Carl loved the title of “Mr. Negative.” He was proud of being smarter than anyone else and thought his put-downs were funny. No matter what you said, he would disagree, counter it or top it. His personal attacks, sarcasm and cutting remarks could bring most people to tears. He could create a tense, hostile workplace in minutes. He could bring a brainstorming or planning meeting to a halt by finding fault with every suggestion or plan, and proving that nothing would work. He was convinced that his predictions were accurate and more valuable to the team than the frustration and anger he created. On his team, sick-leave and turnover were high, while morale, camaraderie and teamwork were low. Productivity was also low because most people wasted a huge percent of their time talking about Carl’s latest exploits.
What can you do?
In this case, his manager had heard me present “How to Eliminate the High Cost of Low Attitudes” at a conference, and had brought me in as a consultant. She wanted me to help her create a culture that would be professional, retain high quality staff and be much more productive.
Why did his manager, Jane, bring me in, instead of simply evaluating Carl honestly and having consequences leading to demotion and eventual termination if he didn’t change? Jane thought that:
- Carl was bright and expert enough in his specialty that she was afraid of losing him.
- If she was a good enough manager and learned to say the magic words, Carl would straighten out.
- Her hands were tied because Carl was a long-term employee in a government organization.
Coaching helped Jane see that she was victimizing the rest of the team by giving in to her fears and helplessness. Carl was verbally abusive and emotionally intimidating. And he was subtly manipulative because he had a soft voice and a smile on his face while he sarcastically cut his co-workers to ribbons. She saw that if she continued to give in to her fear of losing Carl, she’d lose her reputation and position because her team would mutiny or quit.
Despite these insights, Jane remained a conflict-avoidant manager. She would allow the team to act, but she wouldn’t lead the way. Therefore we worked around her.
I helped the team create a set of behavioral expectations for individual professional interactions and for team meetings. It was no surprise that the list did not included any of Carl’s behaviors, that his behaviors were specifically prohibited and that the list of appropriate behaviors contained the opposite ones Carl had been bullying coworkers with.
The rest of the team voted to accept the code of professional behavior. Carl said he’d sign but he wouldn’t change his behavior. He’d been Mr. Negativity as long as he could remember and didn’t think he could change.
That seemed like an impasse. No one wanted to waste a lifetime waiting for Carl to go through therapy, especially since he didn’t want to change anyway. I helped the team realize that Carl had no reason to change. There were no adverse consequences to him if he kept doing what he was doing. The team needed some leverage.
Since the manager wouldn’t act on her own, the rest of the team took a bold step. They told Carl that they wouldn’t tolerate his hostility and the tension it caused. They said that they’d remove him immediately from any meeting in which he started his negative putdowns. He laughed nervously, thinking they’d never really do that. He still wouldn’t accept that his behavior was so hurtful and despised.
At the next meeting, of course, Carl was negative as usual. He was shocked when the rest of the team immediately stood up and told him to leave. He sheepishly did, with a parting shot that they’d never come up with a good plan without him.
He was wrong. They did develop a good plan to deal with the problem they’d been working on. They also gave him his assignment within it. They told him that people who weren’t at meetings must be happy with the tasks assigned to them. Carl was outraged and protested. He looked for support from anyone on the team, but everyone was against him. That also stunned him. They told him that they were following the team’s behavior code. He could play according to the rules and take what he got or leave. They also told him that he could be very likeable when he wanted to and they’d be glad to be on a team with the “likeable Carl.”
It took two more meetings at which Carl was asked to leave, before he began to change. It was amazing to all of them, including Carl, that what he thought was a life-long pattern, changed when enough leverage was applied. He really did like what he did and he also had wanted to be liked.
This example is over the top in many ways. But I have a question for you: Did the rest of the team bully Carl or were they right in voting him off their island when he was an abusive bully?
One general lesson here is: “When the legitimate authority won’t act and, therefore, leaves a power vacuum, the most hostile and power-hungry people usually fill it. Your task is to fill it with the best behavior instead.”
There are many other ways to solve the problems that the Carl’s of the world cause at work and at home. A stronger manager would have done it by herself. Jane obviously had problems as a manager and wouldn't step outside her comfort zone to solve them. Her boss soon took appropriate action.
It’s also a different matter if the negative person is the manager or boss. There are many other problem behaviors that can be resolved with the Behavioral Code approach. In other blog posts I’ll cover those bullying situations at work.
Please tell me your story so I can be sure to respond to it.