What to do When the Work Environment Goes Sour

May 24, 2004

For whatever reason— and I have seen it countless times— sometimes the work environment just goes bad. Like fruit that sits in the bowl too long, it rots, it molds, and it becomes intolerable. Just like produce that needs to be thrown away, when the work environment gets too bad, the employees of the enterprise throw their jobs away. They quit. Who is responsible for this work environment? Management is, of course! What can they do about it? More than most individual managers think. Here are some suggestions: Stop bickering with each other. Employees don’t want to work in a firm where the top managers or owners are warring with each other. We see it daily. I have seen situations where individual owners in some cases have not spoken with each other for years! I have seen marriages like that, too…needless to say, the kids aren’t usually thrilled with that situation. Stop tolerating dysfunctional attitudes. These are the people who think it’s OK to have a double standard, or to be selfish or cut off others from communication that they don’t like. Managers who decide they don’t like someone and simply stop communicating with them need to have this behavior and its unacceptability pointed out to them. This kind of B.S. erodes morale and contributes to the strangulation of the company. Don’t coddle the complainers. There will always be people who are never happy. They want to complain about paying $20 a month more for their insurance, or where their cubicle is located relative to the bathrooms, or how their work group’s bad performance was shown on a company report. When these complaints come up, management needs to think about how it wants to respond. If these are coming from good people who are normally team players, then they need to be carefully considered and responded to. If, on the other hand, they are coming from the chronic gripers of the firm, they may need to be told to put up or move on. Treating every complaint as if it were legitimate, in some cases, reinforces the idea that complaining is the way to get what you want. That’s cancerous. Confront cynicism head-on. There will always be those who think that the situation is hopeless, that the firm can’t grow again, that it will never be like it was in the old days, that management is somehow screwing them, or any number of other cynical thoughts. Some of these people either are leaders or become leaders through their assumed representation of the oppressed worker or the oppressed minority shareholder interests. These people need to know that they are negative influences and shooting themselves in the foot with this type of behavior. Clean up the physical space. I have said it countless times. The physical work environment has a big impact on people. If it is clean, well-lit, and has a place for everything, people feel good. If it is a mess, has poor lighting, and inadequate facilities to keep things put away, people will feel confused, stressed, and won’t be able to get as much done. Change out some of the key players. Some people— while good people— are not cut out for the roles they are in. They probably know it and aren’t happy in the job, either. You need to make sure that individuals worthy of inclusion in the firm are appropriately placed in the organization. This is a huge problem for A/E and environmental firms— especially those that have been around a long time. They have a lot of people in the wrong jobs! Sell everyone on the Promised Land. The CEO will always have the role of painting the picture of how everyone is going to do well if they all just stay the course. It is a tough job in some cases, no doubt, but that’s part of what separates the firms that bounce back from setbacks and those that simply use negative events as cancer seeds to build on. Deliver some short-term results. This is a big reason why I like open-book reporting along with monthly and quarterly bonus programs. People need to see that they are getting somewhere and doing something that is being successful. Originally published 5/24/2004

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