How can HR help leaders of unhappy employees to get back on track?

Author - Thomas Phillipsen. Senior Leadership Consultant

Getting low results in an employee engagement survey is a highly emotional experience for most leaders. It is of a critical importance for the leader - and the unhappy employees - to successfully get back on track. Therefore, HR has an important role in helping leaders move forward, when the survey results show that the employees are unhappy. 


Even leaders who are used to setbacks and are usually able to deal with criticism in a professional and nuanced manner may experience strong emotional reactions when they are presented with survey results that are significantly lower than they had expected. Typical reactions can be: 

“I’m still in shock on the third day”

“I never in my wildest dreams imagined seeing such deep red feedback from my employees”

“Why did no one say anything before now?”

It will be a particular challenge for leaders in units that have experienced a sharp fall and posted low scores on the overall assessment of engagement. Engagement often reflects how well the immediate leader is succeeding in managing the task solving in a way that creates a sense of belonging among the employees.

It will be particularly bad if the leader has received low scores for the questions relating to “immediate manager”. In this case, it is the leader’s daily performance as a leader that is being assessed, and many organizations treat this as an indication of whether the leader can cope with her/his managerial duties.

At Ennova, we focus on ensuring that the surveys we help our customers carry out will make a difference to their organizational reality. This means that what happens after the results have been delivered is of critical importance to us.

'early warning-meetings' with hr to prepare the leaders

For this reason, we have recently intensified our efforts at the touchpoint we have with our customers when the very first results are ready – before the leader receives the results.

We call this touch point Early Warning. It consists in a meeting between a Business Psychologist or Leadership Consultant and the HR partners in your organization. The aim of the meeting is to give the HR partners a head start so that they, among other things, get the opportunity to contact leaders with low scores before they receive the scores.

At the Early Warning meetings, the HR partners typically seek feedback on how to support the affected managers in their first contact with them.

4 advice for hr to support the leader of unhappy employees

Here are 4 pieces of advice that we often give:

1. Help the leader handle immediate emotional response

The sound old advice about meeting people where they are is particularly important in this context.

It is precisely in a confidential conversation with an impartial discussion partner that the leader can vent her/his frustration, disappointment or anger, and it is therefore important to provide space for the emotional aspects of the conversation.

In addition, it is also essential to help the leader formulate her/his more formal response, as she/he will express it when meeting with the employees. It is, of course, entirely legitimate for the leader to be affected by the employees’ feedback, but the communication with the employees needs to be professional and objective.

2. support the leader by Making the process clear

Another important piece of advice is to help the leader get a clear view of the next steps in the follow-up process. This involves, among other things, making sure that the leader knows exactly how and when the employees will learn the results and that she/he has an overview of when it will be possible to assemble the employees for a follow-up meeting. It is often a significant help to have the actual process drawn up clearly.

3. support the leader by Offering on going assistance 

In addition, it is important to have a dialog about what the organization can offer the leader in the subsequent follow-up process. If HR offers support in the process with the employees, the leader needs to know about that.

The leader’s own leader would also probably be an obvious person to discuss these matters with. The most important aspect here is that the leader should feel that the organization is supporting her/him and offers assistance in the subsequent follow-up process.

4. Finish by focusing on the next step

As in many other types of discussion, it is a good idea to end the conversation with the leader formulating her/his next step. In other words, what the leader should do first, and not least when she/he should do it.

In some cases, the HR partner may conclude after this first contact that the leader is well able herself/himself to run the follow-up process forwards from that point. In these cases, the HR partner will arrange an appointment with the leader so that they can talk again later in the process.

In other situations, after the conversation the HR partner may feel that the leader needs more support. Either this be done by HR itself offering to facilitate the process or by an external discussion partner. In such cases, Ennova will provide advice and guidance to HR on what efforts are required and will also facilitate the specific actions.

An early warning gives you the opportunity to be proactive in a situation, where reactive actions rarely are the most appropriate. In this way, you will be increasing the likelihood that your leaders and their employees will successfully get back on track.

Thomas Phillipsen. Senior Leadership Consultant

Thomas Phillipsen. Senior Leadership Consultant

Thomas Phillipsen is Senior Leadership Consultant, Business Psychologist, at Ennova’s Leadership and Team Development department and has over 10 years’ experience promoting organizational development based on data. Thomas is responsible for working with data-based change processes, management leadership development and support for low-scoring units, and he is particularly dedicated towards making change processes as useful and long-lasting as possible.