5 Ways to Deal with a Malcontent

— What’s that pain in my neck??

Note: This is updated from a 2008 article I wrote, same general subject. Seems the issue is still hanging around…

You know who I’m talking about, too. Those people who just never seem happy; who always see the negative even when the message is positive; who suspect ulterior motives regardless of act. They are the literal “pain in your neck” (or some other anatomical part…).

Personally, I frequently recommend you just whack ’em. That’ll please a lot of people working nearby, and you’d be surprised at the immediate effect that would have on other malcontents in the organization. The “Shoot the first one, word will spread” concept.

But then, we wouldn’t need this article, so here we are. You’re stuck with them, or you’re keeping them for some reason unbeknownst to anyone else, or simply want to help them emerge from their dark hole.

Here are some ways you can deal with these sourpusses:

  1. What attitude? Typically, when you try to address an “attitude,” you get a blank, puzzled stare, and some malarkey about how they “have no idea what you’re talking about.”And honestly, it’s not the attitude; it’s the observable behavior that’s a problem.“Sue, I hear you comment or complain every time we roll out a new initiative. Frankly, I want it to stop. Now. Keep it to yourself, or go speak with your supervisor. No more vocal whining to others.”
  1. Proselytizing may help. Try to convert them to your way of thinking. Be direct in your comments, and explain why it’s in their best interest to become more positive.Let these folks know that their perceived attitudes (demonstrable, of course) are noticed by others, and certainly effect their ability to succeed in the organization. In other words, explain the WIIFM: “What’s in it for me.”“Janet, I want you to be more positive in your interactions with others. Your negativity is noticeable and not much fun to be around. I want to help, so let’s discuss.”
  1. Zero tolerance is the rule. They are called “non-negotiables.When you decide to change a malcontent to something more positive, be specific as mentioned above, and then be prepared: you must address each and every “slip” or transgression that deviates from your discussion.Every single instance.No letting up, no “letting it slide.” If you do, each time it occurs you’ve “reset” the entire change process. There can be no turning back.
  1. No try, only do. Master Yoda was right–there’s no credit for saying “I’ll try,” or “make every effort.” There’s only credit for actually doing.You need a firm commitment from this yahoo that s/he will take immediate, positive action to correct this unacceptable behavior, not that they’ll just “do their best to be more positive,” in some vague indeterminate sense.Make it crystal clear that this is not some esoteric “hope you can do better;” it’s a must-have, a condition for future advancement, opportunities, and yes, maybe even continued employment.
  1. Inspect what you expect. Follow-up, diligently and repeatedly.This person needs to know that you aren’t simply “having a nice discussion.” We are discussing performance-related behaviors, we expect them to change to reach acceptable standard, and we intend–as with any good performance management effort – to follow-up to insure those changes are implemented.In other words, “I’ll be watching…”This is important, for a couple of reasons: First, this employee need to know–really, personally understand–that your expectations are for immediate, positive performance improvement. No better way to demonstrate that then being around to see it.Second, you may actually “catch them” doing something right, in which case, that’s a super time for a little positive reinforcement (see proselytizing above).

Malcontents generally know they aren’t the most pleasant people in the world; they typically, however, feel somewhat justified in their actions, and certainly don’t always realize the extent of their behavior.

Don’t get mad, upset, frustrated or annoyed. Treat as you would any other aspect of an employee’s performance. Remember, this too shall pass.

So, don’t get mad, just make them change.