When a Disgruntled Colleague Infects the Team
As it turns out, the adage “one bad apple can spoil the whole bunch” is true, especially when it comes to teams.
Because we overweigh negative information and are open to counterarguments, negativity in the workplace can quickly become contagious. It only takes one loud voice away from the table to raise the doubts and suspicions of otherwise satisfied colleagues. Over time, the incessant complaints of one or more team members can undermine team morale and cast a shadow on the leader’s credibility.
High-performance cultures typically encourage team members to challenge the status quo and value dissenting viewpoints. Criticisms offered in the spirit of making the team stronger are highly prized. This explains why even good leaders are generally slow to confront disgruntled team members who make it a point to criticize everything they don’t like or value. As they gain a following, performance suffers when team members spend more time debating what’s right and wrong about a team and its culture than they do executing on strategy.
The most vocally hostile team members are almost always the weakest performers or those who feel unvalued for their unique insight and wisdom. Pull back the curtain a little further and leaders learn that the resentment runs inexplicably deep. Disgruntled colleagues commonly believe just about everything is wrong with the team, its culture, and how it is led. To express their dissatisfaction, they howl like wolves at full moon, especially out of earshot of the leader.
The cumulative effect of the negative commentary promoted by the dissatisfied wears a team down. Team members lose their patience and leaders lose their cool when harsh criticisms are offered continually by the same people in group meetings. So, the disgruntled go underground, becoming much more dangerous in the process. They have a common goal: to pick off one team member at a time until their unified dissatisfaction turns the table on a leader.
Leaders who wait too long to confront this challenge will often find the disgruntled have infected the entire team. Everyone begins to question everything. Even customers hear the complaints and begin to inquire about what is going on. The best performers take a side and refuse to work with their disgruntled colleagues.
What a mess.
The best leaders deal harshly with those who go to the dark side. They understand how delicate team chemistry is and move swiftly to either turn a disgruntled colleague into a cheerleader or remove them from the team.
They invite criticism from any quarter but refuse to tolerate incessant complaining. Sitting down with the disaffected team member and reaffirming the values and vision of the team and confronting the negativity head-on often works like magic.
When it doesn’t, the magic trick is to have the unhappy colleague disappear. If things are so bad, the exasperated team member shouldn’t want to stay with the team anyway. The sooner the leader and the aggrieved reach this decision, the faster the team can get back on track. Good leaders always remember that negativity is the mortal enemy of performance.