Naturally Disgruntled Team Members – What Can a Manager Do?

As most managers know by now, working from home (WFH) has presented some challenges for their team members. While some have embraced it, others are less than thrilled. A manager I was talking to recently said he found these new arrangements as definitely a mixed blessing for him and his team. He was thinking specifically about two of his team members who he described as constantly complaining and unhappy just about anything. On the other hand, he noted, with WFH other team members don’t get to listen to their complaints as much as they used to. In the early days of this pandemic that we are all living through, you must have questioned – as I did – the behavior of the throngs of people up and about in San Francisco, or of people in bars in other parts of the country, seemingly oblivious to the dangers of COVID-19. And three months later, as countries are opening up, we are continuing to see people on beaches and gathering places, maskless. Why are so many people ignoring health and safety guidelines?

I’d like to focus on those experiences you may have had at work with colleagues or team members who always seem to be disgruntled. Al was a professional colleague of mine who was brilliant in his job as a compensation professional for a multinational company. Unfortunately, he had a reputation for having a surly attitude and a grumpiness that rubbed many in this company the wrong way, especially since the corporate culture valued colleagues who were extroverted, friendly and very outgoing. He would march into the company’s building early in the morning, a large cup of coffee in his hand, then go straight to his office without saying a word, or even nodding or acknowledging the presence of his colleagues and others on the floor where he worked. He once said to me that he couldn’t understand why people expected him to greet them when all he wanted to do was to go right to his desk to check his emails and have his morning cup of coffee. He didn’t want to be bothered with superficial greetings or having to smile unnecessarily. Al was also a complainer; it seemed like he changed jobs every other year or so, not because of poor performance; he always seemed to find fault in every firm where he worked.

In reflecting on this executive and on recent events in the news, as well as reading a number of recent books on organizational and behavior change (see my list at the end), a number of lessons on effective behavior change have become clearer to me.

You have probably met individuals like Al at work – individuals who have a high grumpiness factor and always seem to be complaining about something, whether it’s the temperature in the office, the quality of the coffee, the competence of his co-workers, or the uselessness of all the meetings he is required to attend (on this last point, of course, we can all empathize).

Is Al just one of those naturally grumpy workers? It turns out that over the years, researchers have been discovering genetic factors in job attitudes. In their now classic research piece, Arvey et al. (1989) measured job attitudes of 34 pairs of monozygotic twins who were reared apart from an early age. They were very careful to partial out job complexity, motor skills, and physical demand scores from their various job satisfaction measures. They found that approximately 30% of the observed variance in general satisfaction was due to genetic factors. Their data also showed significant heritabilities for many job characteristics They concluded

It appears that the organization may have somewhat less ‘control’ over job satisfaction than is commonly believed particularly with respect to intrinsic satisfaction … The data suggest certain boundaries for each individual with regard to job satisfaction. Individuals appear to bring important predispositions to the job that may be more difficult to modify than heretofore acknowledged.” (p.191)

They have since conducted replications of this study and, in general, their conclusions have held up, despite criticisms of their work by other researchers. Arvey’s research furthermore shows that genetic influences are stronger with intrinsic versus extrinsic job satisfaction. Examples of intrinsic satisfaction include statements such as satisfaction with “the freedom to use my own judgment on the job” and “the chance to do something that makes use of my abilities.” Examples of extrinsic satisfaction statements are the satisfaction with “the praise I get from doing a good job” and “the way my boss handles people.”

In her book The How of Happiness, Sonia Lyubomirsky (2007) has suggested that, based on various meta-analyses, 50% of the differences among people’s happiness levels can be accounted for by their genetically determined set points. She has found that each of us is born with a particular happiness set point that is basically genetically fixed. She argues that only about 10% of the variance in our happiness levels is explained by differences in life circumstances or situations; for example, whether we are rich or poor, healthy or unhealthy, etc. So what are the drivers of the remaining 40%? She calls this our intentional activity, that is, our own actions or behaviors that influence our happiness level.

In some other domains, we also find this conflation of both genetic and environmental factors – nature and nurture interacting with one another. For example, effective business leaders often have both the right characteristics such as ambition or high adjustment (the nature part) as well as the right behaviors, such as empathy (the nurture part).

Some managers will give up on individuals like Al. This is certainly the easier route to take – to shrug off a worker’s attitude to “that’s just the way he’s wired.” However, one of the key take-aways from all this research, as well as the years I have spent observing and working with managers at all levels, is that effective managers focus on creating the conditions where the behaviors they would like to encourage are more likely to thrive. This is the 40% difference that make it possible for managers to influence the behavior of individuals like Al.

A lot of managers these days have been learning that workers are reacting quite differently to the impact of the pandemic and to working from home. Although there is research evidence that productivity in general seems to have improved, I think there is probably a lot of variability in productivity across workers who are now working from, home. Some have embraced the new normal of WFH, while others can’t wait to get back to the office. And there are those who will continue to gripe about their situation, whether they are working from home or not. Another manager I was talking to could not understand why one of his team members was not more grateful that at least he still had a job during the pandemic!

Here are a few strategies for managers to consider:

  1. Accept the fact that workers will have different satisfaction set points and there is not much you can do about changing their underlying disposition. However, there is still a lot that you have control over – specifically, your own behavior and your reactions that can help your team members bring out their “better” selves.
  2. Focus on what you are doing to influence especially the “extrinsic satisfaction” of your team members. For example, what support and resources are you providing so that they can work productively and effectively? How often do you communicate with each of your team members and ask them how you can help? How well do you listen to what your team members are saying and not jump in too quickly to interrupt them?
  3. Get to know each of your team members so that you are able to “tailor” your messages and actions in a way that motivates them best. For example, one manager of a mid-sized company recognized that one of her employees wanted a lot of autonomy. She began to give him challenging assignments with clear expectations but otherwise let him determine how he would pursue them. Other team members might need a different approach. Therefore, as managers, take the time to get to know what drives each of your team members and figure out how you can align their goals with your team goals. Having regular one-on-one Zoom calls (in addition to your Zoom team meetings) with each of your team members will be time well spent.


Arvey, R. et al. (1989). Job Satisfaction: Environmental and Genetic Components. Journal of Applied Psychology, 74 (2), 187-192.

Arvey, R. et al. (1994), Genetic Influences on Job Satisfaction and Work Values. Personality and Individual Differences, 17 (1), 21-33.

Goldsmith M. and Reiter, M. (2015). Triggers: Creating Behavior That Lasts – Becoming the Person You Want to Be. New York: Crown.

Lyubomirsky, S. (2007). The How of Happiness: A Scientific Approach to Getting the Life You Want. New York: The Penguin Press.