Misery Enjoys Company

 I often ask people, “Do you like your job?” For all of the hours we spend in our life working, I hope for an enthusiastic “Yes.” Yet a majority people roll their eyes, look down and shuffle their feet, or let out a heavy sigh before they respond, “no”. They may deflect or change the subject and don’t respond at all.

Early in my career and more recently as a consultant, I’ve been tasked with the challenge of figuring out how to let someone go. I have found, the problem tends to be a single employee making everyone else in the workplace miserable. By the time I am hired for this, typically a breaking point has occurred.

When one person brings everyone down, similar to a family unit or a physical body, the longer they remain, the more systemic damage they leave behind. When employees are berated and unhappy, the system gets poisoned and leads to negative ROI, inefficiency, low morale and apathy.

What do we do with the toxic person who feels compelled to belittle, judge and criticize everyone’s performance and/or personality? We must remind ourselves that their behavior is their problem, and not ours. The longer we remain in the environment and enable the behavior, the harder it is to believe we are not responsible. Try to stay centered and confident. Resist the urge to get defensive or reactive.

People who are easily threatened by others invite viral ambiguity. I’ve encountered far too many supervisors who are so busy worrying that colleagues are out for their job that they accomplish little (then are upset when the suspects get the job done for them). If they are not already anxiety prone, then being in a supervisory position delivers said anxiety. Note to self: write a blog entry addressing why some personality types should (and others should not) be supervisors.

Of course, there are also (different degrees of) control freaks. These folks can generally be the easiest to manage. We have all been micro-managed at some point in our professional lives. When people start telling us what to wear, how to talk, what to eat, etc., we must separate and sit somewhere else. If the boss is the offender, collaborate with other targets to devise a solution. Try to anticipate demands and stay several steps ahead. Regular progress reports will keep them at bay. Sometimes control freaks have sound ideas about organization, systems and processes and are valuable contributors. They are the easiest to reason with. If they try to control something, offer them a compromise. They are usually smart enough to consider it, as long as the process and end result gives them some control. We can retain control by firmly setting boundaries. Never try to directly control a controller. It’s rarely a win.

There are circumstances where I would suggest that colleague’s band together to approach human resources. Be careful to do this as a group after the problem has been documented over a period of time and after an attempt to resolve the issue directly or indirectly. However, the results can be unpredictable. Perhaps HR will take the person aside and talk to them about their behavior, maybe they will keep a close watch on that person’s actions and interactions, or they may do nothing at all. If nothing is done, or if things don’t change after a period of time, take care of yourself. If you are unhappy, unproductive, or overwhelmed, what will happen if you stay and do nothing? Positive change is usually not as hard to achieve as we anticipate.

Remember that respect is as important as money. Effectively addressing personnel problems is one of the highest forms of respect for your team members and organization. When one person negatively impacts others, whether it’s a supervisor or co-worker, those who can change those dynamics need to pay attention. It’s easier to look the other way than it is to address the problem, but no one should be allowed to suck the energy and enthusiasm out of a department or company.

Focus on the end result. We need to pick our battles and acknowledge that sometimes we are better off walking away from a discussion or a project. Always winning will not get us anywhere. Be kind (make it a mantra) and, with a firm tone of voice, make a change if you’re able to, or walk away and focus on the job. Immediate band-aids include limiting your interaction and avoiding getting lured into or caught up in the bad behavior. Adopt disparaging body language-don’t look them in the eye or turn and walk away. “Time to get back to work” will be enough.