As a leader forever interested in bolstering my EQ, I've long kept a quote from cosmetics titan Mary Kay in mind: "Everybody has a sign around their neck that says, 'Make me feel important.'"

This inspires me to imagine invisible signs subconsciously hanging around employees' necks, projections of their beliefs or feelings or struggles at that time. The signs are there if you care enough to look for them. And doing so is the sign of a high-EQ leader. 

Such leaders are in tune enough with their organization that they can spot signs of an employee in need--in multiple ways. What follows are eight subtle signs that your employees may be different nuances of unhappy, and what to do when you spot them.

1. "I don't know if I'm good enough to make it here."

In conducting research for Find the Fire, I found that a whopping 93 percent of employees polled said they'd taken a hit to their self-confidence (at least temporarily) because of something that had happened at work in the past six months. Relatedly, the number one thing I coached employees on over a 30-year corporate career was self-doubt about worthiness and competitiveness, i.e., their ability to stack up to peers and "cut it."

Do this to build their confidence back up:

  • Remind them to stop comparing themselves with others. The only comparison that matters is to who they were yesterday.
  • Help them accept they're not perfect.
  • Encourage them to strive for authenticity, not approval.
  • Get them focused on their potential, not their limitations.

2. "I don't feel like I fit in here."

Pay attention to employees at happy hours, gatherings after the meeting, at lunch. Those seeming isolated or alone might not feel like they're fitting in. Also pay attention to "office gossip" (shutting it down when you hear it, by the way) or listen for complaint trends about any one employee. It might be that the "targeted" employee isn't fitting in in the eyes of other employees.

Strong cultures can quickly make newcomers feel isolated. Go out of your way to make these people feel welcome and encourage fellow employees to do likewise.

3. "I blew it. I'm a failure."

I'd spot this, for example, after a meeting where an employee didn't exactly nail it. The dejected nature, the sheepish look. If not addressed immediately, it can devolve into an utter loss of confidence.

I'd remind the individual of what I often say in this column, that there are really only three ways you can fail: when you quit, don't improve, or never try. Then we'd discuss what could have gone better, ending it with their tacit understanding that I had their back and would help them improve.

4. "I'm overwhelmed."

This is the easiest to spot: unpreparedness, stress, exhaustion, irritability, inattention to detail, and general poor performance. Your fast action is critical.

I engaged such people about their priorities, whether I was unwittingly creating more work for them, and how they were prioritizing. We mutually owned their sense of feeling overwhelmed and co-created a plan to fix it.

5. "I stopped growing years ago--I'm bored."

These employees don't volunteer, miss opportunities to take initiative, and seem to have plateaued. Your job is to get them to recommit to the concept of challenge, to give them opportunities to stretch and grow.

Sometimes, it takes a push, but I've never ushered someone into a renewed phase of personal growth and not seen their spark reignited and them thankful for it.

6. "I'm scared people will find out I don't know what I'm doing."

Different from being overwhelmed, sometimes people are underinformed, underprepared, or undertrained. They might, for example, seem unsure of themselves as they're presenting or (in a meeting) rifle through three different binders, all poorly organized, scrambling to find a supporting sheet when asked a question.

Obviously, don't approach this as "I see you don't know what you're doing." It's about ensuring this employee is set up to win, with all the coaching investment, resources, and training they need.

7. "Something's happening in my life that has me down or distracted."

High-EQ leaders might spot an employee suddenly showing up with less energy, quieter, distracted, or withdrawn.

Everybody has their thing. Employees can't help but bring their thing into the workplace (nor can you). Work and life have become too inseparable for any other truth.

Don't pry or overstep your bounds, but do inquire on their well-being and let them know you care and are there to help. Just the fact you cared enough to ask will help.

8. "I'm not getting promoted fast enough, and it's killing me."

Signs of this are employees lashing out at peers, bitter or corrosive comments at meetings, or constant signs of frustration. The solve is to show genuine appreciation for them, keep them challenged, have honest career discussions, and show you care about getting them there.

Published on: Aug 2, 2019
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