How one struggling employee can affect the whole team

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At some point in your career, you would have worked with a struggling employee who made life miserable for everyone. Generally, that one individual isn’t a bad person, they are just not in the right job or not getting the right support. 

Struggling employees are exhausting to work with, difficult to manage and will often cause problems then obfuscate responsibility. 

Worse than that, one unhappy employee can quickly lead to a team of unhappy employees. 

Unhappy or disgruntled employees aren’t just a headache for the team or the HR department. They are a sign that something has gone wrong with your organisation’s recruitment and onboarding process. Or there has been a failure of management. 

Regardless, one employee – if left unchecked – has the ability to disrupt a whole team.

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Why do some employees not make the grade?

While some employees may enter the business with a disruptive influence, this is generally not the case in the majority of situations. Often it’s a gradual process, a series of small organisational failures, or management mistakes, which goes largely unnoticed until it’s become a problem.

Absenteeism, a bad attitude, causing conflict with co-workers and poor work performance are all signs of a struggling employee. Some of that behaviour could be caused by bad intentions but generally, the bad behaviour is caused by institutional failures and letting a situation go for too long. 

A number of underlying issues can have a negative impact on the behaviour and attitude of struggling employees, including:

  • Stress
  • Overworking and/or burnout
  • Feeling unappreciated, unheard, or ignored
  • Challenges in their health, relationships, or personal life
  • Interpersonal conflict with other team members

The individual has to bear some responsibility for communicating their challenges to their line manager. However, if the company culture fosters an environment where issues aren’t discussed or employees are expected to work late then it becomes increasingly difficult for an employee to speak out.

As soon as an employee no longer feels any loyalty or sense of belonging to the company, they will quickly start to cause disruption.

How poor behaviour and performance can become endemic

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Research carried out by the Harvard Business Review in 2018 highlighted 37% of employees are more likely to commit bad behaviour if they know a new employee has committed misconduct.

However, not all negative behaviour manifests in this way. More commonly chronic complaining or vociferous criticism of the company, management or an individual is where the behaviour starts.

Refusal to help others or do anything other than their narrow definition of their job role are other signs to look out for.

It’s this behaviour that becomes the most infectious. Because of this, it doesn’t take long for the negative opinions of the struggling employee to start to rub off on others.

But it goes deeper than this. When we are mistreated by others we naturally put up barriers. We are less likely to help or do anything that could otherwise make us vulnerable to attack. 

It won’t take long for good employees to start exhibiting these traits after working with a disgruntled employee. Even if you remove this struggling employee the damage has been done. Learned behaviours take time to change. Especially if they relate to our fight or flight response.

Through a failure to act sooner, the organisation can remove one disgruntled employee only to be left with another. If no lessons are learned the new bad employee will go on to impact others.

What businesses can do​

It’s important to understand that no company is perfect. There is also a fine line between a legitimate grievance and an axe to grind and you should know the difference. Not least because you don’t want to discipline an employee for pointing out a genuine problem.

Equally, you don’t want to allow negative employees to get away with polluting the work environment for others. 

However, there isn’t a one-size-fits-all solution. There are three distinct areas that need to be examined to prevent bad employees from corrupting your teams.

onboarding a team
sales onboarding

The company culture

The company culture is from where everything else about the business springs. It decides how you treat people when they’re sick to how you manage their performance.

If the culture is one of ‘me before we’ then don’t be surprised if your organisation is full of individuals who only lift a finger if there’s something in it for them.

Self-interest kills companies because no one is willing to work towards the greater goal of shared success. A company needs employees who buy into its vision and its values, therefore, having vision and values your people can get behind is essential.

The scale of the problem will determine the extent to which you need to examine your company culture. The occasional bad apple may suggest a recruitment issue, or perhaps problems with team leaders and department heads.

A deluge of toxic employees who spread misery wherever they go might mean a much bigger problem. One that can only be addressed from the top down.

The recruitment and onboarding process

If you consider your culture and the organisation as a whole to be in good health then the issue may be at the hiring stage.

The first thing you need to examine is whether your culture and your values make it into the recruitment and onboarding process.

Hiring for culture first makes it much easier to build teams of people who will work together towards a common goal. That’s not to say you should ignore experience and qualifications. But hiring a jerk with outstanding credentials won’t do you any good in the long run.

By the same token, your onboarding process should set the expectation of how employees are expected to conduct themselves. While most people know bullying and harassment is unacceptable there are plenty of companies who let it happen.

Unless you tell your new intake of salespeople that your organisation doesn’t tolerate such behaviour, you’re inviting it through omission. 

Management training (or lack thereof)

It’s common for individuals to be placed in positions of authority without any form of training or support. High performing or experienced staff should be rewarded and promoted as it allows those skills to be rewarded and invested in.

However, in the absence of any structured training managers are left to deal with their teams as they see fit. If you’ve hired with culture in mind your managers will be natural-born leaders. Otherwise, you could have mini dictators on your hands.

Bad managers create bad teams. This is because some managers possess a higher moral authority than their subordinates. So if they start bullying or harassing team members, it gives permission for the rest of the team to follow suit.

It’s a major issue in many businesses. And something that’s very hard to stop once it becomes embedded in day to day happenings.

A less extreme issue are the managers who avoid confrontation. They lack the self-belief to nip toxic or dysfunctional behaviour in the bud because conflict troubles them.

Or because they themselves are worried they will be punished for dressing down an employee should that employee quit. 

But this comes back to the culture of the business. If your managers lack the psychological safety to make decisions about their team then they are managers in name only.

Establishing a training program as part of any new manager’s onboarding process is essential to their long term success. And the success of their team.

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Build your onboarding for culture first

If you’re concerned about a struggling employee is corrupting the good ones and your culture is at risk, we can help.

We use behavioural science to investigate why and how these challenges arise and propose solutions to stop the rot before it starts.

By using experiential digital technologies we can help you to create a solution to onboard the best employees, at scale

Get in touch with a member of the team today and we can help you transform your organisation into something truly BAD.

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