By Patricia L. Fitzgerald 2017-01-31 19:05:37
DEALING WITH THE WHINERS, GRUMBLERS AND RABBLE ROUSERS THAT CREATE A TOXIC WORKPLACE. In this month’s “First Word” column, I sent literary hearts and flowers to School Nutrition readers, because you are all the nicest, most thoughtful, most creative, dedicated, enthusiastic, hardworking people I know. Well, most of you are. I’d like to believe that every school nutrition professional deserves to be atop the pedestal I put you upon. But I suspect that more than a few of you reading this article might be saying to yourself, “Well, I think that I may fit this description, but I sure know a few of my employees or coworkers don’t!” In most professions, personnel management is the single hardest and most demoralizing part of the job. I hear it from school nutrition directors, supervisors and managers all the time: “This job would be perfect, except for the personnel issues.” The fact is that you can have a fantastic team in place, but just one person, one bad seed, makes you dread coming to work each morning. And, of course, bad seeds don’t generate headaches only for supervisors. They tend to cause conflict among their coworkers and frequently wind up demoralizing the entire team. How do you dig up the bad seed whose root system has grown deep and dogged? In most work environments, they can be like dandelions overtaking your lawn—very hard to eliminate. Contracted agreements and district policies offer valuable protections for all employees, including those with performance problems. Terminations can be a long, protracted process. But firing an employee should be the last step you turn to in addressing their negative attitudes and behaviors. So, where does that leave you? Praying that the clearly discontented individual will one day see the light, quit this job and darken your door no more? Yeah, nothing wrong with trying that. But a better use of your energies is to begin by seeking to identify the specific ways that your bad apple employee is creating a toxic environment and addressing these head-on. In some individuals, negative attitudes and poor performance are symptoms of underlying unhappiness that you may be able to address in the workplace (without playing the role of psychotherapist). The heartening news is that in the case of many disgruntled employees, it doesn’t take a whole lot to turn Negative Nancy into Positive Polly; often just being “heard” about her concerns is enough to help her come around and demonstrate the qualities you saw when you hired her. But supervisors should take care not to get overly optimistic either. Sometimes, the individual is simply not a good fit on your team, and you can waste a lot of time and effort on someone who remains stubbornly unwilling to change. If this is the case, then you must resign yourself to the path and process of documented warnings, performance improvement plans and other steps that may lead to termination. But let’s stay focused on constructive approaches to managing poor-performing employees, looking at just a few examples to help you identify what might be at the root of bad attitudes and consider tactics that may help them come around—or at least be less destructive to your team. There are many types of whiners, grumblers, idea-killers, naysayers, slackers, rabble rousers, bullies and other mean girls (and guys) working in school nutrition. We don’t have the space to explore them all, but the suggestions here should help you to start thinking in new ways about dealing with your problem employees. One final reminder: Although supervisors bear the burden of having to manage situations that arise with toxic employees, everyone on the team can play a role in making things better or worse. Raising everyone’s awareness—regardless of position level—is a critical first step. THE WHINER Pity the poor whiner—because she certainly pities herself! Joan’s primary job responsibilities are to do some light menu prep and serve meals to the students at the middle school. As with most of her colleagues, she’s expected to jump in and help out with other tasks when circumstances dictate. But every time she’s asked to do something she considers outside her “real” job, she complains bitterly. Joan alternates between playing the put-upon martyr and trying to wriggle out of the assignment. “Why do you always make me do this and not Margie?” “The boxes are too heavy and I’m too short.” “I guess I will, but don’t blame me if I can’t finish my other task on time.” I don’t remember how to do that; someone will have to show me.” “I hurt my back this weekend, but I guess I’ll just power through it, since no one else can do it.” Joan is the antithesis of a team player. Her complaints are so regular and so dramatic that her manager finds it easier simply not to ask and either do it herself or ask another staffer. Resentment builds across the team, and now Joan is whining about feeling shunned by her coworkers. Although her behavior may add to your gray hairs, when you force yourself to be genuinely objective, you must admit that when she’s not complaining, Joan is a solid performer. She’s organized, thorough and makes few mistakes. She’s really good in her interactions with the middle school kids, and we know they can be a handful! So, why is she such a pill the rest of the time? STRATEGY: Consider tracking Joan’s complaints to see if you can find a common thread. For example, if they are usually related to last-minute changes in plans, it may be that Joan simply doesn’t have the skill set to cope when forced out of her lane. Fast-moving changes may make her anxious or insecure about her ability to perform to expected standards—both yours and her own. Complaining may be the way that she articulates her fear of failure. So, how do you address this, given that it’s a common occurrence in your school cafeteria? Consider countering Joan’s complaints with reassurances, instead of sighs. “I know you’ll do the best you can; I’m not expecting perfection.” “I know I can count on you, because you’re always so good at this, even when we’re under the gun.” “Thanks so much for going the extra mile today—I don’t know what we’d do without you.” Positive reinforcement may help relieve Joan of her insecurities and allow her to build the coping skills this job requires. In addition to positive reinforcement, consider other steps that might help address her concerns. Although Joan needs to understand that she may need to help with a wide array of tasks, maybe you can identify those extras that are best-suited to her abilities and comfort zone, as well as those that give her the most heartburn, and then make attempts to delegate with this information in mind. Keep in mind that performance anxiety is just one potential source behind a whiner’s behavior. Regardless of whether you can identify a common thread, you should make time to address her behavior, using concrete examples, in