Imagine that you have to deal with the following two people at work:
The first person is a new on the team. She’s young, fresh out of school, inexperienced, and has to cope with a steep learning curve, but her academic record bears out the fact that she’s not afraid of hard work. She’s eager to learn, approaches tasks enthusiastically, and she gets along well with everyone. She even brings in doughnuts a couple of times a month.
The second person is a veteran staff member. He’s ambitious, steadfast, and loves a challenge. He thrives on pressure and can always be depended on to come through on tough projects. He also has a tendency to dominate conversations, and to verbally attack anyone who dares to challenge his ideas or opinions. He’s domineering, tactless, and disrespectful to everyone.
Taking everything into consideration, who offers greater value to the company? Well, if you are (or work for) a manager who understands the importance of morale and the dangers of a toxic work environment, it’s not hard to realize that the second employee may wreak major havoc and become a liability rather than an asset, in spite of his level of expertise. So is it a matter of throwing the baby out with the bath water? Not when you fully grasp the effect that a toxic colleague, employee or boss has on the rest of the staff. And toxic employees can come in many different forms. Here’s how to deal with each type:
Perfectionists or nitpicky, highly critical people
“As long as everything is exactly the way I want it, I am totally flexible.”
Lorelai Gilmore, Gilmore Girls
Why they’re a problem: When their criticism or unreasonable standards are directed toward others, they can deflate team morale and frustrate their teammates. When it’s self-oriented, they will find themselves stuck in a vicious cycle of setting the bar too high and then inevitably falling short of self-imposed standards, resulting in self-loathing and a loss of motivation. Perfectionists take accountability to the extreme, and are unwilling to let go; they have trouble overcoming the fear of other people’s opinion, of making mistakes, and of failure. I’ve done several blogs on perfectionism, here, here, here, and here. Trust me, it’s not the strength some people think it is.
How to deal with them: Direct their energy productively. Give them a task where their attention to detail is an asset. Ask them to help with quality control, find solutions to improve efficiency and productivity, improve organization, or to take detailed notes during meetings.
For perfectionists who tend to go way beyond the extra mile, clearly state what your expectations are for each project you assign them, and define what level of quality/precision is good enough. Since one of the downsides of perfectionism is trouble meeting deadlines, provide them with an artificial one. So if the deadline for a project is in three weeks, ask perfectionists to have the bulk of the project done within two weeks. The extra week can be used to tie loose ends and do any necessary touch-ups. It also provides a time buffer if needed, and compels your perfectionists to stay focused because their time is limited.
Whiners or complainers
Why they’re a problem: They have a victim or martyr attitude, and tend to deflect responsibility for their actions and their work (or lack thereof) by placing blame on other people or uncontrollable factors. They also tend to be quite negative, always looking for roadblocks, obstacles, or problems. Unfortunately, this attitude can be quite infectious, because misery tends to love company.
How to deal with them: When assigning projects, involve your “gripers” in the planning process. This forces them to take responsibility and empowers them to overcome their issues. For example, ask them to put together a project plan, a list of resources they’ll need, time estimates, deadlines for deliverables, etc. Essentially, put the onus on them to determine what they need to successfully complete a task, and make sure they have everything they need to do the job well. If they continue to complain, determine whether what you’re asking of them is doable, as they may not possess the skills or knowledge to complete the project. At this point, you can either give them training or consider dismissing them.
“Alpha” Males or Females
Why they’re a problem: They have a tendency to take control of situations, anytime, anywhere; they have to be the one running the show. They also find it hard to ask for help and don’t take criticism well. While you may recognize that they’re an asset because of their tenacity, determination, resilience, and ability to get results, you also rue it. What makes an alpha a star performer can also make him or her a real pain. They’re sort of like mushrooms in the wild – they could be delicious, but they can also be deadly.
How to deal with them: If you want to tell them they their behavior needs improvement, have the proof to back it up. A 360˚ feedback system, for example, allows peers, direct reports, managers, and even clients to rate a person’s performance and effectiveness. The point is that you’ll be speaking in a language that alphas can understand. It will likely be more difficult for an alpha to refute negative feedback and the consequences of his/her behavior when it’s translated into numbers and objective observations.
Make sure to also structure improvement as a goal to achieve. For example, let’s say that your alpha has a tendency to push people too hard, and upper management has been receiving complaints. Bring it up with the alpha, but put it across as a general organizational issue that you would appreciate advice on. “Employee motivation has been low lately. Employees are feeling overworked and underappreciated. We’d be grateful for any ideas you might have on improving morale, and reducing the ‘us vs. them’ mentality that seems to be developing.”
“It’s easy to make a mess when you’re not the one who as to clean it up.”
Why they’re a problem: They fail to carry their weight in team projects, forcing others to pick up the slack. They also tend to miss deadlines, and are generally unproductive. You might catch them cyberloafing (using company time for personal web-surfing and emailing), on a call that’s supposed to be about business, hanging out at the water cooler, or doing anything but what you asked them to do. This attitude has a tendency to either frustrate everyone or, even worse, rub off on people.
How to deal with them: The first step is not to hire slackers if you can help it … do your reference checks, give them personality and attitude tests, ask probing interview questions about what motivates them and what bugs them. Make sure they are a good match for the job and for your company culture. If you already have slackers on your team, find out what motivates and de-motivates them. Figure out what type of projects or assignments they prefer, and humor them if it’s possible – without being unfair to others. Ensure they understand their role, and how it fits into the grand scheme of things. In some cases, you can turn things around by helping them to get excited about their job and removing some of the blocks to their enthusiasm. Give them another chance by putting them on a performance plan and make sure to do a lot of planning when assigning projects to them. Break projects down into reasonable steps, and check in on your slacker’s progress more often. If all of this fails, it is probably time to cut the cord.
Stay tuned for part 2!