Jobs and the Future of Work

8 ways negative people affect your workplace

Jeff Haden
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Oddly enough, the obviously terrible employees don’t cause the real problems.

Why? Whether clearly incompetent or unbelievably easy, they’re easy to spot. So they’re easy to get rid of.

The real problems are caused by employees who appear to be doing a reasonable job… but in fact are slowly destroying the performance, attitude, and morale of the people around them.

What do they do?

1. They frequently say, “That’s not my job.”

The smaller the company, the more important it is that employees think on their feet, adapt quickly to shifting priorities, and do whatever it takes – regardless of role or position – to get things done.

Even if that means a manager has to help load a truck or a machinist needs to clean up a solvent spill; even if that means the accounting staff needs to hit the shop floor to help complete a rush order; even if that means the CEO needs to cover a customer service line during a product crisis.

Any task an employee is asked to do — as long as it isn’t unethical, immoral, or illegal — is a task an employee should be willing to do. (Of course great employees notice problems and jump in without being asked.)

In effect, saying, “It’s not my job,” really says, “I only care about myself.” That attitude quickly destroys overall performance because it turns a cohesive team into a dysfunctional collection of individuals.

2. They think they’ve already paid their dues.

You did great things last year, last month, or even yesterday. We’re appreciative. We’re grateful.

But today is a new day. The only real measure of any employee’s value is the tangible contribution he or she makes – each and every day.

Saying, “I’ve paid my dues,” really says, “I no longer need to work very hard.”

And suddenly, before you know it, other employees start to feel they’ve earned the right to coast, too.

3. They feel experience is enough.

Experience is definitely important, but experience that doesn’t translate into better skills, better performance, and greater achievement is worthless.

Experience that just is… is just a waste.

(Example: a colleague once said to us younger supervisors, “My main role is to be a resource for you.” Great — but then he sat in his office all day waiting for someone to drop by so he could cast his pearls of wisdom. Of course none of us did. We were all busy thinking, “I respect your experience… but I wish your role was to do your job.”)

How many years you’ve served pales in comparison with how many things you’ve actually accomplished. Saying, “I have more experience” is like saying, “I don’t need to justify my decisions or actions.”

Experience (or position) should never win an argument. Wisdom, logic, and judgment should win — in whomever those qualities are found.

4. They lead the meeting after the meeting.

You have an awesome meeting. Issues are raised. Concerns are shared. Decisions are made. Everyone in attendance says they fully support those decisions. Things are going to happen.

Then someone holds the “meeting after the meeting” to talk about issues he didn’t share with the group. Now — and only now — does he disagree with the decisions made. And sometimes he even says to his team, “Look, I think this is a terrible idea… but we’ve been told to do it so we have to do it.”

And what was supposed to happen never will.

Waiting until after a meeting to say, “I’m not going to support that,” is like saying, “I’ll agree to anything… but that doesn’t mean I’ll actually do it. Shoot, I might even work against it.”

Those people need to work somewhere else.

5. They love to gossip.

Before a meeting we were talking about supervisors in another department when our new boss looked up and said, “Stop. From now on we will never say anything negative about anyone unless they are actually in the room. Period.”

Until then I had never thought of gossip as a part of a company’s culture — gossip just “was.” We all did it.

But if an employee has talked to someone about something Martha is doing, wouldn’t everyone be better off if he stepped up and actually talked to Martha about what she’s doing? If it’s “not his place” to talk to Martha, it’s definitely not his place to talk about Martha.

Saying, “Did you hear what he did?” is like saying, “I have nothing better to do than talk about other people.” Not only do employees who create a culture of gossip waste time better spent on productive conversations, they also cause other people to respect their co-workers a little less — and anything that diminishes the dignity or respect of any employee should never be tolerated.

6. They use peer pressure to hold other people back.

The new employee works hard. She works long. She’s hitting targets and exceeding expectations. She rocks. And she eventually she hears, from a more “experienced” employee, “You’re working too hard and you’re making the rest of us look bad.”

Where comparisons are concerned, a great employee doesn’t compare herself with others — she compares herself to herself. She wants to “win” that comparison by doing better today than she did yesterday.

Poor employees don’t want to do more; they want others to do less. They don’t want to “win.” They just want others to make sure they don’t lose.

Saying, “You’re working too hard” is like saying, “No one should work hard becauseI don’t want to work hard.”

And pretty soon very few people do — and the ones who keep trying get shunned for a quality we need every employee to possess.

7. They hurry to grab the glory…

OK, maybe he did do nearly all the work. Maybe he did overcome almost every obstacle. Maybe, without him, that high-performance team would have been anything but.

But probably not: nothing important is ever accomplished alone – even if some people love to act like it.

A good employee and good team player shares the glory. He credits others. He praises. He appreciates. He lets other people shine.

That’s especially true for an employee in a leadership position — he celebrates the accomplishments of others, secure in the knowledge that their success reflects well on him as well.

Saying, “I did all the work” or, “It was all my idea” is like saying, “The world revolves around me…and I need everyone to know it.”

And even if other people don’t adopt the same philosophy, they resent having to fight for recognition that is rightfully theirs.

8. …. and they hurry to throw others under the bus.

A vendor complains. A customer feels shortchanged. A co-worker gets mad. No matter what has happened, it’s someone else’s fault.

Sometimes, whatever the issue and regardless of who is actually at fault, some people step in and take the hit. They willingly accept the criticism or abuse because they know they can handle it (and they know that maybe the person actually at fault cannot).

Few acts are more selfless than taking the undeserved hit. And few acts better cement a relationship. Few acts are more selfish than saying, “It wasn’t me…” especially when, at least in part, it really was.

Saying, “I had nothing to do with that so you’ll have to talk to Martha” is like saying, “We’re not all in this together.”

At the best companies everyone is in it together. Anyone who isn’t… needs to go.

This article is published in collaboration with LinkedIn. Publication does not imply endorsement of views by the World Economic Forum.

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Author: Jeff Haden is a Contributing Editor for Inc. Magazine.

Image: Traders work on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange, November 18, 2008. REUTERS/Shannon Stapleton.

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Jobs and the Future of WorkFinancial and Monetary SystemsEconomic GrowthBusiness
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