have a (new) working environment at all, quite often their anger and frustration will also be directed at their new company and line manager (‘In my previous company I was empowered to decide about  X, Y and Z. Why can I not do that here?’). Other targets of this resentment will be colleagues who happen to be grateful and happy (‘Why don’t they support me when I am complaining?’). This negative personal attitude will also have a negative impact on their working environment and the job satisfaction of their co-workers.

Concrete steps need to be taken

Since ignoring does not work, bitter people in the work place need to be confronted with the negative effects their attitude has on others. In these kinds of situations the following steps can be taken:

  1. Gather data on the negative attitude of the individual and the effect this has on his/her subordinates, colleagues, leaders, other people in the organization and customers. 
  2. Confront them with their behavior and the effect this has on others inside and outside (in case they have external clients) the organization.
  3. Ask them if they recognize these comments; and if they can provide the background to their behavior.
  4. Offer them help and/or coaching to change their attitude.

One size does not fit all

In this discussion it will be important to differentiate between two categories of frustration. The first category consists of extrinsic factors that have disappeared or are significantly reduced (e.g. status, income, number of direct reports geographic scope, etc.). In this category the keyword is acceptance. The individuals will need to learn to accept their losses and also to focus at the possible gains. This is not easy and might require professional help (e.g. from HR).

The second category of frustration could be intrinsic and related to the under-utilization of their skills and capabilities. They may feel they lack respect by their co-workers for the insights and best practices they may have gained in the past. Here the keyword should be recognition. Smart line managers and peers could and should do themselves and the employee in question a favor by listening to him or her and take their insights on board if and when this makes sense.

In case this does not help, line managers should point these bitter employees another way: the exit. Personal frustration should never be a reason to make the work experience of fellow workers less satisfying, the already heavy job of line managers even heavier and hurt the interests of customers and shareholders.


Copyright © 2011 Dirk Verburg – Article originally published on HRE Online

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