19 ways to make people unhappy at work

How NOT to support and retain staff, attract great candidates, and avoid driving away your best people

We all know that being a team leader isn’t easy. Many of us take on the job in the hope of energising and motivating staff, only to find ourselves spending most of our time on administrative tasks and the kind of daily grind that comes with managing resources, projects, and processes. This leaves little space left for… well, for people. The result? It can leave people unhappy at work.

Managers are often overwhelmed, unequipped to face difficult situations, or unsupported, which can lead to high staff attrition rates. And these days, with staff spoiled for choice when it comes to job offers, organisations cannot simply sit by and let bad management practices drive away their most important resources.

At Let’s Talk Talent (LTT), we’ve seen a lot over the years, so we’ve used our expertise to put together our top tips for how managers can make their staff unhappy at work. We hope this helps you spot the signs of a manager in need of support, so you can give them the tools they need to turn things around and create the kind of positive, energising work environment your staff deserves.

19 ways managers can make their staff unhappy at work

1. Micromanage… always!

The pandemic has taught us that people value workplace autonomy more than ever. Trusting your employees to do the job without micromanaging them is one of the main ways to generate motivation. “Good managers empower people, they don’t take over,” says Jo Taylor, MD at LTT.

2. Don’t give praise or say thank you

Is there anything more demotivating for an employee than to deliver a project or to work above and beyond without even being acknowledged? Make sure you don’t let achievements or key milestones pass by without praising the people behind these successes or simply thanking them for doing a great job.

3. Exclude people from meetings

Whilst you may think keeping people out of meetings is a way to save them time and let them focus on other tasks, this can backfire. People want to feel that they are part of the big picture and contributing to achieving organisational goals, not just be told what’s happening and asked to pick up the meeting’s actions.

4. Take credit for other people’s work

Of course, taking credit for someone else’s work sounds downright rude, but it can also have tangible impacts on their careers. Not putting someone’s name forward could jeopardise their chances of getting a promotion, a reward, or a raise, or being assigned to great projects.

5. Shout across the office

Shouting across the room at staff members is a clear sign of a toxic workplace culture. It can become a source of constant stress, as employees end up walking on eggshells wondering if they’ll be yelled at today. Above all, it is a clear sign of a manager struggling to cope.

Managers should focus on fostering psychologically safe work environments, where people can feel free to be fully themselves. This entails caring, making everyone feel included, as well as using mistakes as learning opportunities rather than playing the blame game.

6. Don’t value people’s time / Intrude into their personal time

This one is probably the most common (and widely accepted) practice. Employees do need to unplug from work, which entails not reading emails at home, not staying late at the office, and not blurring the line between work and home life when working remotely.

7. Never have fun… work is serious business!

When asked why they come to work, people will usually mention one of the 3Cs – Career (the development opportunities provided), Cause (the chance to contribute to something bigger than themselves), or Community (the people they work with and the bonds they have with them). Having fun at work isn’t a luxury. It’s an intrinsic motivation generator and it keeps morale up and should be encouraged.

8. Never reward great performance

Great performers all have something in common: they have felt as if their work was taken for granted at some point in their professional careers. Not rewarding great performance, even if it is the norm, is demotivating. Let people know how grateful you are that they are contributing to the organisation in a valuable way.

9. Forget about developing your people

Whilst we believe people should take charge of their own careers, they still require support from their managers and organisation to do so. Managers should set clear expectations, communicate the progression opportunities available, open up their people’s networks, and look for ways for staff to develop or stretch themselves.

10. Make it hard for team members to move roles

Losing team members may seem scary, but managers have a responsibility to put their staff’s careers above other considerations. Not releasing your people quickly if an internal transfer comes about is, ultimately, not a good move; sharing talent across the business is better than losing them to a competitor later on.

11. Don’t respect people’s boundaries

From expecting people to read emails at home, to unwelcome hugging, or being snarky when someone asks for a mental health day, crossing boundaries can take many forms. It could be as simple as scheduling meetings during school runs and putting staff in a position where they have to choose between being part of an important meeting, or picking up their children from school.

Crossing boundaries could also mean being inappropriate or not having a filter. This kind of behaviour very quickly creates a toxic work environment, which is “(…) the number one reason driving employees to resign” (Forbes, 2022). It’s up to you to actively listen and discover your people’s boundaries, so you can respect them. Don’t assume anything: some neurodiverse employees may have more unusual requirements, such as a very clear communication style free of sarcasm or implied messages, advance notice of any changes, or simply not being touched.

12. Set unreasonable deadlines and targets

These can generate a lot of additional stress, which can in turn have an impact on your people’s wellbeing. Discuss deadlines with employees before setting them and be prepared to be flexible, acknowledging that things change: it should never be ‘your way or the highway’.

13. Be brutal when giving feedback

Giving feedback is an art, and doing it the wrong way can be hugely demotivating. Train yourself on how to give effective developmental feedback. For some practical tips, take a look at our top 3 ways managers can give effective feedback, including using the EDGE framework.  

14. Throw them under the bus

“Sometimes, being a manager means defending your team in front of others even if you’re not sure they took the right course of action, then having a word with them about it afterwards,” sums up Jo.

15. “Do as I say, not as I do”

Managers should be role models, leading by example. Don’t operate on double standards, and don’t simply ask others to do the work you don’t want to do; be ready to just roll up your sleeves and get stuck in. 

16. Close yourself off to challenges and discussions

Challenging ideas, sharing thoughts, or discussing the right course of action with your team are all ways to foster a growth mindset. And without a growth mindset, innovation cannot occur. If you find yourself saying: “That’s not how we do things here,” you need to rethink things.

17. Reward the people you like and hold back those you don’t

Reward and recognition policies should be clear and communicated to everyone, so your people know what they have to do to move up to the next level, get a raise, or earn a reward. And be consistent with how they are implemented.

18. Downplay things that are important to employees

Staff moaning about sitting in the wrong area of the office? The lighting? How loud the room is? Some of these issues can build up over time and greatly affect performance. Actively listen to your staff and create the kind of environment that will help them achieve peak performance.

19. If you don’t know what they’re talking about… fake it! 

Not having anyone to turn to to validate your work or find alternative solutions to a problem can be difficult. If you don’t have the technical expertise to get involved, find someone who does.

How to make people happy at work

Google’s Project Oxygen research project showed that being a great manager isn’t about technical skills: it’s about empathy, care, and good communication skills. 

Here are some quick ways to ensure your people are happy at work: 

  • Reward and recognise great performance, often
  • Give employees a voice
  • Focus on employees’ wellbeing and allow them to unplug 
  • Encourage and support progression, whether it’s through internal mobility or promotions
  • Foster a positive internal culture 
  • Seek feedback from your team
  • Be human, not a robot!


Making staff feel safe, supported, and heard at work shouldn’t be rocket science, but managers often find it difficult as they are stuck under tons of admin, processes, and the overall daily grind that comes with the job. Make sure you make your people your priority. Take this opportunity to reflect on your management practices, and seek support if you think any of the above are common practices within your organisation. And if you are seeing some of these behaviours, check out our complete guide to supporting managers in your organisation.

We hope reading this list will create an opportunity for businesses everywhere to rally their teams and foster the kind of culture that will make staff want to get up and go to work every morning. 

For more information on how to create a positive work culture, have a look at our International Happiness at Work Week resources.

And, finally, if you want to look at building management skills for new and existing managers, check out our Management Fundamentals sprints aimed at exploring what makes an effective manager in your unique company culture.

Find out how your managers can generate happiness and motivation

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