For anyone looking for a new job because you're miserable in your current job, there's a curious fact of brain science you should know about. According to workplace expert Gregg Ward, people who are looking for a job will unconsciously let that be known one way or another, even if you don't realize you're doing it.

It turns out we tend to reveal our frustration and unhappiness, mostly because we want to maintain our integrity, even if we're not vocalizing it.

"Brain science tells us that when we've decided that we no longer value our job, we are more likely to let our disrespect show in the way we talk to--or about--our employers, bosses, and colleagues," says Ward, author of The Respectful Leader: Seven Ways to Influence Without Intimidation. "Most people are not sociopaths, they have a fairly good sense of what's right and what's wrong. Looking for another job behind the boss's back 'feels' wrong, and in a way, it is."

In the end, the boss probably picks up on this. Yet how he or she looks for the problem, reacts, and addresses it is critical for retention.

Ward told me that most employees want to work in a healthy environment, where they can be open and honest with the boss. They want to feel so confident about that relationship with the manager that they can take a risk and let him or her know they are not happy and are looking for other work. They want to be direct. The reality at most companies is that this relationship does not exist.

Ward says unhappy employees will act out or reveal their true feelings. "Employees unconsciously hope the boss will figure it out, be 'understanding,' and make everything right. That too is unrealistic, but it's also incredibly human," he says.

Andrew Wittman, a managing partner at leadership consultancy Mental Toughness Training Center and the author of the book Ground Zero Leadership: CEO of You, agrees that employees want to be caught. He says the difference between the boss who has empathy and understanding about employee frustration and the one who doesn't care is the same difference you will see between a leader and a manager.

"Leaders are tuned into their teams, care about them as people, and will notice employee dissatisfaction, discontent, or burnout long before they start looking for a new job," says Wittman. "Managers are focused on completing tasks and tend to complain about employees, rather than have their radar set to detect engagement and fulfillment."

Picking up on employee frustration can be difficult, however. Sometimes, even the employee doesn't know what's wrong. Wittman says 99 percent of our thoughts and actions happen on autopilot. Think about the way we drive a car--few of us think about which pedal to use for the gas or to brake.

"If we no longer value the job, the human machine cannot help but to think, speak, and act in a way that is congruent with our antithetical attitudes and opinions of disdain," he says. "By default, the human machine wants to tell on itself, and it takes enormous cognitive resources and energy to tamp that instinct down. Eventually, our words and actions will become congruent with our thoughts and feelings."

Thankfully, there's an answer to the problem of employees wanting to be discovered when they are not happy and looking for work elsewhere. A smart leader will also be aware of the brain science behind rejection and acceptance.

Wittman says that cognitive neuroscience has discovered that the human brain registers rejection the same way we register physical pain. A good leader will be aware of the need for acceptance in the workplace (and the fear of rejection) and address issues with a high degree of empathy, and not in a harsh or unfeeling way.

"As a leader, when I give my acceptance to an employee, I am fulfilling that person's No. 1 need and alleviating the pain that comes by way of their No. 1 fear," he says.

Ward says it's best to separate the performance review from an ongoing career development discussion. In some cases, you might need to facilitate an employee's departure in a way that's healthy and recognizes the need for a change.

"Part of your job as a manager is to help your people grow, increase their skills and level of responsibility, until eventually they move on," he adds. "Keeping a great employee in their role is understandable from a manager's perspective, but eventually it's counterproductive."

Will it work? For most leaders, the key is to stay attuned to employees and what they are revealing in their words and actions. Too often, we ignore the obvious and fail to address any unhappiness and frustration. With more empathy and an intentional mindset, we can learn to identify what is really bothering an employee. Retention suddenly becomes a lot easier.

Published on: Oct 4, 2016
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