Tag Archives: negativity

Rx for Workplace Victims

Recently, I read an online Bloomberg/Businessweek article entitled, “Three Types of People to Fire Immediately” by G. Michael Maddock and Raphael Louis Vitón.   The tagline was, “Want a more innovative company? Get rid of these folks. Today.”  It also quoted an unnamed but successful CEO: I wanted a happy culture. So I fired all the unhappy people.”

The three types of employees discussed were the victims, the nonbelievers, and the know-it-alls.

The article was a bit of a fantasy, as anyone in HR or employment law knows, since it’s not that easy to fire people. However, it got me thinking about one category: the victims (which the article did say to handle with care because they tend to sue). They are legion and they can thoroughly poison a workplace. As the article defined them: “Victims are people who see problems as occasions for persecution rather than challenges to overcome.”

So what’s an employer (or coworker) to do about the victims among us? First, it helps to identify them as such. Two caveats, however: (1) you want to make sure that they are not in fact a victim of discrimination, harassment or other illegal workplace behavior; and (2) you don’t want to get into any psychological issues the person may have: this is inappropriate and opens employers up to disability discrimination claims.

Once the employee is identified as being a “victim,” the next step is to try to refocus their thinking. Victims’ lives revolve around problems: identifying them, being upset and anxious about them, and attempting to resolve them. This is a deadly and unhappy cycle because even if one problem is solved, another one won’t be far behind.

Your job as supervisor or coworker is to try to get the victim to develop a larger work-related intention, goal, or desired outcome that energizes them. Maybe it’s learning a new skill or reorganizing a process; maybe it’s something larger and more personal; maybe it’s multiple goals.  The idea is it’s something proactive, not reactive.

The next step is to get the employee to figure out how to approach that goal and to focus on reaching it, through baby steps if necessary. Problems will still arise, of course, but if the employee can focus on being a creator who is moving, however slowly, in a positive direction, that is a far different mindset than that of the victim.

A more detailed version of this shift from victim to creator, as well as a discussion of the Dreaded Drama Triangle (Victim, Persecutor, Rescuer) can be found in David Emerald’s book, “The Power of TED*.”  TED stands for “The Empowerment Dynamic,” and while the book was not my cup of tea as a read, it has many valuable insights and practical applications. David is a local guy so if you’re interested, you can attend his workshops or hear him speak.

What other approaches have you taken to employees stuck in the victim mode? ~Amy Stephson

The Toxic Employee: Definitions and Strategies

The Problem.  I am always surprised by the extent to which managers avoid dealing with toxic employees.  This is true even when everyone identifies the employee as a problem and sees that his or her behaviors are hurting morale and productivity.  

What is a “toxic” employee?  As Robert Bitting, Ph.D., states in a succinct and useful article, toxic employees generally share certain characteristics: 

  • They are very negative, always blame others for their problems, and do not hold themselves accountable, even as they feel entitled to many “rights.”
  • They are capable of doing good work, but often spend much of their energy pretending to work, doing only what is minimally necessary to stay out of trouble.
  • They enjoy workplace games such as one-up-man-ship and drawing others into bickering. They also may draw weaker co-workers into “negative bonding” alliances.
  • They treat as important only those seen to be of equal or superior organizational status, or those who can do them a favor.  They ignore or treat poorly those who are perceived as lower or unimportant.  As Bitting aptly notes, “When those people who are not being treated well by this employee see him schmoozing up to Mr. or Mrs. Big, the poison flows.”
  • They sabotage others’ work by backstabbing, badmouthing, spreading rumors, and withholding information.  

So why are toxic employees allowed to flourish?  In my experience, there are several reasons.  First, the boss just doesn’t see it – or quite believe what he or she is being told.  This occurs mostly because toxic employees behave very differently toward their superiors than toward others, in the process gaining a higher up organizational ally who protects them.  Second, the boss may at some level himself or herself fear the toxic employee, or at least fear that a lawsuit might result if the employee is challenged or terminated.  Finally, the boss may not understand how detrimental to the workplace a toxic employee really is and instead view the employee’s strengths as outweighing the negatives. 

The Solution.  The first step is to recognize what a toxic employee is.  The second, ideally, is to try not to hire toxic employees in the first place – by checking references, asking behavior-based interview questions that show how the applicant works through problems, or by doing personality tests.  It’s also important to set clear expectations and have a clear job description that can be shown to the employee if problems later arise. 

Once problems do arise, it is critical to swiftly confront them.  The manager first should gather information from other employees in order to thoroughly understand the problem.  Then, the manager should meet with the employee, state generally what he or she has heard, and ask the employee for his or her perspective.  After hearing this, the manager can then get specific regarding the information he has gathered (it’s not helpful to just tell the employee she has a “poor attitude”) and where it is consistent or inconsistent with what the employee is saying.  The manager should ask the employee what he or she thinks would improve things.  At the end of the meeting, clear expectations need to be set. (For other ideas, see the Biting article noted above.)

The manager should be prepared to have to repeat this process if necessary.  Hopefully, the toxic employee will improve. If not, progressive discipline may be appropriate. 

And what about the toxic employee who has been allowed to wreak havoc in the workplace for years?  Well, it’s never too late for a manger to take charge and exercise the leadership necessary to rid the workplace of counterproductive and harmful behaviors.  ~AS

Negative Sheila

A while ago I was brought in to work with a team that was having difficulties.  One of the big issues was one person – let’s call her Sheila.  When I spoke to each team member individually I was told that Sheila is good at the technical parts of her job, but does not work well with others.  She won’t help out (“too busy”) and shuts down any new ideas (“we’ve tried it before, it won’t work…”) and always seems negative.  People told me they’d tried ignoring Sheila (she demanded to be noticed), being extra nice to her (it didn’t change her behavior) and even asking her what her problem is (“I don’t have one.”)

It turns out that Sheila, like the rest of us, does things she thinks are beneficial.  When’s the last time someone told you they were being intentionally disruptive, wanted to destroy the team, or didn’t want to get the work done well?  Most people are doing the best they can, and are doing what they believe is the best thing.

Do you remember when you were little and your mom told you to put yourself in your friend’s shoes when the two of you had a fight?  That applies to adults, too. To understand Sheila, we need to put ourselves in her shoes.  What’s important to her?  What does she want? What are her values?  What does she like? Once we have tentative answers to these questions we can then give her a reason, in line with what’s important to her, to work positively with the team.  Is control important to her? Ask her to be in charge of something.  Is information the key? Ask her to do some research that will further the team’s work.  I suggested her colleagues answer this question: What’s in it for Sheila to be more positive and cooperative? When they did, and acted accordingly, Sheila became a more positive, cooperative team member. 

Have you worked effectively with someone like Sheila?  Tell us how you did it!  ~ DS