I’ll never forget *Cyril (not his real name). I met him about eight years ago when I worked in a large organisation. When I talked with him, I heard how he’d been in his role some fifteen years. I heard how much he disliked his job, most of his colleagues, the management, the organisation and pretty much everything about it. I heard how there was nothing he could do. He was stuck there, with no options or choices. The only good thing about being there, he said, was the fortnightly deposit into his bank account. I saw someone whose eyes were dull, his shoulders set down level with his knees and whose spark had gone completely. He told me that for a large number of years, he had been doing only what he had to do, and nothing more. He had never been offered, nor self initiated, attendance at any courses or training programmes. BUT, he assured me, it was all right really, because he Only Had About Fifteen Years To Go before he retired. And yes, he had Retirement-day down to precise years, weeks, days and hours.
I was struck then, as I am now, of the personal damage borne by the likes of Cyril in feeling so trapped and imprisoned in their working world. Imagine knowing that you have ceased being productive, motivated, committed or a fully contributing employee. Imagine going through your working week, months and years, experiencing your job as something to endure until forced redundancy, retirement or death, whichever comes soonest. It happens. Its horrible.
And I’m mindful too, of the damage inflicted upon organisations by employees who believe they are without options and choices AND who have ceased being productive, motivated, committed or fully contributing employees. You’d recognise some of the
symptoms – doing just enough to get by; withholding information; relentlessly negative or critical of almost everything or everybody; blocking new initiatives or work in progress by a variety of means; spreading misinformation; smokescreening……..you know the sort of stuff. And you and everyone else will know the employees – there’re really hard work.
So what can be done for trapped, unproductive employees, to stop them further damaging themselves and the workplace? Bearing in mind there are no quick fixes, a good beginning point is to know your employees. Meet with them. Talk with them. Get to know them, build rapport and good relationships. Find out how satisfied they are in their role, in the organisation. Discover what motivates and demotivates them. This way, you’ll identify the productive, committed and fully functioning, and those who believe or know (or not know) they are trapped, unmotivated or unproductive.
For fully contributing employees, consider ways to keep their interest and commitment. Ask for their ideas to fully utilise their skills, knowledge and motivation.
And the others? People deeply unhappy and trapped in their workplace will need guidance and support to consider their perceptions, experience or situation. A good place to start may be a referral to a career coach – a professional who works with individuals to explore their personal options, career choices and changes, their barriers to movement. Some may do it on their own, eventually, and physically or mentally move on. Some may need other help. Either way, the situation needs to be managed, not left unattended….because its costly.
Some may also need to hear (again and again) clear messages about the organisational bottom line – the workplace behaviours, attitudes, commitment to ongoing professional development, interest, motivation, professionalism and outcomes expected in return for wages or salary. And, you might need to highlight the contractual conditions, benefits and opportunities provided for employees, in addition to their wages or salary. So, put another way, the win-win model (employee and organisational gains) is the ideal and anything less than that, is unacceptable.
Some employees may welcome an opportunity to rejuvenate within the job – with encouragement, support and time frames. If rejuvenation isn’t successful, you’ll need to identify other options and act on them.
It’s useful also, to confront the relentlessly negative employees, with their relentlessly negative attitudes. You may be dealing with a ‘racket’, that is, a consistent complaint followed by a fixed way of being. There’s generally a personal pay off for being this way, including being right, dominating others, justifying one’s self or avoiding any personal responsibility for anything in the workplace. But there’s also a personal cost, including a lessened affinity with others, reduced health and vitality, less fulfillment and job satisfaction. So, not good for the racketeer, other employees within their sphere of influence, or the organisation, as a whole. The racket needs to be identified and individuals supported to move beyond their fixed position.
I’m grateful to Cyril. He taught me a lot within a very short time. I’ve heard and seen the impact of his situation many times since, in many individuals, in many organisations, in many sectors. And yes, he’s still there…..about seven years to go…..and still counting.
First Published in NZBusiness December 1999