Interacting with a broad spectrum of people can be one of the best things about working in an office. A broad range of perspectives, personalities and backgrounds can make for a vibrant environment that offers wonderfully inventive ideas and solutions.
Even a medium-sized business is likely to have a fantastic cross-section of attitudes: desk-ghosts and midnight martyrs, I’m-too-busies and always-delivers, natural leaders and born followers, let’s-be-friends and office hardarses, always-stressed and she’ll be rights, office-clown and no-nonsensers, team players and lone rangers.
A business should pride itself on the eclectic range of individuals who make up its workplace, and this genuinely serves to improve culture, foster creativity… and it’s also more fun.
But there are some personalities that are just plain negative – the kind that bring morale down and therefore you could genuinely do without.
That’s not to say you should just shove these people out the door. A good leader should strive to get the best out of everyone, not just turf people who aren’t performing to their optimum.
So what’s the best way to deal with the personalities who can be particularly problematic for fostering strong culture in your office?
Let’s be clear, there’s nothing wrong with having a bit of a whinge once in a while. We all get frustrated from time to time, and, usually, having a bit of a vent can sort it all out. You get it out of your system over a cuppa with a trusted colleague, realise things aren’t really that bad, and crack on.
We all do it, it’s fine.
But there’s nothing worse than that member of the team who’s apparently never heard of Monty Python and always finds a way to look on the dark side of life. They’re the people who have a million and one reasons for what’s wrong with a situation, but precisely zero solutions.
This isn’t to say you want to surround yourself with ‘yes’ people, who smile and nod as things are going down the gurgler; but honesty cuts both ways – honest people can also recognise and celebrate when things are going well.
Interestingly, a study from the University of Michigan discovered that people who are constantly pointing out business shortcomings may actually be doing the largest disservice to themselves, as constantly pointing out co-workers’ shortcomings is mentally fatiguing.
“The irony of that is, when people are mentally fatigued, they’re less likely to point out problems anymore,” said Russell Johnson, a management professor who co-authored the study.
“In addition, their own work performance suffers, they’re less likely to be cooperative and helpful, and they even exhibit deviant behaviours such as being verbally abusive and stealing from the employer.”
As for the way to strike a balance between Debbie downers and yes men, the solution is… solutions.
Mr Johnson said it’s worth thinking about rewarding those who point out problems that affect positive change: “In that case, maybe other employees would be more accepting of someone pointing out errors if they know this is what the company wants them to do – that the person isn’t acting outside the norm.”
Essentially, you want to encourage a culture of fixing what’s broken, not just pointing it out.
The office bully
If negative people are a drain, then bullies just plain suck.
The Australian Human Rights Commission deals with the issue at length on its website, pointing out what it is, what it can look like, how it can affect performance, and what you can do if you are being bullied.
One of the most important facts highlighted by the commission is that “some types of workplace bullying are criminal offences” which can be reported to the police. However, the examples given that are deemed worthy of police action are “violence, assault and stalking”, and most bullies’ actions tend to be insidious – it’s a gradual buildup of factors.
To combat this, the commission recommends keeping a diary of what has happened and how you’ve tried to stop it.
But how does management weed out a bully? Well, the problem is often bullies are allowed to take root because of the culture of the business. In fact, as workplace bullying consultant Caroline Dean puts it on her website, “workplace bullying is a cultural issue”.
Caroline said in her TED talk, “It’s an employee’s responsibility to behave appropriately, but it’s management’s responsibility to bring inappropriate behaviour to an employee’s attention and, if necessary, provide training.”
There’s no excuse for workplace bullying, but if it’s occurring on your watch, rather than point fingers, maybe take a look in the mirror. The behaviour of the workplace bully is likely a symptom, rather than the cause, of the issue.
This person is never wrong, has seen it all before, and has the best solutions to every possible problem that gets tossed up. As a result, they’re dismissive of anyone else’s opinion and don’t listen.
The funny thing is, this will be the case whether they’re 55 or 22 – their actual level of relevant experience doesn’t matter, they just know it all.
While their attitude is bad for office morale – who’s going to bother speaking up in a meeting if the know-it-all is there, ready to shoot them down – an often overlooked problem with a person like this is that they’re a bit like The Boy Who Cried Wolf.
Since they claim to know everything about everything, the perception will likely be that they actually don’t know anything. As a result, when an issue they actually are across comes up, who’s going to bother listening to them?
What to do with this person? While the temptation might be to load up on knowledge and just shut them down with hard facts next time they pipe, that’s not really good for anyone. As the American Management Association points out, “The know-it-all may display this personality trait because of a deep-seated insecurity and lack of confidence”.
“Some people who feel inferior try to act superior as a defensive mechanism,” it says.
“If you suspect this is the case, tread lightly, compliment your coworker when you can, and try to help him or her gain confidence.”
So while your first instinct may be, understandably, to give them a kick, you’re probably better off giving them your ear.
The office pushover
While it may be true that two wrongs don’t make a right, there are situations where two positives can be negative.
The three examples above are all people who generally bring an air of negativity wafting into a room. However, it can also be the case that a person who is up for anything can bring your team down.
This isn’t a reference to the ‘yes’ man, who affirms every decision, no matter how poor it may be. Rather, this is the person who aims to please everybody, and as a result doesn’t assert themselves.
This is a deceptive culture killer because it doesn’t seem like someone who always has a smile on their face could be anything but a massive positive. But for these people, nothing is ever a problem, until it is – and then the problem is nuclear.
Whether they think they’re being overworked, underappreciated or just plain taken for granted, these people will tend to keep their frustrations stored up until they boil over, resulting in a meltdown.
Obviously, assertiveness is an admirable trait in any situation. Short term we may prefer people to be submissive, but for things to really flourish, you need people who have the self-confidence to push back, particularly when they feel strongly on a given issue.
The thing is, some people are naturally passive, meaning this again becomes a management issue.
Management should set not necessarily frequent but regular time aside to have one-on-ones with their team. For some members of the team, this will be a five-minute chat because they have no hesitation making their issues known as and when they arise.
But for people who are a little more reserved, this will be a chance to encourage them to both discuss any issues they have, and also make a point of showing them that their work is appreciated.
Jason Dooris is the CEO of Atomic 212°.