Difficult, dysfunctional, disgruntled employees will bring down workplace morale, productivity

Fall weather is around us every day now and we can definitely feel the shift toward the cold winter season. While some people take this seasonal change in stride, still others mumble and grumble and literally make them­selves feel miserable. I don’t understand it: Why do people make such an effort to feel mis­erable?

There are employees in the workplace who are constantly miserable whether the sun shines bright or not. These toxic co-workers are constant complainers and whiners. They are simply not happy with anything or anyone. They appear to live their lives with a ton of cement chained around their necks and a “woe is me” attitude.

I am certain that each employee has had a turn trying to cheer up the toxic person. For instance, colleagues will reach out and offer solutions to the problems their colleague is apparently facing. They’ll attempt to present a positive perspective on happenings at work, only to be “shot down” and discounted. Thus, as you can expect, after a time an employee with a toxic attitude simply wears people out. People stop trying to help and avoid their colleague like the plague.

Barbara Bowes

The old saying, “one rotten apple can spoil the whole bunch” certainly applies here. In other words, one miserable employee in the workplace can create a lot more organizational dysfunction than one might think. More than likely, there are more problems that haven’t even been uncovered. For instance, employee turnover or transfers could well be connected to the problem employee. Errors in production or service or an increase in customer complaints can also be the result of a disgruntled, unhappy employee. Check out the potential of employee theft.

However, one might also say that people typically aren’t “purposefully” miserable. More than likely, the individual is experiencing some sort of mental-health issue or has a personality disorder that is beyond the ability of an organization to understand. And keep in mind, neither the employee nor the employer is expected to be a psychiatrist, so don’t spend any time trying to diagnose the individual. Stick to diagnosing and dealing with the resulting problems being created in the workplace. Here are some basic guidelines to help address the situation.

– Document, document, document: Typically you will note that a dysfunctional individual will demonstrate behaviour that creates a repetitive pattern. Usually the first time you see this behaviour, you might simply think of it as strange and simply go on your way or you’ll avoid the individual. However, the pattern of behaviour will soon be problematic. Document the behaviour for a period of time. It is the pattern of behaviour that must be dealt with rather than the individual.

– Take action: If you try to suffer in silence, you will only be adding to your own stress. Not only that, I believe every employee has a responsibility to both their colleagues and the employer to raise issues that concern productivity and the organizational culture. Every person needs to play a role in building a harmonious workplace and this means raising difficult issues when they arise.

– Present issues, not just complaints: Many people don’t know how to discuss issues. They get so bogged down in details that the listener will miss the point altogether. In this case, the problem might look like a personality conflict. However, if you discover and document patterns of behaviour and can identify the impact of behaviour on others and the organization, then you will present concrete, objective evidence that can be acted upon.

– Don’t take things personally: When we feel personally attacked and/or exhausted by another’s behaviour, we often take this action personally. We blame ourselves for not being able to rectify the situation. The caution here is not to take things personally. Your colleague’s behavior is not a reflection of you and it is not your responsibility to fix him/her or the situation, for that matter. Be careful to keep things in perspective.

– Be professional: As an employee, you need to be careful that you don’t get caught up in the negativity by gossiping or “bad-mouthing” your colleague. Continue to treat the dysfunctional person with respect. Agree to disagree, avoid arguments and confrontations. Be sure to hold your temper. You don’t want to be seen as part of the problem.

– Park your thoughts: Most people find it hard to leave work issues at work. They bring their problems home and dwell on them all night. They toss and turn and fail to get a good night’s rest, resulting in increased anxiety and stress and a reduced ability to cope. Take time to seek out stress relieving activities and free your mind from the workplace issues. However, if you are indeed dwelling on the issue all the time, then review the concrete steps you need to take and then take action.

– Find a trusted adviser: While family members can often provide advice, the best advice comes from a professional who can see things from objectively. Discuss coping mechanisms to deal with your stress and strategies for dealing with your dysfunctional colleague. Discuss strategies for presenting your issues to management and alternatives, should no solutions be found.

– Focus on you: My motto has always been that you and only you are in charge of your career. This means that if you cannot change or influence the dysfunction in your workplace, then you need to make a decision for yourself. What can you do to make yourself happy? Where is the best environment for you and how can you get there? Take your time to think about this issue because if you aren’t careful, changing jobs may simply mean going from the frying pan to the fire.

As I suggested, I don’t understand why people make such an effort to feel miserable, Yet, I do know that their negative attitude plays a significant role in creating a dysfunctional workplace. I also know that a dysfunctional workplace is difficult to repair. Part of the challenge for employees, then, is to become good “self managers” so that they don’t also become part of the problem.

Barbara J. Bowes, FCHRP, CMC is president of Legacy Bowes Group, a Manitoba-based talent management solutions firm. She is also host of the weekly Bowes Knows radio show and is the author of the newly released bestseller, Resume Rescue and Taming the Workplace Tigers. She can be reached at [email protected] 

This initially article appeared in the October 9, 2010 edition of The Winnipeg Free Press