How to Deal with the Office Scrooge
How to Deal with Negative Employees in the Workplace
His name was Mark. I was 34. He was 54. It was not my first management rodeo, but I’m pretty sure he saw me as one of his irresponsible teenagers who were in high school at the time. Mark was so negative every day of the week, it drove me nuts.
When I met Mark, I had just stepped into a new position. My team was composed of generally younger employees between the ages of 25 and 35, with a group of a few older employees between the ages of 50 and 60, all of whom had all been at the firm for over 25 years each, including Mark. I had never worked with him before, but knew his name. I knew Mark had a reputation for being a bit cynical and it could be argued that he was well on his way to becoming a grumpy old man in retirement.
Upon taking the role, making the initial handshakes and delivering a general hello to the team in a department meeting, I met with each of them privately over the course of a few weeks. When it came time to meeting with Mark, we were less than 4 minutes into the conversation when he said “You will only be successful if you can figure out how to manage people over 50.” I will never that comment.
As Mark went on about having too many managers in the past 5 years, and expressing that he felt routinely overlooked and underappreciated, I remember thinking “Wow, is this guy testing me, or is he really just one setback away from setting the office on fire? Do I need to call security?”
Following these 8 steps will help you manage negative employees and the office Scrooge:
1. Some People are Just Pessimists
I’m not a psychologist, but some people just have negative personalities. A psychologist could tell us if it’s the result of a troubled youth, a personal void in life, or some sort of innate characteristic we have from birth. But as a manager who has had a pretty successful career leading large teams, I’m here to tell you that you will eventually encounter an office Scrooge at some point in your professional life. Of course, when you are peers with Scrooge, you can usually avoid them to a good degree. But when you’re his or her boss, it is your job to interact with them. ultimately, dealing with negative employees is a part of management, but it’s how you respond and interact with those people that makes the difference over the long haul.
2. Just Because You Can’t Beat them, Doesn’t Mean You Should Join Them
It did not take me long to realize that it wasn’t Mark’s dissatisfaction in me as his boss, but rather it was his dissatisfaction in being an employee, having to work, needing to be at a certain place at a certain time, all of which were probably the result of having felt unappreciated his whole career. Because of my first encounter with Mark, I knew he would take special attention on my part, in terms of how I interacted with him, how I set forth my expectations of him, and how I appreciated his work. I knew that if I just commiserated with him as a means of winning him over, it would make me a hypocrite, and more importantly, that other employees might mistake my negative words as genuine.
3. Go Out of Your Way To Show You Care
Mark was a tough nut to crack. In addition to being a downer, he was a loner. He liked to work alone. Further, he shrugged off anything that reflected working for a large corporation including his own employee self-evaluation. But Mark was experienced and even though he had a strong dislike for the smallest shreds of corporate culture, he did a good, reliable job with his assignments. And even though it was painful for me, I deliberately went out of my way to interact with Mark. I’d say ‘good morning’ when I passed him in the hall, I’d talk with him in the cafeteria when he heated up his lunch, and I’d swing by his desk in person to ask a simple question that did not warrant a long walk down the hall when I was up to my eyeballs in meetings.
4. Get to Know Scrooge, Even If It Sucks the Life Out of You
Over several months, I slowly got to know Mark, on more of a personal level. He had two kids in high school who were his biggest worry, as well as a third who had recently gotten married. His wife had some medical issue that made it tough for him to concentrate from time to time, and he was deeply religious and highly involved with his church. He had a passion for working on old cars. And he was close enough to others outside of work that he and his wife would take an annual couples vacation with friends from church. As I learned more about Mark, it made it easier for me to find common ground – I too, had a wife with very similar medical issues that kept me up at night; I enjoyed working in my wood shop and playing around with tools in my spare time, and I knew what it was like to have family 2,500 miles away, as he did.
5. Instill Confidence in Scrooge’s Abilities
Even though Mark would always have some negative comment to make, or was slow to jump on board with new ideas, I had a deep respect for his experience and knowledge. And I would outright tell him this when we would meet. From my experience, every office Scrooge has felt overlooked by previous managers, and effectively felt like they would never get fair treatment for some reason. But when you take time to assess his or her strengths, and begin to tap into those strengths, it helps instill in the employee that you indeed value their efforts. In Mark’s case, when I went back to review old performance appraisals from my predecessors, it was obvious that his previous managers did not know how to, or did not want to make an effort in managing Mark effectively. I knew for me to get more value out of him as a senior member of my team, I would have to change that pattern.
6. Use Scrooge in a New Way
Part of demonstrating your confidence in a negative employee is to not micro manage. When other, younger employees would approach me with a problem, I would usually offer some general guidance. I would then specifically direct them, however, to Mark to work through the details under his guidance and tutorship. I would later speak with Mark and tell him that I had asked the other employee to see him for help on a given task, expressing that I knew he could handle it and that he was free to direct the other employee as he felt best. “I trust your decision on this” I would say. Though subtle, such interactions with your office Scrooge will slowly instill in them that you trust their work and know they can be depended on.
7. Be Firm, but Fair
Managing Mark got easier over time. But every few months, it seemed like Mark would relapse back to his Scrooge tendencies. For example, because of his seniority, I had asked him to take care of some extracurricular activities at one point. I needed someone who could work through the complexities of the situation. When I found he had drifted away from making effort on the side project, I would remind him that it was part of being in a senior position, and that while I understood that a customer project took priority, he still needed to support the other activity. I would give him additional time, acknowledging his workload, but would also remain firm in my expectation that he would see the effort though to closure. Each time, he would agree and acknowledge without complaint and progress would resume.
8. Reward, Even When Unexpected
Perhaps the most important part in converting a negative employee into an ally is to reward them. Likely, their hyper-negativity has gotten them little in the past in terms of recognition and rewards. To change that, take action to acknowledge and reward the employee in some way. This does not mean you should hold a banquet in his or her honor, but simply that you express appreciation of them and take notice of their needs and efforts in some manner. In Mark’s case, his desire for solitude in the office was not the result of not wanting to interact with people. Rather, it helped him concentrate when he did not have the noise of other conversations and phones ringing all around him. So, when I was putting together a new floor layout during an office move, I gave Mark a cubical off in the corner where there would be little foot traffic and where there would be minimal disruption. I even gave him a window. After the move, Mark came by to thank me, saying that he could concentrate much better and was able to get more done.
Do you have an office Scrooge? Leave a comment and tell us about it!