At the heart of many of my consulting assignments is some kind of disgruntled employee.
Folks often ask this straightforward question – “If you don’t like the company; don’t like your boss; and you don’t like your co-workers why would you stay in a job?” While it may sometimes be difficult to find another position, that is no reason to stay and torture everyone around you. We work long hours. You are wasting our time!
This question implies that the disgruntled employee could be happy in the right workplace. Unfortunately, some folks are most comfortable working where they are free to nitpick and complain. Perhaps they are just negative people. Maybe they’re afraid to be held accountable so they talk about all the ways in which problems are not their fault, it’s the job, it’s my boss, etc.
Negative views can catch on and influence others – left unchallenged they can grow. Eventually, even motivated workers can take on the view that the supervisor is the problem or the company doesn’t care. Just how negative things may get depends upon the supervisor’s skill and work approach. Can the supervisor act with confidence and verbal skill when the disgruntled employee brings their fatalistic view to the staff meeting? Does the supervisor have the skill to set boundaries on negative, de-motivating language an employee may use to discourage coworkers?
It’s the supervisor’s job to engage all the employees in their group but some are more challenging that others. Here are some strategies that might work for you.
Strategies to minimize the damage of persuasive, negative employees
1. Know your employee group: Employees in a given department can be divided into three basic groups – employees who want the supervisor to silence the negative employee, employees who side with the negative employee and undecided folks who just want to do their work. Strategy one is to cultivate the positive view of those employees who want to work toward company goals. This group can help to confront and refute the negative views as they arise. Engaging them can help to prevent an us/them dynamic between the boss and the employee group.
2. Use your verbal skills: Developing verbal skills to refute negative comments on the spot, is Strategy Two. When an employee hijacks staff meetings and turns the discussion to fatalism and negativity, stop the conversation and ask if everyone feels the same way. Then encourage those with a different view to speak up. Speak directly and clearly to the negativism: “It seems like you often take a negative perspective in these discussions. This makes it difficult for me to stay motivated at times. I am thinking it creates unnecessary pressure on your peers.” Later, take the negative employee aside and let them know that their comments are negatively effecting the group’s ability to be successful. If your company offers incentive awards, tie the negative talk to making it difficult to achieve the incentive awards. More drastic steps to take if these strategies don’t work are to exclude the employee from occasional staff meetings in which the activity is brain storming and creative problem solving.
3. Address complaint content: Take action to resolve any of the complaint based in reality is Strategy Three. If a complaint is – procedures are difficult, address that. If the complaint is – customers are too difficult, address strategies to deal with difficult customers. Finally, if complaints are – about other employees or departments, address these head on. When there are problems in other departments work on those with other supervisors. If you discover that complaints are unfounded, close the loop with your group and let them know the matter is put to rest. “We’re moving on.”
4. Termination: If and when the negative employee’s pessimism and fatalistic view is not resolved by interventions, Strategy Four is to consider counseling the employee out of the company. Even if the employee is technically competent the fact that they interfere with the positive performance and full engagement of the department is reason enough for termination. The success of this strategy depends upon getting good advice and support from your HR professional, attorney or consultant. They can help you assemble the facts that support a sound termination process.
Younger workers represent an increasing portion of today’s workforce. They tend to have high expectations for being treated well. Here’s hoping there will be less patience over time with negative coworker behavior. It’s de-motivating and distracting. Savvy business managers understand the long term damage it does and won’t tolerate it. Gossip and negativity detract from the company’s efficient movement toward strategic goals and can result in the disrespect of some employees. Negativity interferes with employee engagement, motivation and loyalty – factors associated with company profitability. It certainly doesn’t promote personal accountability or healthy communication. Finally, happy and engaged employees shouldn’t have to put up with it.
When delivering performance consequences with disgruntled employees you might layout their choices like this: “We welcome you to improve/refrain from these behaviors, stay, and help us succeed. Or, you can agree to disagree and move to another company. What you can’t do, is stay and gripe.”
Sometimes company leaders need encouragement and support to take a firm stand with these employees. I often reference supervisory burn-out as a consequence of allowing a staff member to stay and gripe. When a supervisor becomes worn down by such an employee it is appropriate to let the negative employee understand that this is one more way in which they interfere with the achievement of company goals. Make sure supervisors get the support they need to maintain attention and motivation to intervene with negative employees. It is wonderful to watch when a supervisor becomes empowered to make a shift and take the reins of their work group. It can be rewarding for the company and great for the positive employees. After stubbornly negative employees are gone, staff will often approach you with thanks.
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