performance discussions. THE GRUMBLER Closely related to the naysayer and idea-killer, the grumbler despises change. Lucy is a 20-year veteran manager in your operation. She’s outlasted four principals and two school nutrition directors and has seen many changes in federal requirements for meals, purchasing, food safety and now professional standards. You’d think she’d be used to change being a constant in the cafeteria, but she hates it and resists it with every bone in her body. It feels like Lucy challenges every statement you utter and would deny that the sky is blue, just to be contrary. “That’s a stupid new rule. It doesn’t even make sense.” “That idea will never work here. I just don’t see our kids/ladies/principal/teachers going for it.” “Aren’t we doing enough already, and now you want to add something new?” At the end of the day, Lucy gets the job done. She’s reliable and efficient. She’s meeting the bottom line goals for her site, so it’s difficult to challenge her about the effects of her attitude. Still, hers is always the last site you visit, and you dread her responses at monthly manager meetings. There’s little energy and camaraderie among her staff, and they rarely participate in such promotional activities as National School Breakfast Week or creative nutrition education partnerships with teachers. STRATEGY: Lucy may be grumbling because most of the changes she’s endured have been dictated and directed from the outside. Even though you are willing to give her more autonomy in suggesting improvements and fresh ideas, she may be burned out on the very concept of something else that’s new. Find a compromise with Lucy. Give her a list of new strategies that you’d like her team to pursue to grow participation at their site, and ask her to rank these in order of her personal preference. The action of ranking these means Lucy can’t treat them all with the same level of disdain or rejection. It also gives Lucy some authority in choosing what might be most palatable. As she is compelled to apply this autonomy repeatedly, she may become more accustomed to and welcoming of change. Admittedly, this is something of a long shot. It’s difficult to rehabilitate a confirmed grumbler. You may have to just confront them with the reality and consequence of their behavior and make it a part of a performance improvement action. At the very least, you can assert the rule: “If you don’t have something nice to say, don’t say anything at all.” THE RABBLE ROUSER Mixing it up and causing trouble is the source of a rabble rouser’s power. Michael joined the school nutrition team as a cook at a high school production kitchen after several years working at local restaurants. He likes the hours, the kids and all of his coworkers—but what he really likes is the attention and novelty he gets as a younger guy working among a group of older women. Instead of being isolated as a minority, Michael gets right into the thick of things, sharing the latest gossip (“I just heard that Martina got called in for that mistake she made with the beef taco mix. Do you think she’ll get fired?”), bad-mouthing common “enemies” (“The principal here is such a jerk.”) and challenging authority (“I don’t mind adding afterschool suppers to the prep list, but I think we should get paid more, if the district is getting more revenue.”). But Michael is also a popular member of the team. His coworkers find him funny and engaging—and you do, too. He’s also a good cook, gets to work on time and is willing to help out when chaos reigns. But his tendency to stir the pot often creates unnecessary tension and disharmony in the team. You’ve lost count of the number of conversations you’ve had with anxious or upset employees that begin with: “Michael said…” STRATEGY: Can you find ways to give Michael the attention and power he clearly craves that will direct his energies in a more positive direction? He may not have the ambition or talent to be put on a managerial track, but perhaps you can allow him to take the lead on a project that will put him in the spotlight. Maybe send Michael to a training class on food art and other presentation techniques and then let him teach those in his kitchen and others what he’s learned. It’s likely that you will still have to directly address his tendency to gossip and challenge the chain of command, but if he can have other outlets that satisfy a similar core need, it may be easier for him to break toxic attitude habits. In addition, most rabble rousers are not looking to cause pain and suffering, they just enjoy the power and attention. So if you share with Michael some of the negative outcomes of this behavior, this awareness may prompt him to knock it off. LOOK IN THE MIRROR Are you a bad apple employee? Few of us would readily admit that we are the source of our own unhappiness at work. It’s always someone or something else that’s making it a miserable place to be, right? School nutrition can be a tough, thankless job. The pace is too fast, the budgets are too tight, the rules are too many and the rewards are too few. All this may be true, but is this how you’d regularly describe your job—all negative, without any positive counterbalance? If so, then it’s probably past time for a period of self-reflection about your job satisfaction. Because it’s likely that your negativity has begun to leak out and show up in your attitude and performance, affecting others around you. If self-reflection doesn’t come naturally to you, you may want to seek the ear and advice of a family member, friend, clergyperson or counselor. Find someone who you can be open and honest with—but who also will be objective and hear what you’re not saying, as much as what you are. Libraries and bookstores have many self-help books that specifically address job satisfaction and offer advice and guidance you through a self-assessment. Some titles to consider are: » Love Your Job: The New Rules for Career Happiness, by Kerry Hannon » No More Blue Mondays: Four Keys to Finding Fulfillment at Work, by Robin A. Sheerer » No More Dreaded Mondays: Ignite Your Passion—and Other Revolutionary Ways to Discover Your True Calling at Work, by Dan Miller » Quitter: Closing the Gap Between Your Day Job & Your Dream Job, by Jon Acuff In addition, AARP, the nonprofit organization providing support for people 50 and older, offers several resources designed to help you achieve career happiness. Visit www.aarp.org. » BONUS WEB CONTENT Mean Girls (and Guys) What can you do when the bad seed in your workplace is your boss? SN explores this aspect of interpersonal workplace dynamics as part of this month’s online extras. Frustrated with a supervisor who suppresses your creativity and depresses your spirit? Head online for some suggested tactics. Visit www.schoolnutrition.org/snmagazinebonus to access. Patricia Fitzgerald is editor of School Nutrition.
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