Saturday, February 9, 2008

Sack Toxic People!

Last month I attended a lunch with the brilliant Tim Smit, who set up the Eden Project.

Tim was explaining to 25 charity CEOs his approach to building great organisations.

He took his audience through “Tinkerbell” (Tim’s idea that if you tell enough people it will happen, it will) and “Last Man Standing” (his idea that if you are persistent, people will eventually pay you to go away). But it was Tim’s last point that aroused the audience most.

“Sack negative people – they poison your whole organisation”.

As these words passed from Tim’s lips, I heard muted gasps of “Yes!”and “You’re so right”. But it was hard to see who they were coming from. People were checking themselves.

It was as though Tim had said what everyone in the room passionately agreed with, but were somehow unable to be open about it.

On the train home I reflected on this. My heart also raced when Tim spoke because, for me, he hit on a fundamental truth.

Negative people do cause immeasurable damage.

Negs tend to be unhappy people with a downbeat view of the world.

As self-styled mavericks, they foster cynicism, diss the organisation and publicly flag up endless problems for you (never them!) to solve.

They bring other into their fold and spread discontent.

Finally they forget that genuine mavericks are constructively awkward people who add value rather than moaners and whingers who absorb energy.

After ten years building a variety of organisations, I now believe that our sector has to become proactive about dealing with negs.

We’re just too nice. We foolishly blame ourselves for our negs, as though they are our badly parented children rather than adults with choices.

Or we tolerate them, normally because they are OK at some aspects of their job. Modern HR laws say we can’t touch people who are competent at their job, however negative their attitude.

Because of this, HR people advise us to leave them alone.

But this is all wrong-headed. In a modern service economy task and attitude are indivisible. You can’t pull them apart.

And an employee is a grown-up. Their attitude – positive or negative - is a freely made choice.

Employers need to stop beating themselves up about their negative people and start dealing with them.

Where do we start? On the downside, UK Employment Law does us no favours. 13% of all Employment Tribunals now involve third sector organisations.

This is a massive number considering we only employ about 5% of the workforce.

Coupled to this, a massive No-Win-No-Fee industry is encouraging disgruntled negs to grub money from employers who don’t want to face an Employment Tribunal.

Here’s my advice:

Firstly, don’t leave negative people alone. Challenge them. Tell them how you think their behaviour is affecting others and the organisation.

If negs go unchallenged, it gives a big message to other people about acceptable behaviour. In this sector, we need to get better at being honest with people.

I have found it often leads to a solution. Try it.

Secondly, give negs a chance. Offer some access then see how they use it.

Sometimes, people just need to know you’re hearing them and that they’re not in Siberia.
If they are bright, they’ll use this opportunity well and quit negging outside the office door. .

Thirdly, there could be an opportunity to help somebody to make a fresh-start. Therefore, turn their exit into a developmental process.

Negs have often made good contributions and need to be reassured of their worth. Confidence is nearly always a problem and you can pay for coaching or counselling to help them steer a new path.

In short, dealing with people with respect and care can speed them into a fresh-start somewhere else. Win Win.

Where none of this works – the neg won’t admit to a problem – you have little choice but to confront them head-on.

This is a massive investment of time, energy and money, but one which has to be made. Just because you can’t put an exact price on it doesn’t mean the cost of negative behaviour isn’t real.

Set against the eye-watering cash price of removing somebody, most organisations stop at the precipice. A long illness seems better than the pain of expensive, risky surgery.

But hard experience has taught me that, however costly the surgery, it is the only way to preserve the heart and soul of your organisation.

As Tim Smit would remind us, there is only one alternative. Death by Poisoning.

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