Getting Something For Nothing

Free. Who doesn’t like free – getting something for nothing? It’s a great concept when I’m shopping, but when it comes to employee engagement, getting something for nothing can be a motivation killer.

We’ve all experienced them in our career – the whiny, complaining, belligerent employee who’s not producing or is doing the least they have to. They’re disgruntled and lazy. But which came first, disgruntled or lazy? The most common response is they’re disgruntled and showing it through their laziness. But what if their laziness stemmed from a lack of purpose and their attitude arose from receiving something for nothing?

I believe that people who know they’re not earning what they receive will explain it away.  They’ll say the company “owes it to them” or that “they’re getting even”. They will rationalize their behavior to deal with getting something for nothing.  The need to make a contribution is deeply implanted in all of us and, despite what people might say, when purpose is removed it leads to all kinds of dysfunctional behavior. The impact of disgruntled employees who feel the company owes them something extends far beyond productivity.

To test the theory, survey your people by asking them to identify the three most negative employees in your organization. Not surprising, you’ll likely get a lot of the same names on everyone’s list. Knowing what you know about culture and the impact of negative behavior, it stands to reason that these people are having an adverse effect on what you’re trying to do as an organization.  It’s bad enough to pay them for their minimal work contribution, but they’re also poisoning the culture with their negative talk.  So what do you do?

First, it’s not okay to ignore the issue and dismiss it as a problem every organization has.  These employees are clearly working in a counterproductive way that’s going to make your job harder. To the extent you’ve put off dealing with it, it can communicate that you’re not serious about what you want since you’re tolerating behavior that works against what you’re trying to accomplish. Furthermore, why would other employees step out to deal with these individuals when they know nothing is likely to be done by management about “the problems”.

Did you hire them that way? Unlikely. To the contrary, when you hired these people they didn’t seem troublesome at all.  Had they been you wouldn’t have hired them in the first place. In fact, they seemed like exactly the people you wanted to move the organization forward.  So what happened?  Did you misjudge them?  Maybe so, but it’s more likely you unknowingly shaped them into the people they are today.

In my experience, idle hands are the devils playground and under-utilized and under-challenged employees can easily become bored, disgruntled employees leading to problems. People intrinsically are goal achieving and motivated by success.  Lack of meaningful goals causes boredom in people. When that happens, their response is to find other places to engage their energy. It’s the same situation as the under-challenged student misbehaving in class. In most cases they’re not a trouble-maker, they’re bored.

Not every problem employee can be put back on a more constructive path, but in my experience, when I engaged the “problem employees” in meaningful work with a sense of purpose, a number of them stepped up. If it’s going to work, the focus has to be on getting the individuals to contribute at an acceptable level. A key to getting employees to contribute is setting clear expectations for them. Identify what you want and point out the consequences for failure to change. Taking this approach puts the ball in their court to meet the expectations or accept the consequence, up to and including leaving.

Are you struggling with a disgruntled, unproductive employee? If so, be slow to blame the employee. The answer is not to fire the rascals.  You’re likely to have more show up.  The answer is to deal with them as responsible adults.  Some may choose to leave but most will decide to contribute and you will see a turnaround in attitude and results.

If you’re challenged by negative unproductive attitudes and want to talk about it, reach out to me through our website or the “contact us” tab on this page.

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