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"You're The Worst Colleague We Have"

Is there hope for a more compassionate workplace?

A friend of mine, let’s call her Sharon, works for a national supermarket chain. She had cystitis the other week and so needed to go to the toilet more frequently than normal. When she returned from one of her visits, her ‘manager’ announced “You’re the worst colleague we have.”

I’ve put ‘manager’ in inverted commas purely because I hope you would agree with me that this is not performance management as we know it, even though from a strictly positional point of view he was indeed her manager.

What is going on? There is a number of possibilities.

Firstly, I worry about reality TV shows like The Apprentice, where respect flows one way and the big boss gratuitously tears into his hapless charges before announcing “You are fired!” It’s a world in which the participants compete ruthlessly with one another, are encouraged to put one another down, and fame and money are the sole motivators. In the absence of any other role model, the danger is that young managers imagine that this is the way to be.

Secondly, have we given up on management training for junior managers? All too often I think young colleagues are appointed ‘team leader’ or ‘supervisor’ or ‘departmental manager’ without being given the slightest idea of what it entails, particularly on the emotional intelligence side of things.

Consequently, in the absence of a competing narrative, it is all too easy for them to project their own inadequacies and insecurities onto their team, thereby relieving themselves of the associated anxiety.

Finally, there is the possibility that in this particularly business there is some form of ‘hierarchical symbiosis’ in operation. An extreme version of this is the behaviour of the Capo’s described by Victor Frankl in his book Man’s Search for Meaning. Capo’s were concentration camp prisoners who acted as trustees. They beat the ordinary prisoners more cruelly than their SS masters. Of course, if they didn’t comply with what was expected of them they were removed from their position of privilege.

Sadly, a similar unwritten dynamic operates within some ‘top-down’ organisations.

If you aspire to run a civilised organisation, one in which people feel they can belong rather than are compelled to fit in, then Sharon’s experience gives us a few clues as to what is needed.

  1. Train, coach and mentor your young leaders. It’s not fair on them to set them up for failure. Make them aware that nearly everyone who experiences unpleasant workplace interactions responds in a negative way: they may overtly retaliate, decrease their effort or lower the quality of their work. If they are prone to introjection, they may come to believe the bad press about them.

  2. Teach them to explore their own role in a situation before they raise an issue with a colleague. In this instance, if the manager had taken the time to find out why Sharon was struggling he may have found her a back office role for the week. At the very least, he might have had more sympathy and been less ready to criticise.

  3. Teach them to criticise the performance and never the person and never in public. This is performance management 101, but you can’t necessarily expect a newly appointed junior manager to come with it pre-installed.

  4. Make civility a hurdle for leadership in your organisation. Incivil behaviour breeds incivil behaviour. If your recruitment system has failed to filter it out, then help the potential leader get in touch with their behaviour through 360 feedback and coaching. Ensure they address the underlying issues before they progress within the business.

I don’t know whether Sharon’s boss was overheard by a customer when he delivered his motivational speech, but I do know that customers don’t have to experience rudeness directly to take their business elsewhere. If they witness an unpleasant interaction between staff they may well draw conclusions about the organisation in general.

Imagine the impact on those customers, and on Sharon, if the manager had said “Sharon, I’m sorry that you’re feeling unwell today. I should have picked up on it earlier. How would it be if you filled shelves for the day and I find someone else to take your place on the till?”

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