One of the most important, yet most difficult, challenges a leader faces is disciplining or jettisoning a strong contributor who has a negative attitude. Although you want as many talented and performing individuals in your company or group as possible, ones with a negative attitude can cause more damage than add value. By negative attitude, I mean an individual who does not feel the company is well run and expresses their lack of confidence in management, and shows visible anger and pessimism about the success of the team or project.
A recent article on Forbes.com, “The Worst Thing Any Leader Can Do To High Performers” by Robert Sher, quotes Joe Montana, the former star NFL quarterback for the San Francisco 49ers. Montana would say that whenever a fellow player exhibited problem behavior, he would be gone in a few months. What makes this point particularly poignant is that the 49ers had a fantastic string of success, even with high turnover of players. Montana also added that the worst thing a leader can do is “to do nothing.” The article goes on to point out that doing nothing drives peak performers crazy when bad teammates are allowed to stay.
Why it is important
The damage caused by disruptive personalities is far-reaching. As mentioned earlier, tolerating people with negative attitudes often demotivates peak performers. At worst it makes them question why they are working hard and at best just distracts them from their tasks.
Disruptive employees also lower the productivity of others, as they want to avoid those with a negative attitude, particularly if that attitude manifests itself in anger (temper tantrums) or mean-spirited comments. To avoid the disruptors, absenteeism can increase; it’s easier to avoid somebody by not being in the office. It may be conscious (“I am not going to work today because I don’t want to deal with so and so”) or unconscious (employees find a reason not to go to work because they do not want to be in an uncomfortable situation). Even more damaging long-term, keeping people with a negative attitude around will cause churn. At some point, people will decide they can no longer work with the disruptive personality and find other opportunities. When one leaves, it also often signals to others that they should consider moving on. As employee churn is very expensive (finding and training comparable people is a long, difficult process), the cost of one disruptive employee could be very high to your organization.
Finally, negative personalities often inhibit team work. I have written before about the value of smart collaboration as it makes a company stronger and more productive. The opposite is when people avoid working with their co-workers or sharing information openly because they do not want to be the center of the person’s aggression or they just do not want to deal with them. If your company’s ability to work together as a team is stymied, you will end up less efficient than your competitors.
Why it is difficult to remove a disruptive employee
Given all the potentially damaging behavior from keeping employees with negative or disruptive attitudes, why does it happen so often? First, many managers (and I specifically did not use the term “leaders”) avoid confrontation, either intentionally or unintentionally. It is very difficult to tell someone their behavior is hurting the company and even more difficult letting them go because of it. Given that it is easier to ignore or avoid the behavior than deal with it, many managers choose the path of least resistance.
Second, often the people with the disruptive behavior are talented and you are concerned about losing that talent. The talent may have even facilitated this behavior because as they grew up people would not challenge their bad behavior because they were so talented (think of the prima donna wide receiver that has always been able to act like a jerk because he can outrun most cornerbacks). You may believe your company would be worse off without this employee and that they would be difficult or impossible to replace.
Finally, sometimes you avoid confronting or removing someone with a bad attitude as you are worried it could hurt company morale. Although the person is negative or may have anger issues, they may be quite popular. In that case, you legitimately worry that their colleagues and friends would feel removing the negative attitude was not fair, that it was just a personality clash or that you do not want anyone who does not agree with your position. There are two things to consider here:
- Make sure they are not right. If the person challenges you with valid points, that is a positive to your company and you should not want to remove independent thinkers.
- If the person is disruptive or always negative, then you need to explain to your team that this behavior is why the person is being removed and you will not tolerate it in the workplace (but be consistent; you cannot tolerate it with some but not others).
To succeed, attack the issue of bad attitude
As a leader, it is your responsibility to enforce the values and behaviors that comprise the company culture. A healthy company is a set of behaviors that support high performance and the company’s ultimate success.
Again if there is concern about losing someone who has a unique skillset, I have run into this situation multiple times. The bottom line? Everyone is replaceable. We often over-estimate the skills of those around us (and ourselves) but there are many very talented people available. In all the cases when I have thought someone was irreplaceable, I ended up with someone who was actually better. In addition, the new person did not cause the damage to morale and collaboration that I discussed earlier.
- Employees with bad attitudes cannot be tolerated; they will damage the entire company.
- Employees with negative attitudes or anger issues upset your top performers, increase absenteeism and employee churn and make collaboration more difficult.
- Everybody is replaceable, even your most talented employee. Do not let fear of finding a replacement prevent you from removing disruptive employees.