Dealing with drains: or how to deal with competent gloomy people at work...

The blogosphere is awash with advice on how to deal with incompetent employees. And indeed, for those of us who work in schools, these types of individuals are relatively simple to sort out. Rare is the school these days which doesn't have laid out in black and white procedures for dealing with under-performance. The advice, basically, is to follow the manual, document your steps and keep in regular contact with your insurers and/or legal advisers. As Nigel Richardson points out in his excellent book on Senior Management Teams your problems will be few and far between by making sure you've laid firm foundations which:

includes having good written policies for pupils, and well thought-out staff handbooks and disciplinary procedures for staff, in place, and ensuring that they have been well written and legally checked (p.125)

But what about people who don't fit into the category of being incompetent? They do their job - are even quite liked by pupils, perhaps - but nonetheless are a thorn in the organisation's side. All schools have such individuals - they conform to type. I'm talking about the gloomy, pessimistic jobsworths who rarely manage to force a smile but - and here's the frustrating bit - otherwise do a good job. Wo-betide anyone who foolishly asks them how they are in the morning... They infect people they come across with negativity, are resistant to change and - whilst being very careful never to stray into insubordination territory - don't make life at all easy for the people who manage them.

And here's the nub of the problem: if they were doing something truly awful you'd be able to confront the problem and progress through the normal processes for dealing with under performance; but they're not. Their problem is almost impossible to tie down: you can no more tell someone to 'cheer up' and 'be a bit more positive' in an appraisal than you could tell a male employee to be a bit more feminine - it's just part of who they are. Albeit a destructive and depressing part. So what to do?

  1. Confront - draw attention as soon as you notice it is becoming a problem to the 'vibe' they are giving off. Ignoring the problem can normalise it and then you really are in trouble...
  2. Listen - these kind of needy individuals can sometimes be turned around simply by the act of listening. They have things that they need to get off their chest so let them, in private, sound off.
  3. Draw a close - having listened suggest what you might and might not be able to do. End the meeting, if you can, in an upbeat way in the full expectation that things will improve.
  4. Use humour - you need to be careful with this one, because it can backfire, but I find sometimes a little gentle sarcasm: 'You look cheerful today!' - particularly if they know you have issues with their negativity - can raise a smile and clear the air.
  5. Highlight seriousness - this is the most difficult one to do, for the very reason that this type of person is, by definition, otherwise perfectly competent. But if the behaviour persists it is vital not to ignore it but instead to draw lines in the sand. Be very careful to point out specific aspects of their behaviour - the heavy sighs, the catalogue of woes listed every time someone passes the time of day with them, the default utterances of 'it won't work'... Taken together these constitute something that could - and stress you really don't want to go there - result in disciplinary proceedings.
If you have come across such people and have any other tips for dealing with them please do comment. They represent the hardest of all HR issues in my opinion.

Good luck...!

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