Wednesday, July 02, 2008

Coping with Negativity in the Workplace

Last night one of my Gen Y buddies called me for some advice. I was both flattered and amused. It's nice to think that I have now reached a point in my life and career where I'm considered a voice of wisdom and reason. On the other hand, that wisdom came as a result of the troubles I've caused myself through my smart mouth and bad judgment. There's a line out there somewhere that says, "Good judgment comes from experience, and experience is often the result of bad judgment."

Be that as it may, without naming names, I thought this might make a suitable--dare I say useful?--blogging topic. My friend's concern was with his coworkers. While he's a go-get-'em, true-believer type, he has landed his first real career experience in an environment with Grizzled Veterans. We all know the type:

  • Their humor runs toward the pessimistic, depressing, dark, and sarcastic
  • They've seen it all before
  • They distrust management, even when they're trying to do good
  • They bring down the attitudes of others around them through sheer contact
  • The negative attitude never changes
  • The common work of the group suffers
  • Backstabbing is not uncommon
  • They talk about (or actually are) polishing up their resumes for fear of job loss
  • ...Yet somehow they keep showing up for work

I've been on the receiving and giving end of these behaviors, and I can say from personal experience that sometimes a lot of this talk is BS. Sometimes it really is just extra-dry or sharp humor. If may generalize a moment, former military people and engineers often have a bit of an edge to their senses of humor, either because they've seen human nature at its worst and had to fight it or because they've seen machinery at its worst and had to fix it. Sometimes it's worth it to ask some of these folks about their personal stories and find out what's really behind them. Inside a grumpy growler you might find a teddy bear; or you might find an even more vicious S.O.B.

Anyhow, my first recommendation is to do some environmental scanning and see if you can discover what's driving the cynicism.

  • Is it centered around an individual? Some folks are attitudinal Typhoid Marys. Is it time for someone to be retired?
  • Is it a local/group/team thing? Perhaps the dynamics or organization need to be addressed by changing work duties, physical environment (feng shui?), or reporting structure.
  • Is it a work thing? If the project itself is what's causing the most heartache, perhaps intervention from higher up is required to identify where the project is flawed and what, if anything, can be done to put it back on track.
  • Is it a political thing? Us vs. Them? Labor vs. Management? Contractor vs. Civil Servant? What is the source of the tension? How can it be resolved to both sides' satisfaction?

Now I admit these are the sorts of questions I would ask. I like to think of myself as a grownup with some sort of professional status and ability to influence the environment around me. Fifteen years ago (about where my friend is now), I had nowhere near the confidence or standing I do now, and my ability to control my environment--it seemed to me--was mostly beyond my control. The questions I would've asked 15 years ago would have been a bit more tactical: fight or flight? So here are the questions I posed to my friend, as they were more pertinent to his situation:

  • Can you ignore it? This is the most socially acceptable and least confrontational course for a True Believer to take, as it would go against the grain to join in the bitching sessions.
  • If you know it's one particular person causing the general malaise, you could go for the jugular and confront with that one person directly about their specific behavior, humorously or not, with or without a leader present, and find out what their beef is. This is my approach, and it does not always work. However, done politely, it's unlikely that you'll get fired for it.
  • An alternative to this approach is to talk to your boss about what you've observed. Again, avoid name-calling, expressing vague feelings, or making vague accusations. You need to address specific behaviors, their effect upon you, and your (politely worded, of course) suggested course of action/resolution. Understand also that if you're more upset about how these people make you feel, you'll have less grounds to make a formal complaint than if their attitudes and behavior are interfering with your ability to do your job. A cry of hurt feelings could result in a "Grow up and get over it!" response. A specific complaint about incomplete or shoddy work will get a coworker's or manager's attention much more quickly.
  • If your boss is one of the gripers--or worse, the instigator--you can always try to take the matter "upstairs," though you should make a good-faith effort to resolve such issues with the individuals concerned first. Going over the boss's head is generally considered a bad thing.

Okay, say you've exhausted all your avenues using the Conflict Resolution 101 Handbook. Then what? If the atmosphere is toxic, get out. Life is too short to be spent around unpleasant people, especially if you're doing work you love. Your options then become clear:

  • Polish up your resume.
  • Keep a smile on your face and a song in your heart. After all, you ARE happy to be there, and you'll be even happier once you're doing similar work in a workplace free of the toxicity.
  • Talk to your friends in the same industry--inside and outside your company. Don't talk about The Evil lurking in your department. Emphasize the positive: "I'm thrilled to have a job in this business, but I'm not sure the particular job I'm in right now is a good fit for me. I'm good at X, Y, and Z, and I have a passion for J. Where do YOU think I could/should go?" This approach also works with (some, I must caution, not all) managers. If you've been busting your hump in your particular area and your manager has any sense, they will see some potential in you and perhaps refer you somewhere--inside the company or out. You could also skip the bit about your current job not being a good fit, and just start a subtle (or not-so-subtle) campaign to get moved to another area.
  • Whatever you do, don't jump ship until you have the next job. And before you jump to the next job, have a good idea of what you want. There's no sense leaving the Titanic to hitch a ride on the Lusitania. (No, I'm not going to explain those references, just look 'em up!)

Seeking "what you want" should probably encompass more than just work content, but also workplace dynamics, management philosophy, autonomy, economic conditions (in the big wide world and at the particular company you're looking at), and daily work structure. By daily work structure, I mean things like, will you be on your own? Working in a small group? Working in a large group? You should be running toward something, not just away from something else.

And even after you've figured out as much of that as you can, have found a better job, and have taken the next step into another, hopefully saner place, you will still find friction. Human nature, despite what they're teaching in some schools nowadays, is neither easily changeable nor uniformly nice. Aside from a few folks like me who spent a few months in HR and have read the Conflict Resolution 101 Handbook, a lot of people will prefer to argue than listen to reason. Sometimes you just have to slug it out to get your way, and there are people who will appreciate you more for sticking to your guns than if you try to negotiate peace. It's not rational, but it is reality.

And that's about all the elder-brotherly advice I can offer this evening. Hopefully it will prove useful.

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